As they say, all good things must come to an end. For many of us, maternity leave is one of those oh-so-good things and eventually we have to deal with the punch-in-the-face reality of returning to work. For me, that reality was when I left my just-turned-two-year-old and my five-month-old at home and marched myself to the office with a smile plastered on my weary face. I know exactly when I became aware of the extent of my anxiety about returning to work: I dreamt that I left my then three-month-old baby behind in a hotel room with a cow-sized turkey. In the dream I was in a café, calmly waiting for my lunch to arrive when I realised I’d left a small and rather vulnerable family member in the care of a giant bird. I raced to the elevator, but in true forgotten-baby-dream style, the lift kept skipping my floor. The dream ended with me frantically searching for the staircase in a building without stairs, and real-world me springing awake to give my little one the tightest squeeze of her life. I promptly requested an extension of my maternity leave.
Whatever your version of the giant turkey dream is, going back to work after maternity leave is hard, and it’s one of the biggest emotional rollercoasters of your life. In any given minute you will hate yourself for leaving your kids at home, while giving yourself a high-five for executing a train journey absent of bodily fluids or demands for snacks.
You will resent having to hide in the stationery cupboard expressing breast milk, while congratulating yourself for doing the best you possibly can for your baby. You will have an irrational but very real fear that your kids will love their carer more than you, while feeling exceptionally grateful for the break from nappies, tantrums and vegetable-smuggling that the carer provides. It’s tough, but you can – and will – get through it with a few coping mechanisms such as these (and just quietly: there are many, many upsides to going back to work):
1. Baby steps
In the weeks leading up to your return to work, do a few short practice runs. Book a facial or take yourself to lunch and do all the logistics planning that gets you out the door while ensuring your kids will survive without you. It will feel completely odd and you’ll probably be wracked with guilt. But if you make all your mistakes on these practice runs (while re-learning how to function in the world without your baby in tow), the real deal will be a lot easier to handle. Some women even do an actual practice run of the trip to work, but we figure there’s plenty of time for that later. Get the facial while you can.
2. Treat yo self
You’re probably still feeling a little floppy/pudgy/broken/tired from that small matter of using your body to grow and eject a human. And that’s OK. But if you front up for day one at work with a new outfit (hit the shops now, whether online or in-store) and some shiny nails, you’ll just feel better. Confidence is key.
3. Start back mid-week
Launching straight into five days of working motherhood is just making life hard for yourself and your bub. And if you can negotiate some flexibility around your return – reduced hours or partially working from home for a while – even better. Be kind to yourself.
4. Stay in the loop
Ask your helper/carer to send lots of videos and photos. If your colleagues are nice people they will feign interest, but show some restraint. Send the videos to your husband, who is contractually obliged to say “awww”, or your mother, who will watch them repeatedly until the next instalment hits her inbox.
5. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture
Remember you will be their mum until the end of time. No one else can take that job (and to be fair, no one else wants to). Of course, you want your kids to be loved and nurtured when you can’t be there – so choose your helper or child care centre well and allow them to do their job – but you’re the one who’s in it for the long haul, with limitless amounts of love. Carers come and go, and carers have days off. Your kids will not forget you.
6. Know that you’re setting a strong example
In waving you goodbye each morning your kids learn there are parts of your life that don’t revolve around them, and that someday they can also venture out into the world to figure out what makes them tick. They also learn that both mums and dads can have jobs (a lesson we still need to teach despite the fact that it’s 2019). Now get out there and nail yours.
For the record: I made it through day one of my second mat leave return. I cried halfway to the office, my baby ended up sporting toddler-sized teeth marks and I ate lunch at 3.30pm, but we were all just fine.
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