Tuesday 12 December 2017

Top tips for the dreaded return to work after maternity leave

Returning to work after maternity leave can be an emotional rollercoaster, especially for first-time mums.

Returning to work after maternity leave can be an emotional rollercoaster
Returning to work after maternity leave can be an emotional rollercoaster

Kate Gun

Returning to work after maternity leave can be an emotional rollercoaster, especially for first-time mums.

I remember it well. Sitting on the edge of my bed in a too-tight work suit, quietly weeping. My beautiful baby was just six months old and I was about to hand her over to a woman I barely knew, who would now be minding her, instead of me.

It felt wrong. I felt trapped, resentful, bereft. And there was nothing I could do about it.

The returning-to-work emotions begin long before the first day back. For many, it’s a dark cloud hanging over their entire maternity leave. While the first couple of months are navigated in a fog of sleep deprivation, it’s only when we begin to get a handle on things and actually enjoy our babies that the return to work begins to loom. And the fears are many.

For some, the emotional aspect is the hardest — how will you leave your precious baby in the hands of someone else? Will he miss you? What about her routine that you finally got sorted?

Mum-of-one Nicola Cassidy works part-time as a marketing manager at Premium Power, an electrical engineering consultancy in Dublin. She says she felt she had no choice but to return to work after having her baby. “I’d like to think I had a choice but the reality is, with our mortgage, loans, running two cars and coping with the taxes that seemed to have rained down on top of us over the past few years, I did have to return to work.

Maternity leave is currently 26 weeks, with 16 weeks additional unpaid leave, which begins immediately after the end of maternity leave.
Maternity leave is currently 26 weeks, with 16 weeks additional unpaid leave, which begins immediately after the end of maternity leave.

“I was emotional about leaving my baby; about walking away from her in the morning and knowing that I wouldn’t see her for the next 10 hours. We were so bonded, we spent all our days and nights together and I felt like I was abandoning her, that I wasn’t doing the job I’d been given as her mother. It helped, of course, knowing that I was leaving her with her father, someone who loved her as much as I did, but it didn’t take away from the wrench, and I remember feeling a bit angry about that — as if I didn’t have a choice; that the State had almost reached in and cut me from my baby, by stopping my maternity benefit after the set number of weeks. That first week is probably the hardest and I had made it a little harder by starting a new job and not knowing anyone or having any familiar faces to talk through what I was going through.”

Tracey Quinn, from Dublin, is mum to Billy. She says her biggest emotional challenge was what to do about breastfeeding. “For me, a huge thing was breastfeeding. We had gone from being able to feed, whenever and wherever, to me being separated from Billy for 10 hours, three days a week. 

“Like most things, we found our routine and I ended up being picked up after work and fed him in the car outside my job. That was a particularly poignant moment for me.”

Nicola agrees that the organisation issues around breastfeeding were difficult. “The hardest part on returning to work was dealing with the fact that I was still exclusively breastfeeding my baby. We hadn’t moved onto formula or solids yet, and while I had a huge stock of expressed milk in the freezer, I did feel a huge pressure around this and I was quite upset to have to leave my baby and go to work. Over time, this lessened and we managed to feed until almost a year, which I was delighted about.”

And then, there’s the small problem of how to fit everything else into the day. 

Nicola says that for her and her partner, “the hard parts were more about adjusting to our new roles and developing a routine around cooking and housework, as well as trying to work out whose turn it was to do a night feed. We didn’t have the pressure of trying to get baby out the door in the morning, but I had to be organised to make sure her feeding schedule was fitting with me getting to work on time.”

The emotional and logistical demands of going back to work after maternity leave are only one half of the fears new mums face. There is also the huge worry about what happens once you’re back in the working environment — will you actually remember how to do your job? 

Tracey says her fears about leaving Billy amalgamated with the fears of going back into office life. “I think it’s hard to find your identity in the workplace again,” she explains. “If it’s the same job you are returning to, you are going back as a whole new version of yourself. Motherhood changes you so inherently. It’s about rediscovering a part of your personality that may have been parked to the side for the guts of a year.”

Nicola took less time off, so didn’t feel such a disconnection on returning to work, but says, “although it didn’t feel like I’d been out of the working world too long or out of touch, baby brain is a different story. I think I’m still suffering from that!”

For Cathy, mum to Ciaran (2), it was the exhaustion that she found hard. The sleep deprivation didn’t stop just because she slipped on her working shoes. “The sleepless nights almost killed me. I’d be up at least four times every night and when the alarm went off for work the next morning, I would feel like crying. In work, I’d constantly forget things and would happily have curled up under my desk for a nap if I thought I could have gotten away with it.”

So does maternity leave and motherhood impact your career? Although legally it shouldn’t, for many, it’s an indisputable fact. For me, it meant moving from being the main breadwinner in the family to a part-time role before finally leaving the company. While I pushed for those changes myself, it was mainly down to reassessing my life while on maternity leave.

Nicola agrees: “This is a difficult question, as it’s tied up with so many feminist principles of mine. At first glance, I would say that it has certainly changed the path of my career. I’m not prepared to commute long distances for a job now. I’m not willing to devote 60 hours of my week, every week, to work or to be on-call. These are things I was willing to do when I was younger and before I became a mother.

“Having said that, becoming a mother has changed me as a person and allowed me to really look at my passions. I was barely blogging before I had my baby. I’ve since written a novel... When you spend hours a day looking after a baby, you relish every precious moment that you get to yourself. You become much more productive. It’s the same at work: because I know my time is limited during the week, I plan and organise my days. Becoming a mother has impacted my career in a very positive way.”

Another mother commented on the ‘5pm workplace walk of shame’ that mothers take. Someone has to collect the baby each day and, chances are, that person is going to be mum. The general feeling among both the men and women I spoke to is that this does not help a mother’s career prospects. In fact, a recently published survey from Osbourne Recruitment backs up this consensus. The survey questioned almost 1,000 women, 62pc of whom are working mothers: 64pc of those surveyed stated that having a family does, indeed, hamper career progression and 47pc believe being a working mother means you cannot land your dream job.

Elsewhere, in the UK, a new parliamentary report stated that there has been a “shocking” increase in discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers. It was revealed that the number of expectant and new mothers forced to leave their jobs has almost doubled to 54,000 since 2005. They are calling for reform in line with other European countries such as Germany, where, from the beginning of pregnancy until four months following childbirth, employers can only dismiss an employee in very rare cases — such as the company going bust — and it needs government approval to do so.

Working mothers are also being paid less than their male counterparts. Last month, a study for the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the UK showed that the earning power between men and women returning to work after having a child becomes steadily wider. Over the subsequent 12 years, women’s hourly pay rate falls 33pc behind men’s.

So what are your rights regarding maternity leave and your return to work? Under the Maternity Protection Act, you are entitled to 26 weeks’ maternity leave together with 16 weeks of additional unpaid maternity leave, which begins immediately after the end of maternity leave. Before returning to work, you must give your employer at least four weeks’ written notice of your intention to return.

After maternity leave, you are entitled to return to work to the same job with the same contract of employment. However, the act does state that if it is not reasonably practicable for your employer to allow you to return to your job, then they must provide you with suitable alternative work. This new position should not be on terms substantially less favourable than those of your previous job.

Citizens Information has lots of useful, up-to-date information on the subject. It states that “you are entitled to be treated as if you had been at work during your maternity leave. Your employment conditions cannot be worsened by the fact that you have taken maternity leave, and if pay or other conditions have improved while you have been on maternity leave then you are entitled to these benefits when you return to work.”

Wexford solicitor and mum-of-three, Sinead Fox, says that things can often work out for the best when you least expect it. “I was made redundant after my second maternity leave and transferred to a different department after my third,” she explains. “It’s very stressful trying to get used to a new job while juggling a small baby and toddler. However, the sidelining worked out well for me. It made me realise that I might as well get used to a new job elsewhere. The role I’m in now is closer to home and much more flexible.”

I agree. Looking back to that new mum crying on the bed, I would love to be able to tap her on the shoulder and tell her that everything would be okay. That it wouldn’t be forever, that her five-day week would soon become four, then three, and eventually, she would begin a whole new career that fitted around her family life.

If your return to work is on the horizon, try not to waste the last of your precious maternity leave worrying about how awful it will be. Be informed, and know that nothing is forever. Not even those sleepless nights.

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