Rocky Roads: The Peaks and Valleys of Returning to Work After Maternity Leave

Alice Tiller, Consultant, UK Private Practice (Outside London)

Returning from maternity leave often comes with a side of anxiety and trepidation. Having recently returned from maternity leave myself and speaking with other new mums, I can attest to the fact that these feelings are universal, whilst being specific and nuanced for each new mum. Also universal, is the feeling that these obstacles are often faced alone and, regardless of the level of support received, are difficult to navigate.

It’s important for mums returning to the grind to know that they don’t need to go at it alone. These problems have been faced before and aren’t going anywhere and knowing that others are facing similar challenges can provide comfort and reassurance to us in a time that feels very isolating.

Returning from maternity leave can feel like stepping out of a year-long reality show where dancing fruit has stolen the spotlight (if you know, you know). Many mums returning to work are surprised to find that the real challenge was trying to jump-start a brain that also took a holiday!

In the world of recruitment, a strong memory is key, remembering your clients and their needs as well as candidate names and their preferences is paramount. Whilst I used to juggle client instructions and remember candidate details easily, my post-maternity brain decided to make this incredibly challenging. I clearly remember sitting with my head in my hands on several occasions, desperately trying to recall information that used to come easily.

It was scary, and I felt completely betrayed by my own brain. 

The brain is a muscle, just like any other, and in order for it to work properly, exercise is key! Many mums completely switch off from the corporate world whilst on maternity leave (I know I did) and find returning to their former working tasks difficult. I found that with the free time I did manage to carve out, downloading educational apps, doing crossword puzzles and reading helped my brain get back to its former glory!

It is amazing to think that after the miracle of birth and spending every waking moment with the life you’ve brought into the world, new mothers are expected to hand over their pride and joy, trusting childminders to treat them with the same reverence they do. There seems to be little warning about the gut-wrenching feeling experienced when leaving your child at nursery for the first time and, even months after their first day, the worry you feel wondering if your little one is safe, fed, or missing you.

I have been incredibly fortunate as my company has been very supportive and extremely flexible. Unfortunately, this still didn’t help the mum guilt feel any less raw.

Studies show that speaking to other mums about the guilt of leaving your child to return to work is very helpful. Voicing your concerns to your partner, a trusted friend or therapist can make all the difference. Additionally, knowing that your child is in good hands is vital, providing peace of mind. There are a lot of useful resources advising on how to select the best nursery for your little bundle, only a Google search away.

Picture this: You’re on a call with your manager discussing plans for the year, and out of the blue, you’re haunted by the mental image of your toddler escaping out of their nursery crib, opening the nursery window, and strolling onto the main road – undetected. Suddenly, your conversation becomes a blur, and the next hour is spent fixated on imaginary escape scenarios.

These thoughts are common with new mums and are distracting on the job. Focus on separating fact from fiction, throw yourself into your work and make sure you’re getting all the rest you can, as challenging as that may be with the 2 am feedings and nappy changes!

While these valleys are difficult to navigate, many mums are surprised to find that there are also peaks, unexpected benefits, and advantages gained after taking a year off to raise their new child.

Despite the challenges of returning to work after a year-long hiatus, many mums notice huge developments in their personal growth once they are settled back in, noting increased confidence and a decrease in tendencies to overthink situations.

Pre-maternity leave, I suffered from imposter syndrome and tended to overanalyse scheduled phone conversations, fearing I might say something wrong or be perceived as unintelligent or inadequate. But, having undergone the incredibly demanding experience of giving birth, which stands as the toughest physical challenge my body has ever faced, speaking with a managing partner at a law firm now feels much more manageable.

Whilst I wouldn’t describe it as effortless, I can now approach calls of this nature proudly and confidently, secure in the knowledge that I am indeed capable. After all, I’ve successfully nurtured and sustained a tiny human for an entire year – a testament to my resilience and ability to conquer any task!

Becoming a mum can open a whole new world of connection points with your colleagues, business stakeholders, and clients. The challenges of motherhood, its triumphs, and everything in between are experienced by working mothers around the world. It’s a tale as old as time and offers a great foundation for a new relationship or added insight to strengthen an old one.

Before my pregnancy, I distinctly recall feeling awkward when working or expectant mums talked to me about their children, flexible work needs, or desired maternity packages. Back then, I couldn’t relate and found these conversations uncomfortable, feeling distant from that life stage, struggling to connect with those discussing the need for flexible hours for school pickups at 3 pm. Now, I enjoy chatting with like-minded individuals who are either new parents or have older children. I’ve received many handy tips on how to tackle monsters under the bed and have forged genuine professional connections with other working parents.

Many mothers returning from maternity leave have noted an improvement in their time management skills. Necessity is the mother of invention, and few things require as much inventiveness as motherhood in combination with a full working schedule.

My time management skills have seen a spectacular upgrade! I’ve always been fairly organised, and I love a to-do list, but the way I have learned to juggle my time since becoming a parent is something I am proud of. I do all my time management through “mum mathematics.” Tidying up, dressing, packing bags and lunches, laundry, and everything else for two is a far cry from when I used to get ready in as little as 15 minutes! Add in a rousing edition of Jingle Bells and a tantrum or two and it’s obvious that planning and foresight have become key, and I’ve become an expert at them!

I hope this article provides some comfort, letting you know that many others share the challenges of returning to work. The key is to be open about your feelings and talk to other mums; you might be helping not only yourself but also someone else as well! Keep in mind that you’re doing an amazing job, and you’re a super mum! If you’re feeling overwhelmed, need what little advice I can provide, or simply want to vent, please don’t hesitate to contact me, I’d love a chance to gain an insight into your world as a new working mum and will happily provide you with access to mine.