Before going on maternity or paternity leave, you had a plan. There’s a due date; there’s a scheduled last day in the office; there’s a handover plan; and there’s someone who will fill in for your responsibilities. You say your goodbyes and you are all excited for what’s ahead. Your new arrival is now here and months have passed in a flash.
Congratulations! You have mastered x weeks or months of being a parent and now you are planning to go back to work. Your job is awaiting you, but in your head you couldn’t be further away from showing up as a professional. It’s not only your work clothes that have gathered dust. Between nursery rhymes and baby smiles, you might have forgotten what it feels like to go to the office or show up for the 9am zoom call. You are now wondering how you will manage your old life with the addition of your new responsibilities as a parent. How will this new reality play out for you? There’s doubts, fears, and also lots of excitement.
Returning to work after a prolonged absence demands a significant amount of courage. Stepping back into the professional arena can evoke feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt. You are in a vulnerable space where the expectations of yourself and those around you are very high. You might want to prove that you can do it all. And while your responsibilities in your private life have altered, your job will undoubtedly have evolved too.
(1) Take time to plan your return
Similarly to planning your maternity or paternity leave, you need to make a plan for your return. But this time around there’s no government forms to complete and most likely no back to work template. However, there might be policies and best practices in place with regards to ramp-back time or similar. That’s why it’s important that you carve out time to make a plan.
Ideally you would have the childcare setup well established before you return to work. That way you can be confident that your precious little one will be cared for in the best possible way. There will be days where things don’t go as planned. You will learn to live with that too. It’s about managing the 80-90%, and planning for those, and for the last 10%, it will be you using your parent superpowers to make the working parent reality “work”.
(1.2) The Jobside
Reach out to your manager well in advance and schedule a meeting to discuss your return. Take some time ahead of that meeting to write down a few notes, your questions, your hopes, and your needs. When the meeting is on, ask them what has been happening and ask them to give you an overview. Be sure to also mention the topics that you have been thinking about. You might have gotten to know a new side of yourself or a new skill while caring for your child and you want to incorporate this into work. Don’t be shy to ask for a buddy that can help you settle back into your role over the first couple of weeks. Agree with your manager on how the first days will look like, and if there’s a ramp-back time – how you want to approach it.
(2.) Communicate your priorities and boundaries
During your time off, some of your habits and priorities might have changed. Coming back to work, you will now need to find a new schedule. Your team and manager will most likely only know the ‘old you’ that came in early and left late. Going forward, you might want to continue to do the school drop-off and leave strictly at 5pm to make it home for bedtime. Be sure to communicate what’s important for you and what your boundaries are. As a best practice make this visible in your calendar so that there is no doubt. You will be surprised at how happily other people respect your boundaries (and see you as a role model).
(3) Set expectations and be kind to yourself
The most important piece is setting realistic (!) expectations with yourself (and your manager) and to be kind to yourself.
Things in work will have evolved, projects might have been completed, or perhaps even shut down in the time you were off. Navigating what you knew vs. what is now true can be challenging as we naturally try to make sense of things and the way we were used to them. There will be hiccups and frustrations. On one hand, you will love the chats with your co-workers over lunch and the feeling of accomplishment by getting work done without distraction. On the other hand, you might miss your little one and wonder how they are getting on. Approaching the return to work like you would a new job will help you feel in control and more at ease with the progress you will make. And don’t be shy to contribute to team discussions and to speak up. It’s common to suffer from imposter syndrome when stepping back into the workforce: You have mastered your job before and now you can do it again with a toolkit full of life and parenting experiences. After mastering sleep and nap schedules, your work will sometimes feel like a walk in the park.
In our modern society there’s a strict separation between work and childcare / parenting duties. With the return to work you will have to bridge the two lives and it’s important to approach this situation with compassion. If you are the manager or a colleague of someone returning back to work, it’s critical to demonstrate understanding for this situation. Check-in with your peer or reportee, show interest in their personal lives, and try to understand what’s on their mind. You might know other parents that have navigated this transition period and might want to connect with them. Lastly, when you are planning a meeting or your next team building event, advocate for the working parent. Check that it suits them to meet after working hours and propose alternatives like moving the dinner to an afternoon tea.
Ready for your return to work? Start planning it now, and don’t hesitate to ask for the help that you may need to make this an exciting experience that will make you grow both as a professional and as a parent!