A new mother contemplating her return to work only has to glance at a parenting blog or talk to a fellow working mother before the trepidation sets in.
With so much discussion around 'having it all' and the universal struggle to balance career success with children, it's understandable why many new mothers feel anxious about their impending return to work – no matter how much they love their job.
But while the transition will inevitably be challenging, there are a number of ways new mothers can prepare themselves to make their return to work less stressful.
Among the many factors that add to a working mother's stress levels – including a lack of time and childcare issues – is the guilt factor.
According to psychologist and Transitioning Well consultant Sabina Read, most women will at some point experience feelings of guilt around working and not working, and parenting and not parenting. But accepting and putting aside those feelings of guilt is the first step towards a more relaxed return to work.
"Where possible, try to park the guilt so that you'll be able to attend to more practical matters," says Read. "We know that when you're absorbed in emotional distress it's hard to actually put a plan in place. Guilt can cloud your judgment or your planning ability."
The next step in your preparation, says Read, is to start a conversation with your employer about your return date as well as any flexible work arrangements.
For some, this conversation might happen in the remaining one or two weeks of leave but for others, maintaining communication throughout maternity leave can really help to make the return to work less overwhelming.
"It is important to maintain contact with your colleagues while you're on maternity leave," says Chloe Gallagher, a mother of two and a senior manager at PwC. "It's not about doing work but trying to attend social functions and having coffee catch-ups with the team. I found staying connected helped me with the transition back to work."
Another challenge associated with a maternity leave absence, says Read, is a loss of confidence, which can sometimes lead to increased anxiety when the time comes to return to work.
Although she was excited about returning to work, Gallagher says she was worried about whether she would still be good at her job and how she was going to juggle all her responsibilities, both at work and at home.
"My first few months back at work from my first maternity leave period were a struggle. I felt like I had forgotten how to talk to clients and talk about what I was working on," says Gallagher, who works part-time and has adjusted hours to fit in with her childcare arrangements.
"Luckily my boss was really supportive and made sure I wasn't in situations which were too stressful while I built up my confidence again."
While organising childcare is an obvious part of preparing for your return to work, the trick to making things run smoothly is practice and having a back-up plan in place.
Suzie Plush, psychologist and director of Suzie Plush Consulting, recommends leaving your child in daycare or with their carer a week or two before you're due back at work, as well as practising the morning routine.
"Put them in daycare earlier so that not everything happens in the week you go back to work," she says. "Trying to get out of the house – getting ready for work and having the baby fed and organised can obviously be really challenging.
"Going through the motions prior to going back to work makes that week a lot less stressful."
Read adds that new mothers should also pay attention to the changes that are going to occur at home and, in particular, how the dynamics may shift with their partner.
"Negotiate the changes with your partner and the new roles that you each may play," she says. "Divvy out those associated domestic tasks and agree who's responsible for drop offs and pick ups."
But no matter how much preparation you do, remember that it's a transition and that it won't always be so hard.
"It gets easier! The first few months is an adjustment period for you, your child, your family and your team," says Gallagher. "Eventually things settle into a routine and it gets much easier."
Sabina Read's top tips for easing the transition back to work:
- Keep sight of what you want and why you returned to work. Being clear about what motivated your return to work will help you deal with the challenging times.
- Understand that your priorities may change. Evaluate what can slide down that list.
- Keep in touch with your child's carer a couple of times a week so you're aware of how your child is coping.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help!
- Be aware of the government and organisational policies that are in place, such as the right to request flexible work arrangements.
- Look after yourself and allow some downtime.
- Be compassionate with yourself.
- Be realistic. Aim for a realistic balance rather than a perfect one.
- Be present in what you're doing, whether that's at work or at home.
- Be flexible. Remember that even the best-laid plans are going to come undone.