Returning to work after parental leave is straightforward for some, but for others (like me) it is one of the most challenging transitions in life. 

With all the life changes that came when welcoming a new addition to the family, I found returning to work one of the most challenging periods of my life so far. Balancing my excitement for returning to an organisation I loved, and the office banter that went with it, alongside a new level of crippling anxiety from suddenly being overwhelmed by the most basic tasks. Getting ready to leave the house on time with a baby in tow suddenly became a mountain too high to climb.

Two years later, I am starting to accept there will always be 2 professional versions of Abby.

Pre Riley, an independent person who could fill their day with work priorities, I had the space, both physically and mentally to plan my way out of any situation and propel our business forward. I felt in appropriate professional control.

Post Riley, priorities are different, whilst my professional growth is still key, the path to get there is far more unstructured, there is little space for planning, and some days I can lack the ability to control the outcome as much as I would like.

So how do you attempt to bridge the gap between the two professional versions of yourself, when returning to the office a changed person?

Share your experience

The 2017 Pregnancy and Employment Transitions Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics noted that 82% of women who returned to the workforce after childbirth returned to their original employer, 79% of whom returned to the same role and responsibilities. If the majority of women are returning to “same same but different”, the need to explain how and why you are different and find support from like minded professionals around you is paramount.

Connecting with a community to discuss how to bridge the gap between the two versions of you is central to your collective success. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. Looking for mentorship, or a return-to-work community provides the ability to access the collective wisdom of those that have triumphed before you. If the community does not exist, from mentorship, to a casual cup of tea and chat – reach out and create it yourself – be the change.

Prioritise your mental health

In the age of the Instagram influencer it is hard to miss the importance of “self-care” from mindfulness to glamping, taking time out to care for yourself has never been more glamorous. Whilst self-care surely has a positive impact on mental health in the short term, what do you do when your mood is consistently low, and anxiety has moved from a bit of overthinking to full blown catastrophising.

The Australian Institute for Family studies looked at seven key factors predicting return to work. Three main factors influenced or focused on mental health; Maternal and Infant Health, Mental Health itself (anxiety and depression) and how the temperament of your child impacted these factors. Ensuring you understand and are aware of what is normal for you, is key to remaining healthy in the workplace after your return. If you find yourself constantly overwhelmed like I did, prioritise strategies to uplift your mental health. For some it may be as simple as practicing mindfulness, for others (like me), you may need professional support. It is okay to not be okay – this is hard, priorities help.

Ask for, and accept help (without guilt)

“It takes a village to raise a child” they said…Whoever “they” are, their words could not be louder than in the weeks and months after having a child. I don’t know where in their statement they mentioned…”and they shall be filled with emotional guilt when accepting help from said village…”

Asking for help from your professional village; management, team-mates, and colleagues, can be difficult. Your pre-baby professional self was likely reticent to seek help. In this new post-baby you, surviving without the support of your professional village is near impossible. Asking for assistance, and accepting the support of colleagues could be the answer to a smoother transition back into the workforce. Where possible, creating  job share and flexible working structures around start time, workload and outcome management is immensely beneficial.

If you are in a position of leadership or management, delegate. Ask others to step up and support. Where possible look for opportunities to delegate responsibility and authority. Team members will likely thrive with the opportunity to grow. Importantly, delegation will likely give you space for planning and management of your priorities.

Practicing the above without guilt is certainly a learned behaviour (and I am still learning). It is likely we have or will feel some form of guilt in relation to our return to work as parents, in respect to asking and accepting help. Somehow we must teach ourselves that people offer help for the offer to be accepted.

Abby Hammerstein | 7 July 2020