“You don’t know what you don’t know” is a line which rings so true for me when it comes to returning to work after maternity leave. And I definitely didn’t know I was going to find it so hard. Looking for support and struggling five years ago was the catalyst for me to design and then launch Rock Your Return. A place to chat to other mums confidentially, learn techniques to build confidence and take back control of a process which can feel really daunting.
First time round I was determined nothing was going to change before I finished for mat leave. I worked longer hours than ever to prove this fact, giving hints that I’d be back in no time (only a more experienced friend stopped me from literally committing to a date), this baby was going to slot into our lives perfectly and I’d be back progressing my career at the same pace as before. After all I was on an upward trajectory, things were going well for me on the career front, I enjoyed my work and was on the cusp of the next promotion.
We all know this story doesn’t play out.
Of course our baby changed our lives. The emotional rollercoaster that parenthood is with all its brilliance and wonder mixed with fear and exhaustion. Our hearts were stolen in an instant and we didn’t want things to be the same as before (well not everything anyway, I’d have taken a morning in bed with the papers in an instant).
This baby changed ME in ways I could never have imagined. I felt like I suddenly found this bigger reason for being, I discovered this unconditional love that I didn’t know even existed within me, this primitive need to protect at all costs.
That’s not to say I wasn’t still ambitious, that I got a bit bored by the end of my maternity leave (eeek are you allowed to say that?!) and that I actually looked forward to getting back to work and using my brain a bit more. I think you do fundamentally change in many ways when you become a mum but also, when you eventually get time amidst the nappies, you find that there is a whole load of yourself still there, it’s just got a bit lost for a while. We find it again – via work or other projects or hobbies or volunteering or socialising with friends again without it being in a park (so much of this rediscovery takes place on the Game Changers programme, it’s not all about work because our happiness and our lives are about so much more than this).
I also gained so many new skills – patience, multi-tasking, empathy, listening, negotiation to name just a few. But this wasn’t forefront of my mind, the negative self-talk was louder, telling me that my team at work had moved on, I wasn’t sharp enough anymore, I had lost touch, I could barely remember how I even got to work on time never mind how to hold down a job, jeez I couldn’t even fit in my trousers. Perhaps I didn’t want to, they didn’t feel like ‘me’ anymore anyway.
I wasn’t the same person, but then I also WAS the same person, I was an even better person. But would my employer see that, would my colleagues be as supportive about my new part time hours?
I returned to work that first time and got through it. I got through it with the help of an incredible friend and mentor, I was lucky to have a supportive line manager first time round, my flexible working request was granted, we managed to sort childcare and things all fell into place. I was lucky as I know this isn’t always the case but it still could have been so much better, I now realise in hindsight. I also know that the list of skills I thought I’d gained were not even the half of it. I was ruthlessly organised, I achieved more in three days than I ever did in five, I had a whole new outlook and approach.
Ever since my first return I’d thought about what was missing for women during this transition. I’d thought about what employers should do better and what we can do for ourselves if they don’t (we shouldn’t have to but sadly that’s not the world we currently live in).
When I first started my own business nearly three years ago it was tackling this very problem. I started by running Rock Your Return workshops from our front room. We’d chat, eat homemade scones and I’d provide tools and support for making the return to work process better all round. I wondered whether it would flow with everyone working in different industries but actually this only made it more interesting and useful. Others who were free from the ‘office politics’ could provide a fresh perspective, we’d be able to talk confidentially about conversations we were having and actually plan and practise for others we knew were coming up in future, we’d share and tackle the guilt together. I designed a programme around what would have helped me, mixed with techniques and tools I knew (I worked in training and development). We trialled, I amended, we trialled again and I believe created something pretty special.
For the longest time I’ve wanted to bring these workshops online because I know the difference they can make. It’s a really key transition, when you’re still getting your head around being a parent (or being a parent of more than one) it’s no wonder that adding an extra role into the mix is challenging. Not to mention how much else there is to deal with – the housework, the birthdays, the childcare logistics. Then when you throw in the fact that we don’t live and work in an equal society and the extra crap women face…
We don’t go ‘back’ to work, we go forward into a new chapter and there is plenty that can be done to make this a smoother and more ‘successful’ transition (whatever that means to you). Not least that you don’t have to go through it on your own!
So Rock Your Return re-launches as an online programme of workshops on 25th April. I’m so excited by the huge possibilities, I’m hopeful that, in future, I can encourage employers to pay for this development for their women returners, maybe we can get some funding to make them more accessible to everyone, I’m even dreaming of a time when I have fathers on the workshops too because they are more regularly taking the time out to look after a new baby.
But it starts with one group of women, all determined to rock their return.
All course details can be found here.