As I write this, I have just wrapped up my first week back at work after a year’s maternity leave with my second (and last) baby.
And it’s been great.
It’s been great seeing my colleagues and getting myself reacquainted with all the work that’s happening. It’s been great being myself again, and actually having time by myself on the train or on my lunch break. Even having some time to focus on work without also keeping an eye on the kids so the baby doesn’t eat a book (a real possibility) has felt like a luxury.
It’s also been great seeing my 5-year-old excited about going to the childminder’s after school and playing with other children, eating new foods, and then buzzing about his day as we walk home together. It’s been great seeing my one-year-old bonding with other babies and the staff at his nursery, and then coming to pick him up and give him loads of kisses and cuddles, all the sweeter for the time we spent apart.
And I’ve thought, “This is how a return to work should be.”
But it is a million miles away from my first return to work, which was a disaster that marked the beginning of one of my unhappiest periods of work life.
So what’s made the difference? There’s some luck involved, but there’s also a few things I can’t help but think have made the difference between miserably job hunting after work and looking forward to Monday.
Own your ‘original medicine’.
I first came upon the concept of ‘original medicine’ in a recent call with coach and author Jennifer Louden’s Writer’s Oasis. The idea is that you are a unique cocktail of personality, talents, skills, and together these form your original medicine that you bring to the world. You have a unique voice, and if you don’t use it, no one else will and what you have to offer is lost.
I’ve heard this before in an orchestra metaphor:
Why be mediocre at playing the oboe when you are really a brilliant violinist? The orchestra needs your voice, not just a voice.
Well, it struck me on my first day that my organisation needed my voice, my original medicine, what only I could offer. That is not to say it needs *only* my voice, or that my voice is in any way better than others. It’s not about comparisons. The organisation has an incredible blend of talent and knowledge and skill and personalities, and I can inject that already-amazing blend with my truest self to take it to even better places.
For instance, I realise that one aspect of my original medicine is my interest in people and happiness. No, being a happiness coach is not part of my job description, and someone could definitely do my job without being interested in happiness, wellness, or personal development.
But I am interested in those things, so what does it look like if I bring it into my daily work?
Really good, as it turns out. It looks like me caring for my team and taking time with each of them to listen to what they have to say about the past year. It looks like building relationships at all levels of the organisation, particularly as another aspect of my original medicine is a deep-rooted sense of equality and respect for everyone (I am not big on hierarchy, possibly to a fault).
Rather than trying to do my job the way my maternity cover did or how someone else might approach it, I’m working out my unique way to do this job and serve the organisation, and I’m really enjoying it.
Whatever you’re doing, right now, do that.
Two obvious and frequently cited aspects that help working parents is loving what you do and having good, reliable childcare. Both allow you to really get into whatever it is you’re doing.
If you know your kids are having a good time and are safe and happy when they’re not with you, it’s a lot easier to focus on work when you’re at work.
And if you like the work you do, if it’s engaging and lets you use your strengths and grow as a person, it’s easier to immerse yourself and experience flow at work.
My mantra the past week has been, “I’m doing this now”. When I was sitting at work on my first day back, I had a moment of feeling overwhelmed by the emails I was reading that didn’t necessarily make sense to me, as I didn’t have the context and wasn’t clear what to do with them. In that moment, it was all too easy to want to check on how the kids were doing. Or panic as I flit between emails, not fully understanding or taking action on any of them.
So I told myself, “I’m doing this now.” I went ahead and read the emails, one at a time, start to finish, even if they didn’t make total sense. Eventually, pennies started dropping all over the place and I started to get the picture of what I needed to do, and the sense of overwhelm started to ease.
And because I’ve been able to accomplish a good amount at work, it’s been easier to focus on my boys in our evenings together.
So whatever you’re doing, do that.
Find your simple steps.
So when I had that moment of complete overwhelm on my first day back, I realised the main issue was I didn’t know what to do next with anything I was reading. It felt like the more I read, the more I had to do (but what exactly to do was not clear to me).
I took my lunch break around this time, went for a walk by the river, and twenty minutes later sat back down at my computer with a plan: I would focus on one aspect of the work and get to grips with it. I wouldn’t finish reading the handover notes my maternity cover left for me or check the newer unrelated emails that had come through. I would focus on this one thing.
Doing so meant grabbing time with two colleagues so they could talk me through aspects of the project. Those two conversations gave me a better context for the emails and reports I was reading, and helped me decide what to do with them. I was able to create a list of simple steps that were really clear and easy to follow.
This helped me tackle the sense of overwhelm and I was able to then go back to other bewildering projects and pieces of work with more confidence.
Sometimes, taking the first step is the hardest, and if you can do that the momentum and clarity of what to do next will follow.
Understand the stories you tell yourself.
Another thing I did that I am so grateful for in hindsight was I set up six sessions with a coach: three sessions before I went back to work and three sessions for after my return. I did this mostly because I wanted some security in case my return to work went the way my first post-maternity leave return to work did five years ago.
In working with my coach, I discovered some unspoken stories I had started to believe.
For instance, I had started to believe I wasn’t cut out for my job, or maybe wasn’t quite good enough at it. This was very much not surface stuff, as if you asked me I’d have told you how much I like it and how I think I do a pretty good job.
But as I talked to my coach the week before I started back at work, I realised that the summer before my maternity leave was hanging over me.
You see, that summer was a crazy few months. We moved house in June, only to find there was way more work we needed to do in the house than we anticipated. And everything was dependent on other things: e.g. we couldn’t do any of the necessary plaster or decorating work until we fixed the structural issue from a load-bearing wall that was removed incorrectly.
Meanwhile I was heavily pregnant by this time, and panicking because we had to get all this house stuff done before baby came (I was adamant I did not want to be doing big projects or building works with a newborn). I still hadn’t got anything for the baby, either – no pram, no place to put the baby, no clothes besides the handful of clothes we had kept for sentimental reasons from my first son’s babyhood.
Add to that stress at work, and basically I started having panic attacks. It culminated in having to step back from some pieces of work to leave for my maternity cover, which was largely fine as a lot of things I wouldn’t have been able to see through to the finish anyway as I was about to go off on maternity leave.
But the story this left me with was, “I wasn’t handling it.”
…which led to the unspoken belief: “I won’t be able to handle it when I go back.”
But once I realised this, it was easy to refute it. I could see the ways I was good at my work and appreciate all the ways my struggle last year was the result of a number of challenges hitting me all at once. I struggled, I asked for help, I got help. That didn’t make me a bad or weak person who would always need help.
But stories like this that we internalise are slippery buggers, working beneath our awareness more often than not. It’s often in talking without editing – like working with a coach – when we hear ourselves say things that hint at our inner stories.
Don’t assume it’s all down to you.
There are also plenty of ways that I’ve been lucky that was outside my control. My sons took to their childcare arrangements surprisingly well, thank goodness, which has made heading into work with a clear head (and conscience) much easier. My workplace is supportive and my manager handled my return to work brilliantly, including but not limited to involving me from time to time in key developments so I got the most from my keeping in touch days.
So if you do find some aspects of return to work a struggle, it can be worth reminding yourself that you’re not responsible for everything. Don’t shoulder all the responsibility.
If you see someone who is nailing it and think you must be doing something wrong if you’re struggling so much, remember that there’s a possibility some things are easier for her because of her circumstances.
Identifying what is in your sphere of influence can help.
You can’t force your baby to like getting dropped off at nursery, but you can try different techniques at drop off (I for one make sure drop off is quick, even when it feels heartless to give my baby a big hug and then practically throw him at the nursery worker. But I know he’s happier than a long drawn out goodbye). And maybe you can find soothing habits you can do after drop off, like a really engaging book to read in the train that helps you get your baby’s cries from drop off out of your head.
Maybe you can’t change jobs to get away from an unsupportive workplace right now, but can you do something to make your time there better? Maybe there’s learning and development you can take advantage of to help you make the move eventually. Or perhaps even a conversation with HR and your manager to at least set some mutually agreed ground rules (even if they will never be enthusiastic about your split loyalties as a working parent).
Do what you can, but don’t worry that you’re doing something wrong if it’s hard. Being a working parent is hard for all of us at one point, and it can be hugely rewarding and fulfilling at others.