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Returning to work after maternity leave can be a colossal challenge. The logistics involved in getting yourself and an unpredictable baby up and ready to leave the house are daunting in themselves. That’s before you ever set foot in a workplace where you’ll have to re-adjust to the demands of professional life.

“It’s a stressful time for parents,” says Karen O’Reilly, founder of the flexible work specialists and, a former accountant, and mother to two teenagers. “For many, the physical separation from their little bundle of joy often comes with guilt, stress, sadness, and separation anxiety.”

That’s just the start of it.

“Parents have to find childcare,” says O’Reilly. “There’s the exhaustion of looking after a baby who probably doesn’t sleep through the night yet. On top of that, women have to deal with a work environment that might represent its own unique challenges. It’s a lot.”

Associate professor in organisational psychology at Dublin City University Yseult Freeney and her colleagues David Collins and Lisa van der Werff have carried out research looking at how maternity leave affects women’s careers.

They found that women’s expectations often diverge from reality. In a 2018 report, 67% of women interviewed during maternity leave were enthusiastic about returning to work. This plummeted to 40% by the end of their first day back. Their determination levels dropped from 72% to 56% and their excitement fell from 40% to 25%.

Possible explanations for this included spousal and family support, childcare arrangements and the attitude of their organisation.

In a 2021 study of more than 300 women who had recently returned from maternity leave, Freeney and her colleagues found that companies broadly fell into two categories when it came to how they treated women returning from maternity leave.

“There are companies which see maternity leave as a major disruption that strongly influences how a woman is valued in the workplace,” says Freeney.

“When managers view maternity in this way, we found that it leads to assumptions being made, such as assuming that women are not interested in career progression anymore. Women’s past performance, however stellar, is quickly forgotten. This is deeply frustrating for women who still want to advance.”

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The other kind of organisation views maternity as an event that punctuates a woman’s career but doesn’t stop it in its tracks.

“Women in these companies felt they returned with a renewed perspective and were energised by being part of a community where they were valued,” says Freeney.

Military operation

Freeney acknowledges that women can be changed by motherhood. “Many women experience a shift in priorities when they become mothers,” she says. “They have to get used to the fact that a child is more important than their careers.”

However, she is adamant that this doesn’t have to take from their professional performance.

“Parenthood changes people and presents challenges, but it’s also an opportunity to gain new perspectives, with many parents reporting better coping skills, higher confidence, and most importantly, a noticeable improvement in efficiency,” says Freeney.

“They are less likely to ‘sweat the small stuff’ and instead channel their energies where it’s more valuably invested.”

Regardless of managers’ attitudes towards working mothers, there are steps women can take to make their return to work easier.

“Treat the process like a military operation and prepare as much as possible in advance,” says O’Reilly.

“Try to get your baby into a feeding and sleeping routine a few weeks before the return to work if that’s at all possible. Do a trial run with your childcare provider. Don’t wait for your first day back at work to be your baby’s first day without their parents. That’s too stressful for everyone. Call in all the help you can from friends and relatives and, if you can afford it, hire a good cleaner.”

Freeney advises sharing the burden with your partner. “If there are two parents, parental responsibilities can be shared,” she says. “The first few weeks are challenging. Babies often get sick when exposed to creche. It shouldn’t be up to the mother alone to respond to this.”

She also recommends managing expectations. “Any transition in life is accompanied by stress,” she says. “The emotional toll of separating from a baby for the first time is not to be underestimated, but with support at home and at work, it can lead to re-engagement and satisfaction.”

The next step is to have an honest conversation with your manager. Ideally, this conversation should start before maternity leave and recommence prior to your return.

“By airing all your assumptions, needs and concerns, you can make sure you’re both on the same page,” says Freeney.

“Our research emphasises how critical these conversations are. Assumptions are what generally lead to difficulties, so take this opportunity to deal with them in advance. For example, if you want to get that next promotion within a year of returning, let your manager know. The reverse is also true. If you need time to adjust, be honest about it.”

O’Reilly suggests discussing the option of flexible working during the transition period. “A little bit of flexibility at this stage can make all the difference to stress levels while you wrap your head around your new role as a working mother,” she says. “You could even return gradually, starting out three days a week and building up to five. Going from zero to 100% is a big ask.”

Find out if there are any workplace supports. “Some companies offer coaching to help returning mothers,” says Freeney. “Others run buddy programmes matching women to colleagues who have already been through it.”

Whatever you do, says O’Reilly, don’t despair. “Now is not the time to decide to quit because it’s too hard to meet the competing demands on your time and energy,” she says.

“Your body and mind have been through the mother of all rollercoasters so cut yourself some slack.”

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