The question that all working moms (or new mothers aspiring to return to work) face is: "When is the right time to get back to work after maternity leave?"
The correct answer is: any time is the right time if you feel comfortable. Be it 2 days or 20 years, the best working version of you is the one where you feel most confident and comfortable with the situation. And if it doesn’t make sense for you to return to work at all, then never is also the right time. Statistics have shown that women are more likely to return to work after maternity leave if there is an ecosystem that provides favourable conditions which support them in doing this. Sweden boasts the highest percentage of women at work in the EU (75%). Not only are parents allowed 16 months of parental leave, but the presence of night nurseries and the readiness of dads to be stay-at-home parents have all contributed to the high number of women in the workplace.
Speaking personally, a supportive ecosystem definitely eased my journey back into the workplace. As a mom to two babies, I loved being with them full-time during my maternity leave, but I still missed working and felt like I was myself again when I returned. If you’re thinking about returning to work, here are some tips that helped me feel like a successful, confident and comfortable working mom:
1. A confident you
It is very common to have doubts about your professional capabilities after maternity, but it’s important to remember that it is just a phase.
If you still need reassurance, start slow, strategise, upskill, and then move ahead. Additionally, understanding your work style and gauging your strengths and weaknesses will help too. Do a SWOT analysis on yourself, and figure out how you want to start. Remember, the most important thing here is to start.
Start with some revision of what you have done so far, perhaps an online course to fill your knowledge gaps, or even start with a small project to test what you know already and, if you’ve had a long break away, what you need to learn. After all, give yourself some credit for what you achieved in your career before maternity.
2. A support system
If you’re living with a partner, it’s helpful for both parties to ensure that the childcare and the household work are split fairly, in a way that suits both of your lifestyles. Whether you have a partner or you’re a single parent, don’t be afraid to admit when and if you need support. This can come in many different forms - from a friend, relative, neighbour, babysitter, or even from daycare. Remember, it doesn't make you a bad parent when you ask for support, in fact, it makes you a better one. Knowing yourself and when you need support will make your life and your kids’ easier.
Of course, there will be variations from person to person. For example, I experienced a big culture shock when I learned that household help is not easily available in all countries as it is in my home country of India. I learned the hard way, but the support of those around me eased the transition.
3. Understanding babies
You may wonder: do babies even understand what is happening at that age? Of course, yes! At 6 months, most babies start to get a grasp of what is going on in the world around them. Talking to them about it may sound silly, but it can work wonders. When I tried it, it helped reduce my guilt.
Another way around this guilt is to focus on them when you are with them. Be present wholeheartedly. Pamper them, pay more attention to their small and big gestures, and soak in as much of this experience as you can - it will help you get through the times you are not with them.
4. A trusted child care system
All parents need support, be it from extended family, a nanny, or some established system such as daycare - whatever suits you, your schedule, and your financial situation. You’ll know the place is right if, after trying it for a few days, you feel like you can trust them. Try to find a place that gives you enough time to be comfortable with being away from the kids, as well as allowing you to observe from a distance for a few days. Naturally, separation can make you, as well as your child, anxious. A childcare system that understands this, and supports you both, no matter how much time you need, is the right place to be.
It’s normal to feel afraid to make changes if you feel uncomfortable with the arrangement. However, the comfort, health, and safety of you and your child must be the priority.
5. A family friendly employer
There has been a global shift in work cultures from previously conventional working models to more remote and hybrid options. Work-from-home has become a reasonable and even preferred option for many.
As a mother considering re-entering the workforce, this works hugely in your favour. Be sure to talk to your (prospective) employer about your needs for personal time, your family, your working schedules, and your location preferences. It’s already been proven that employees can be there for their families, work from home, and still be fully productive. Talk to them about ways they can support you in balancing both of these things better. Take your time to find a suitable employer if needed, because an understanding employer will make a huge difference to your home life and professional success.
6. Anti-burnout plan
When you're trying to take care of a child or invest in your professional life or both, it can be challenging to take time for yourself. Start by planning in time for you outside of work and family - whether it's a hobby, a personal project, meditation, a workout, or simply a relaxing morning and evening routine. As I always like to say: one day at a time, one small positive step forward, one little win or learning each day.
Jumping right into work sure looks tough from the outside. But once you are in, you will feel a great sense of achievement. Enjoy, and don’t forget to share your experience with others! Half the population could potentially be, at some point, in the same situation. Why not give someone else that much-needed motivation?
This was my experience, but everybody’s journey will be different. The key is to know yourself and, if your situation allows, only return to work if and when you feel like it. And if you need more time to decide, or decide not to return at all, it's also perfectly alright.