Returning back to work after maternity leave can be daunting, as you want to embrace the new role of a mother as well as slay in the boardroom – but what happens when you don’t let yourself become this new dual-identity? Chapter W writer Emilie Lien shares her own experiences, and what she wishes she knew…
It started when I was pregnant.
I was so focused on making sure work stayed the same. I felt I had to prove to everyone that nothing had changed, that I could still power walk to the train station, work all hours at a busy PR agency and sometimes go without lunch when things got too manic. I didn’t like being offered a seat on the tube or being told to take it easy, so desperate was I to show that nothing had changed and I was still the same.
I took a year’s maternity leave when I had my daughter, at the end of which I happily returned to work, naively believing I would pick up right where I’d left off.
But of course that’s not how it worked, because now I was a mum and everything had changed.
In my pre-motherhood days, work was one of the most important things in my life. I would put in all the hours, regularly finishing late and working weekends, and there were many work related nights out and socialising too. And I was very committed – if there was an important meeting or presentation my personal plans would be cancelled without hesitation.
I returned from maternity leave with the same attitude. I was at my desk by 8am every morning and while I left at 5pm to collect my baby from nursery, I logged on every night after her bedtime to catch up on outstanding work and urgent emails, I was available for calls and emails on my day off. And there were never any baby-related anecdotes with colleagues or baby pics on my desk – I was determined not to bring my baby to work.
But despite my best efforts and all my pretending, my priorities had completely and irrevocably shifted. Work was no longer at the top, my baby was. Whatever pressing deadline popped into my inbox at 4.55pm, I had no choice but to leave at 5pm on the dot. If she had a temperature and couldn’t go to nursery one day, it didn’t matter if this was the day of a huge new business pitch I’d been preparing for weeks. With no family support on hand, I stayed at home to look after her.
Of course there was never any question for me that my ultimate commitment now was to my baby. But looking back I decided to put a huge amount of pressure on myself to pretend this was not the case and hide this big, demanding, long-term role I had taken on. It became a real struggle, and I ended up feeling guilty and a complete failure.
I wish someone had sat me down at the time, and told me to be less hard on myself and stop pretending.
I wish they’d reassured me that I was still great at my job, even if I had to leave earlier than everyone else.
And I also wish they’d told me to be stronger with employers who made me feel like what I gave was never quite enough, however many hours I put in.
The good employers are the ones who understand that they might be not number one anymore, but the job still gets done well. They don’t feel like they’re being cheated out of an employee’s time because she needs flexibility to fit with her young child. They don’t pile the pressure on, instead they adapt workloads and trust the returning mum to get the work done in her own time. My two best ever managers, a man and a woman, took this approach, and incidentally neither of them was a parent at the time.
I still see it around me all the time: amazing, talented colleagues returning from maternity leave and crashing and burning in the first few months, their confidence wavering, the worry etched on their faces – can I do this? Can I make this work?
And my message is: yes you can! It’s a juggling act, but you know there’s always one ball you can never let drop, and the moment you and your employer are accepting of this is the moment it all starts to get that little bit easier.
The creative industry and motherhood can go hand in hand, if the grip is loosened slightly either side.
You can do it.
Are you a working mum, and feel you had difficulty adapting to working life? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org