You want to arrive at work cheerful, calm and unflustered, but you’ll probably have more to do before you get there than most of your colleagues do in a week! Cut down on stress by making a plan for each stage of your first morning, from getting yourself ready, to dealing with child care, to getting to work and the things you need to do when you get there.
If your childcare arrangements are new for you, or for your child, try and have two days ahead of time when you try out the routine, even if it’s only for a half day. Use the time while your child is being minded to organise other things, such as travel arrangements and work clothes. If you’re still feeding and plan to express breast milk at work, this is a good time to try out any equipment to make sure it works well and that you’re comfortable with it.
Going back to work can be exhausting, especially if you are still not getting a full night’s sleep, and if your little one is not adapting well to being with a minder. Arrange things at home to minimise the pressure, allowing yourself a ready meal or take-away toward the end of the week when you’re tired, and not planning too much for the weekend.
Even though you may feel as though you’re being pulled in a hundred different directions, it’s important to grab yourself some time to relax alone at least once or twice somewhere in your week. This could be taking a proper lunch hour from work to sit in a proper café, with a proper cup of coffee and a Panini and the paper. Or, it could be arranging to work for one hour less one day a week so that you get to go for a swim on your way home. Think of these breaks as ‘mini holidays’ to preserve your sanity, and don’t give them up for anything. If necessary, so long as the mobile’s on, don’t even tell anyone where you are. Let calls go to voicemail, and only return them if it’s urgent.
Remember that working mums need treats. Returning to work shouldn’t simply be a meaningless grind – it should be a time when you are valued for everything you are – so start by valuing yourself.
Returning to work after maternity leave might mean you need to have a wardrobe check. Looking your best can really boost your confidence, so decide what you’re going to wear, not just for your first day, but for the rest of the week, and make sure it’s all washed and ironed. Make sure you have the right underwear and clean shoes and a respectable bag too. Try everything on. Even if you’re back to your pre-pregnancy weight, your body may have changed shape in various places, and your first morning is not the best time to find this out! First days, just like interviews, are an ideal excuse for some outfit and make up shopping. Make an appointment for a haircut, too – if you look good, you’ll feel good.
If you’re using public transport to get to work, check that everything still runs the way it did when you last used it. Routes and timetables may be different; ticket arrangements change (for instance, more bus companies insisting you buy a ticket from a machine before you get on a bus). Check there are no diversions or replacement services you’ll need to allow time for (the bus or train companies’ web sites are often good for this – or give them a ring). Buy your ticket or pass ahead of time, including any parking pass, for a week or a month if you can, to avoid Monday morning queues.
If you’re using your own car, this is a good time to clear out all the rubbish accumulated over the summer. Your colleagues may not see inside your car, but you won’t want unplanned things sticking to your uniform or work outfit!
Leave yourself more than enough time to get to work, and, if your employer offers you a later morning start for your first day (often to suit them) take the deal!
Lots of things in your workspace may have changed while you’ve been away: where people sit, where stationery and equipment are kept, where the printer and the coffee machine are. Someone may even be sitting at your desk, or next to your closest colleagues. Don’t let yourself be fazed; you’ll slot back in and it’ll all feel familiar again very soon. If the whole place has reorganised, try to get the lie of the land, and when you get a quiet moment sketch it out on a piece of paper. You can add names and responsibilities to the diagram as you go along as a memory-jogger until you’ve got the hang of it.
Don’t be disappointed if you are given the oldest desk or work station in the farthest corner at first. People tend to get quite possessive of office equipment and desk positions, but things will change with the next person that leaves or the next reorganisation. For now, make the most of the space you’ve got, adding picture, mug, lamp, pen-pot, whatever makes you feel at home there for the time being. Make your desk ‘the place to be’, so people like wandering over to see you.
Make a note of any important management changes and introduce yourself to anyone you’ll be dealing with if they don’t come and introduce themselves. Beginnings and ends of days and lunchtimes are good for this, as people will have more time to chat.
If you’re feeling nervous about returning to a busy workplace, phone a friend a few days ahead and arrange to meet them at break time or lunchtime, so you’re not sitting alone. If you’re not sure you’ll have anyone to meet, bring a book or a magazine to read in the canteen, so you won’t feel uncomfortable if you end up sitting on your own at first.
If you are feeling even slightly shy, it will pay off to work out in advance a few things to say to help ease into conversations. For familiar friends and colleagues, have baby anecdotes and pictures ready; for colleagues who aren’t family-oriented, have some questions ready about work and other safe ground such as hobbies. For meeting new people, be prepared to say a little about yourself and your role in the company, both now and before you went off.
Nab close friends or colleagues during coffee break, and get them to fill you in on any office gossip you need to know so that you don’t trip up and get embarrassed when talking to people – for instance, bereavements or marriage break-ups that you should be aware of.
If you use a computer at work, it’s best to assume that it won’t work on day one. Even if it’s a laptop that’s been locked safely in a drawer, it will be missing important updates for software and virus control that may take some hours to update. In addition, your log-in may have been suspended, you may have forgotten your password, and the laptop’s battery pack may have run down so far it won’t charge up. So, when you are receiving your instructions or handover, make sure you ask for something you can do which doesn’t involve the computer! If all else fails, go ‘sitting with Nellie’: learning – or getting re-familiarised – by sitting next to a colleague while waiting for IT support.
You can find interactive guides for all the main Microsoft packages here:
Just page down until you can see the button that says: ‘start the guide’ and you can then click on commands you were familiar with from Office 2003, and the tutorial will show you where they are in Office 2007!
If you’ve been off on ordinary maternity leave (OML), of 26 weeks or less, you are entitled to return to exactly the same job as you left. If you took additional maternity leave (AML) and stayed off longer than 26 weeks, you should usually be given your old job back. However, after AML, your employer can argue it’s not ‘reasonably practicable’ to give you your old job back, in other words, it’s not possible. It may be that that job doesn’t exist anymore. In this case, they have to offer you a suitable alternative job with very similar terms and conditions.
If this happens to you, don’t panic. It could be that the new job actually has more potential than your old one, so hold on and see before you complain or make any decisions. Ask for the job description and the terms and conditions. Work out what training and support you will need to do this new job well. Use it as a negotiating point for other things you may need, such as more flexible hours: ‘this job looks good, and I think I’ll enjoy it, but it would really help if I could have this equipment/change these hours/work from this office.’ Not every employer will be flexible, but many will be so relieved that you’re going to accept the new job without too much fuss, that they will be willing to make a few changes.
Guilt, unfortunately, tends to come with the territory when it comes to returning to work. Though there may be a variety of reasons, usually linked to financial circumstances, why a return to work makes sense, many women grapple with guilt about 'abandoning' their children. Even if staying at home was never going to be an option, when it comes to that first day back, even the most rational mother can feel overcome by guilt and worry about leaving their child in the care of someone else.
It goes without saying that you will have carefully researched childcare and chosen the best possible 'fit' for your child. Try to remember this important fact - they will be in good hands while you are at work. Focus on all those fantastic life skills they'll be learning, too - independence, social skills and interacting with a whole new set of children and adults. And keep in touch with your childcarer, especially during those early days back at work - and believe them when they tell you your child is happy!
We have some great tips for settling your child into childcare which cover issues such as separation anxiety - not just your child's, but yours too! One such tip is that it's vitally important to try and be positive about the new change to your family's routine. Guilt = stress, which your child will undoubtedly pick up on, which could make your child difficult to settle into their childcare. The more difficult the settling in period, the more guilty parents will feel - a real vicious circle...
But if the guilt is really getting to you, perhaps the next step is to see if your employer will consider a more flexible working arrangement, which might fit better around your family.
In the early days you'll doubtless feel tired, which could compound feelings of guilt. Try to take things easy and don't pack in too much on the days when you are at home with your child - resist the temptation to 'make up for mummy being at work' by spending your days off or weekends rushing from one action-packed activity to another.
Try to clearly define work life and home life. If you feel your job is encroaching on homelife you'll start to feel very pressurised - turn your mobile off and keep email checking to a minimum. Making sure your child has some quality time with you during your days off is vital in stopping those guilty feelings creeping in again...
Heather Goodwin is a life coach specialising in women in the workplace
It can be a difficult decision to make and while no-one but you - and your family - can make the decision, we do have other mums you can chat to in our Work, Study and Childcare forum. Chat to other mums who are also weighing up the pro's and con's, share your worries about going back to school or into the workplace and get advice and support form others who've already been in your shoes.
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