No one said it would be easy heading back to work after your maternity leave, and that first week can be especially tough. For some, it’s a relief to be surrounded by adults again, while others struggle to compartmentalise work and home life. By Kim Bell
“I had to trust someone else with my baby”
Megan, a high school teacher, was used to looking after other people’s kids. But, when it came to her own, her biggest challenge was trusting that someone could look after and love her baby when she wasn’t around. She and her husband discussed the issue at length during her pregnancy, and they had originally looked at day care facilities close to her school. Once her son was born, she couldn’t imagine leaving him with a complete stranger. Her mom came to the rescue, offering to look after him for the first year. It was a plan that worked well – but even then, Megan still phoned in between lessons and at break to check in. “Finally, my mom said to me, ‘Who do you think raised you?’ and I realised that I had to take a deep breath and trust her capabilities.” Megan recommends researching your childcare options carefully, and deciding what will work best for you. She adds that when you are at work, you need to be able to focus on where you are, and not worry about your child.
“I should have gone on maternity leave sooner”
Charmaine went, overnight, from being a high-powered executive to a mother. “I worked right up until I went into labour, so didn’t really have a chance to transition. I felt I had left everything up in the air when I left the office.” What compounded Charmaine’s situation is that she had to have an emergency C-section, which impacted her recovery rate. “I had unrealistic expectations. I had images of myself lying prettily in bed with my newborn sleeping next to me as I worked through my emails. But this was far from reality.”
Charmaine returned to work, but instead of being the tough-as-nails manager, she had to deal with leaking breasts and bouts of tears. “I became so emotional about everything and felt that I couldn’t get on top of it all. I was completely overwhelmed.” While she couldn’t have foreseen the emergency C-section, Charmaine does believe if she had planned her maternity leave better, she could have made sure everything was in place before her baby was born, and that she wouldn’t have felt so rushed to go back to work, and overwhelmed when she got there.
“I didn’t feel guilty”
Thando, who works in the admin department of a financial firm, says she loved being at home with her baby during her maternity leave, but was equally happy to go back to work. “I missed the adult company. I thought I would feel guilty about returning to work, but I didn’t.” She credits having a strong support system at home. “Knowing my daughter was well looked after and loved, meant that I could focus on being the other me – the work me,” she shares. Thando says she loves her job, and believes she is a better mom for it. “I would go mad being at home, and I worry that I would become resentful. This way, the time I spend with my baby is quality time.”
“I had to learn to let go”
Priscilla shares that she was a perfectionist at work, and a clock-watcher. “I believed, erroneously, that if you were dedicated to your job, you should be the first in and the last to leave, and judged others on this.” She says she had regular manicures and pedicures and her work clothes were boutique bought. “I had this image that I portrayed in the workplace, and believed that to work professionally, you have to look professional.” And while Priscilla still tries to always look her best, her attitude did adjust slightly the day she walked into a meeting with spit up down the back of her shoulder. “It was one of those days. My son had hardly slept the night before and I was exhausted. We had a huge client meeting, and I rushed in late. As I was introducing myself, I caught a whiff of this stench, but it was only after the meeting that I realised what it was.” Priscilla says this experience has taught her to relax a bit and not be so hard on herself, or her staff for that matter.
“I asked to meet with my boss before returning to work”
Lerato took six months maternity leave with her first child, three paid and three unpaid. She was feeling uncertain about returning to work and how much had changed. A friend recommended she call her manager and set up a coffee meeting a week before she was due to return to work. She used the time to find out if there had been any major changes in the company, if there were any new staff members, and what the expectations would be from both sides. “That way, there were no first-day surprises when I walked in and I knew exactly what I needed to do and what was expected of me.”
Sarah’s first day back was a nightmare. “I went from wearing button-down shirts and yoga pants that had been my uniform during my maternity leave to thinking I could just shimmy back into my old work clothes. Instead, I ended up on the first morning howling like a baby as I couldn’t do my pants zip up.” Sarah admitted she had put on quite a lot of weight during her pregnancy and hadn’t reached her pre-pregnancy weight again. Plus, her body shape had changed. “I ended up wearing my baggy preggie pants and shirt. I felt awful walking into work. My confidence was already shaky and this just added to it.” As soon as she could, Sarah went shopping for a few essential items that fitted her better. “I can’t tell you what a difference it made.”
“Remember your boobs!”
Tasmyn was still breastfeeding when she returned to work. “It was a bit of a challenge, as I had to remember to pump every few hours, and make plans to keep the milk stored.” She adds that it took a bit of adjustment, and she needed to make sure that meetings didn’t coincide with her need to pump. “And always, always make sure you have extra breast pads. You don’t want to explain leaky breasts to your colleagues!”
“What work/life balance?”
“Work/life balance is a myth, at least when your baby is so small,” admits Nonhlanhla, who adds that it took her a while to realise her new normal is OK, too. “I had to stop beating myself up. I was spreading myself too thin.” She says it was hard not to bring her personal life into work, and her work life into her personal – particularly since her baby is in a day care facility based at her office. You have to learn to adapt and lighten up, she says. “I learnt how to compartmentalise – when I was at work, I focused on what I needed to do there. And when I was home, I focused on my baby and husband. And, for me, it has worked.”
“I have changed, but work hasn’t”
Portia shares that the person she was when she left work, and the person she was when she returned was completely different. She battled to adjust in the workplace, and it took her a while to realise the job hadn’t changed, the work environment hadn’t changed – she had. And so had her priorities. “I had to take a long look at myself and decide what I wanted to do. I wasn’t the same person I had been.”
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday. You can learn more about Kim Bell here.