Maternity leave is an opportunity to reset how you work

Over the last four years, I’ve coached nearly 100 women who are looking to return to work after maternity leave.  The specific goals my clients hold for themselves in these sessions vary but more often than not the questions they are grappling with are around:

-          How do I return to work in a way that suits me, my family and my team?

-          How do I begin to convey all this to my team/my boss?

Answering these questions requires a fair amount of self-awareness as well as some reasonable understanding of the needs and dynamics of all the stakeholders at play.  It can be hard to think about the answer to these questions in the relative vacuum of maternity leave.  However, the weeks and months of maternity leave can offer a different perspective on how you want to work going forward.  Whilst the problems of juggling work and home are very real, the other side of the coin is a rare and wonderful opportunity to reset and return to work in a different way.

When coaching my clients before their return I will often invite them to consider:

What do you want life to look like when you step through the door of your office on day 1? What will be happening at work, what will be happening at home?  Be specific, what do you see, hear, feel on that first day?  What are you working on?  What time are you arriving and leaving?  What is energised in you?

When you have gone from giving 100% to work prior to maternity leave to giving 100% at home during maternity leave, combining the two on your return is a mathematical impossibility!  This can be particularly difficult to solve if you have a tendency towards perfectionism.  Imagine your home life and work life now overlap – be realistic, what can you safely let go of at home and at work?  Many of my clients are their own worst enemy when it comes to getting comfortable with delivering 90% versus 100%, but it’s often very telling what little impact that 10% really has. 

Get creative about the possibilities.  So, if you believe very strongly that a 3 or 4 day week will not work (and I urge my clients to really question the assumptions they are making here before jumping to this conclusion), what about a 7 or 8 day fortnight instead? What will you risk by asking for this?  What and how would you need to change to make this work?

What are your boundaries?  If there is a hard deadline of a nursery pick-up or a nanny hand-over what time will you therefore have to leave the office?  How will you get up, put on your coat and walk out at a time in the day when your “old self” may have just been hunkering down into the thick of work?  Many of my clients feel empowered by making the choice to walk out without an apology, without explanation.  They also make conscious decisions and “rules” around logging on at night, which they communicate clearly to the few that need to know.  The extent to which my clients always adhere to these rules may come and go in waves as the work ebbs and flows but crucially it’s about recognising early on when the boundaries are beginning to be well and truly broken. 

What part will your partner at home have in the new routine?  A brilliant book I recommend is Half a Wife by Gaby Hinsliffe:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Half-Wife-Working-Familys-Getting/dp/0099555743 - all about the changes working families can make to help make “it” work.  

Being clear and honest with yourself on these sorts of questions will allow you to have a better quality conversation with your team/your boss.  But before doing this take a good look at the world through the eyes of your employer/your team for a moment.  What do they want from you?  What do they value in you?  What will they be most concerned about in whatever you are proposing?  What will they need to know to get comfortable with your plan?  Crucially, what are you assuming about them that may colour what you ask for?      

Turning your ideal working pattern into reality in a way that truly works for all concerned requires more reflection, planning and attention than is typically invested.   But if you make the shift back into work in a considered way—assessing the needs of all concerned, being aware of your own limiting beliefs and effectively selling the idea to your stakeholders—you’ll be rewarded with a chance to reset your working pattern in a way that is increasingly sought but infrequently found. 

helen cowan