A brilliant guest blog post by Camilla Hill on returning to work post maternity leave…
On Monday I will return to work following my second maternity leave. I would love to breeze through the doors looking confident and stylish, swinging an empty briefcase ready to get stuck straight back in while the team greet me with a standing ovation, a sigh of relief and a welcome back cappuccino.
In reality though I am nervous, lack confidence and have zero to wear. I feel as though my finger is so far away from the pulse that I can’t even be sure if I am even pressing on skin. I don’t even recognise the team and people see me as just a middle aged mother of two. And the horrible truth – they’re bloody right.
For the last two weeks I have mentally been working up a timetable that ensures I get both children dressed, fed, cuddled and ready for nursery by 7.25am. I am weary from a full on year of looking after the two of them but heartbroken and guilty because I’m leaving them behind.
I’ve done this once before so why is it harder this time round? People can’t wait to tell you about what having a second child is like (you’ll feel more relaxed, the children will have totally different personalities, you’ll never fill in child number two’s baby book) but no one ever mentions that when you go back to work for a second time you will also feel totally different.
It was all so simple with one. I came back to work and had a very pliant pre-schooler placed at the local nursery. I still had time to do things like exercise, get my eyebrows threaded and take a jacket to the dry cleaners. When I came back to work the first time, if I’m honest, I did feel part of a slightly smug mother’s club. We patted ourselves in the back for having survived the entry into motherhood while still bothering to have a career.
And on days when it was tough, when the baby was ill and up all night or when the boss bawled me out for something that wasn’t my fault, I had in the back of my mind back my get out of jail free card that I was going to have another baby and another maternity leave, another year “off”.
But with two children everything is a whole different bag of bones. And it’s not just double the guilt and double the childcare costs. Something more is going on. I feel more disconnected from the workplace. Maybe it’s because with two children you are at the cold face of parenting. It’s not just an extra baby with a bit of feeding, weaning and chucking some scoops of Aptamil in a bottle. This year I have been potty training, teaching, disciplining, explaining and playing. I have been swimming, jumping, fruit picking, baking and planting. I have cooked over 300 hot meals for my children. We have play dates, parties and trips to the farm. We have four passports and a Wendy house.
But everything at work has changed too. On a recent “Keep in Touch” day I discover the people I was closest to have moved on to other jobs. I don’t know the new faces or feel part of a team. Somewhere along the way I lost my footing and now I feel like the awkward work experience girl shifting around looking for something to do, somewhere to sit, someone to talk to while everyone around me is seemingly so busy, talking in a new kind of staccato, aggressive font while I’m distracted by sucking subconscious thoughts of Peppa and potties and stickers and gentle stories at bedtime. I thought having a second child was supposed to turn my world upside down, but that didn’t feel like much of a challenge compared to finding my swivel chair back on the work jungle gym.
The week before you return to work from maternity leave with your first child is filled with dizzying highs and terrifying lows. Going back a second time seems even harder and it’s not just double the guilt. I feel more disconnected from the workplace and don’t even recognise the team. I am nervous, lack confidence and have zero to wear. I am like the friend of a friend’s fifteen year old daughter put on work experience with no clue what to say, where to sit, what to do – except I don’t have youth on my side.
But, I’m fighting back. I haven’t worked for this long and for this hard just to quit. I’m going to return and show them what they’ve been missing. And if, like me, you are too old to be young, but not ready to be farmed out for glue here’s how to make the perfect Mumback.
1. Look the part
It would be great if I could tell you that this is all a matter of old fashioned roll your sleeves up hard work, a splash of networking and a dollop of office politics. Phooey. People will be judging you on how fat you are, on how well put together you are and how far behind you’ve left the souring breast milk pooling in your bra and blackened mashed banana up your sleeve. This might be something of a mug of water chucked on the feminist fire but you will probably feel better for it anyway. I’m not going to tell anyone what to wear, as only you know that, but I will say don’t bother going really fashionable and don’t bother digging out all the clothes before you had children; that knitted dress from Oasis never looked that good even then. Start afresh with lots of basic items, a decent jacket and some show stopping pieces like a fuck off big necklace. You can certainly treat yourself to a couple of grown up (i.e. expensive) items, otherwise what’s the point of returning to work in the first place?
I would also add a little personal grooming; a new haircut, nails and manicure. I’m not saying all over body wax, unless you are a dancer in a place called something like Sophisticats, in which case OK then, and bravo for finding childcare that will cover your shifts.
2. Make the most of your new found skills
Looking after two children for a year is no mean feat. Core competences for the role include communication, problem solving, multi-tasking, strategising, creativity and pretending to listen/ignore to lovely/frustrating little people in equal measure. Essentially the same skills required for your job.
Given I am able to cook a nutritious meal for two small children, using only a toaster and a microwave while also completing a jigsaw, paying peekaboo and emptying the dishwasher, I can certainly knock up a business plan in the time it takes someone to set up the flip chart and locate a working felt tip pen.
Negotiating with a small child has the hall marks of the most sophisticated of mediators. I can’t help but think that when the allies were preparing for the Potsdam Conference they put paid to traditional diplomats’ training and instead prepared by looking after a tired toddler for a week with no access to Cbeebies.
These skills are invaluable in the workplace. Mothers admittedly do have the habit of downing tools at 1730 hours in the dot to go and collect children, but I bet they are the most efficient, controlled and professional of employees while at work.
As someone who used to wake at 8.20am, hungover, with no clean tights or pants with a 9am meeting in west London, this is not an area of strength for me. The big secret is that it’s all in the evening planning. I see the paradigm thus; if something takes one minute the night before, it will take 10 minutes the morning after. This seems to apply to everything; finding clothes, keys, writing a £3 cheque for a toddler’s nursery outing, having an argument with your husband. Everything. Do it the night before.
You should also make a list of who is on your team. They are your enablers and you must use them. My team consists of my mum, my mother in law, my cleaning lady, Staff at the nursery, the Ocado app, Peso from The Octonauts. You’ll notice I didn’t say my husband. Given he’s an actual parent he doesn’t get a name check. He also doesn’t know how to work the washing machine so he’s no use to me.
4. Take Part
The executive N word; networking. This is never going to be popular but you need to pour some energy into coffees, lunches and chatting to people at the water cooler. You’ve just spent the last year discussing cracked nipples, poo and your sex life with women you barely know over a latte in soft play, so what’s the difference?
Move away from doing personal admin in your swivel chair and get out there and let the office know you’re back. Think about what you would say to your children if they were in a room of people they didn’t know at school or at a party – you would nudge them forward and tell them to go and say “hello” knowing that most people are nice and only as human as the rest of us and that by building up a network whether social or at work, you are more likely to get things done and have fun.
5. Believe in your own fabulousness
I don’t for a second mean that you have to be fabulous. It’s exhausting to have to pretend to be on top of your shit every hour of every day with a sensational wardrobe, pretty little well behaved children, hosting successful dinner parties while you also learn Mandarin. That’s what Gwyneth Paltrow has been set on this planet to do, and I think it’s good to know that one human being has got that weird niche covered. For the rest of us just saying that we tried and that we worked hard is enough. Being fabulous is about doing the shit you are already doing even if that’s just getting up, being nice to people, watching telly and ringing your mum. Your life doesn’t need to be the montage from Legally Blonde. Your own fabulousness is already obvious to everyone.
Camilla Hill works in the marketing team at Disney and writes a blog Word to Your Mummy
Originally featured on Selfish Mother – A blogzine for brilliant humans