I sit and write this nearly two years after my first child was born and a month before my second child is due. Hindsight and perspective are such amazing things. I write this blog as the end of a pandemic is possibly in sight, in a world where uncertainty lies ahead and where the education sector has been tested to its limits. It is safe to say it wasn’t the usual return to work that some might go through. Nevertheless, whatever the circumstances, nothing quite prepares you for that return to work after your maternity leave.
You are not alone if you have been juggling these thoughts; how will I catch up, I have been out of the loop so long, what about my finances, maybe I need to go back sooner, or can I stay off a little longer, what about the promotion I would have considered had I not have been off, what if my job doesn’t exist when I want to return, what if I lose the bond with my child, what if the childcare I have arranged isn’t good enough, what if it is better than I can do and they get a better connection with my child, what if I’m not able to cope or keep up, or what if I’m not as good at my job as I was before?
It’ll be fine they said, it’s like riding a bike they said, you’ll get back to how you were before in no time they said. I’m not sure who they are: social media, articles, books, family and friends, the cheerleaders. But define fine… ‘a satisfactory or pleasing manner’. Nothing about my work ethic in the previous 10 years of my career had been fine, so I wasn’t ready to settle for fine now, but with my own expectations came pressure.
My car used to be one of the first in the carpark and one of the last to leave in the evening and then I would often work from home in the evenings. Normalising over working and being proud of it is a thing of the past for me, but maybe society isn’t quite ready for that. By god I love my job and I work hard to make a difference, but I get it now, there are other priorities and balancing that to do list is so hard. What I have come to realise is that every job has a never ending to do list, some jobs you are able to leave work at work and in theory, education should be the same, but the demands of the job and the responsibility we have to our students, makes it nigh on impossible. Therefore, as life evolved, time seemed to reduce, and I had to navigate through some murky waters to prioritise jobs on my to do list. There came a time when I was putting my daughter to bed and I would be up working late until midnight sometimes and up again at 6am the next day to do it all over again, but where did that leave me? Not much me time, an unhealthy balance and being too exhausted to give either parties my absolute best.
Whoever came up with the idea of Keeping in Touch Days (KIT) had a real understanding and empathy for their staff and how getting the right transition is vital to returning to work. My first one gave me such a rollercoaster of emotions, daunted to leave my baby for the first time, especially as she is a ‘Covid’ baby, so used to being by our side. Juxtaposed with the excitement of interacting with other adults, feeling challenged and finding my identity again. Funny how quickly you feel like you are losing your identity when you become a Mum. This left me feeling guilty as although I was at work, I wasn’t fully present, as I was thinking about my daughter and what she was doing and how she was coping. Finding that balance was difficult, but every KIT day, helped me to achieve some kind of equilibrium.
You will never think that you have the balance right, until you let go of what you ‘used’ to do. I was constantly trying to compare myself to my ‘old’ self and how much work I used to get through then. How can I possibly do the same amount when my capacity reduced? Once I let go of this, the expectations and pressures reduced, because I was never going to get that back. I have other responsibilities to add to the list and being a parent and creating a happy family environment was now on there. It took a while to adjust, and I am probably still on that journey, but I became even more efficient, understood that there were going to be fluctuations of workload and kept my lines of communication open with my partner and my work colleagues because I didn’t need to be a martyr and manage it alone.
Advice from other parents
‘Don’t have your phone attached to you, having something to look forward to at lunch, like seeing pictures and updates from the childcare you have arranged is such a bonus in the day – out of sight, out of mind, helps some parents to get through the day.’
‘Preparing yourself for the fact that you know you are going to have less time with your baby and trying to feel ok with that, will help you have a bit more focus at work. Manage the time so that when you are with your baby you are giving them all the focus that they and you need together. Setting aside plenty of time at the weekend to have fun and reconnect, helped parents to deal with working all week and missing that one-on-one time.’
‘Be kind to yourself, you cannot give 100% to everything, all the time, so have a hard think about the things that are most important at that time and find yourself a routine to help with managing the structure of your week.’
‘As a teacher, I try to remember that there are 1,000 plus children at work who are important but the most important one to you is yours at home. So, from the moment you pick your child up from the childcare arrangement that you have, give them your absolute focus until they go to bed, everything else can be picked up then. Even making the most of the interaction in the car, playing games and singing songs together will help you reconnect quickly.’
‘Write lots of lists, as sleep deprivation can affect your memory and make sure you try to get a good night’s sleep, you are no good to anyone if you are burnt out. Limiting how much notice you take to social media as well; every single baby is different and comparing your babies’ milestones to others can cause extra stress which you do not need.’
‘Manage your expectations, I could not physically or mentally do the amount I had done before. Knowing that it doesn’t reduce your ability to complete your job is key, quality over quantity. Redefining your expectations and being ok that it is perfectly reasonable to adjust your priorities will help you settle back in.’
Other things that people in your workplace might not have considered or paid much attention to is the quiet, private space to express. How many workplaces have places where you can go to express your milk? Ever had the worry of leaky boobs in front of hormonal teenagers? I didn’t have to go through this, but I know many that have, and it is an anxious and worrying thought, in amongst all the other pressures. If you are an employer, make this an easy process for women, managing the times you express in between your meetings, clients, or delivering lessons is just another stress and a daunting experience, that yes, we choose to take on, but it could be made easier for women.
My final bit of advice to any parent returning to work is to just go easy on yourself, allow yourself to feel the way you feel, without having to live up to anyone else’s expectations or their judgement, or your own for that matter. Whether that be feeling guilty, anxious, sad, helplessness, not feeling like you are good enough or the opposite and you are feeling happy to be getting back into a familiar routine and gaining your identity again. Whatever it is that you are feeling, it is ok. Keep communicating with others and those closest around you, and you will create a new routine that works for you all.
Just please know that you are not alone, there are some unhealthy expectations that as parents we should just be able to manage everything at 100mph, with ease, showing little emotion and it does not need to be that way. I have really supportive colleagues, family and friends and as a result of my communication with them all, we are getting there.
Ask me this question again when I am juggling two children and a full-time job…!
Rania Turner-Ramadan, Assistant Principal