Seeing a way back after maternity leave
There is lots to think about when returning to work, but preparation will make the transition easier
The initial priority has to be making the separation from the mother as easy as possible for the baby. Photograph: Thinkstock
On a bad day during maternity leave, it’s impossible to imagine that you will ever be able to go back to work. But of course the majority of mothers do – for financial reasons or for the love of their job, or both.
Some skip back, relishing the freedom of not having a baby hanging out of them all day, while others drag themselves in, armed with tissues and waterproof mascara.
Making that transition back to the workplace is not always easy but a supportive employer and understanding colleagues will help, as will your own preparation. So here’s a guide to some issues to consider:
Getting the right childcare is key. Figure out what is going to suit your situation and then allow plenty of time to put it in place “because it can take ages”, warns Ciairín de Buis, chief executive of Start Strong, an organisation that advocates for high-quality early childhood care and education.
No matter what sort of childcare you choose, you need to allow a phase-in time and “depending on the child that may take quite a long time”, she says. “I would have taken four weeks before leaving my son full-time and that worked really well, but I know others didn’t need that time.”
Research suggests that generally children do best when cared for at home for at least the first year. However, the State’s family leave policies don’t support this, she points out, so parents have to make decisions based on reality.
If it’s your first child, it is a good idea to ask friends about their childcare arrangements but, remember, parents tend to be defensive over choices they make for their children. You will hear plenty about what’s good but less about any misgivings they might have.
Think long and hard through the emotional, financial and practical implications for your family of every option available.
“When you are looking at places, everybody has to take affordability into account,” says de Buis, “and quality has to be there as well. That can be more difficult to establish or define for yourself.”
Whether it’s a centre, a childminder or somebody coming into your home, it all comes down to the quality of the relationship between carer and child, she stresses.
Bring a list of questions to ask when visiting a centre or interviewing an individual. Early Childhood Ireland has guidance on its website (earlychildhoodireland.ie) as well as a directory of centres; Childminding Ireland (childminding.ie) advises on what to ask prospective childminders and has a free vacancy-matching service.
You need to work out what you are going to do when illness strikes your child or – if using a childminder, relative or employing somebody in the home – the minder. Children starting centre-based care are prone to pick up every bug going before their immune system strengthens.
Before the need for a plan B arises, you may want to challenge any assumption that one of you is always the person to stay home with a sick child. Maybe that will be what works best but it is something to be considered calmly, rather than argued about while cleaning up a baby’s vomit at 7am.
Some couples make the decision on which job is the higher earner and needs to be protected more, says Relationships Ireland counsellor Bernadette Ryan. “That’s okay provided both feel that is fair.”
Reconnecting with work
There is no obligation to be in contact with your employer during maternity leave but the chances are you have kept in touch, at least informally through friends. However, it is good practice for employers to have a transition plan for mothers coming back.
“There is so much to be gained from engaging with people on their way back – it’s a win-win situation if it is done well,” says Fredericka Sheppard, joint managing director of human resources consultancy Voltedge.
“It is a time when employers can lose their good people and I think if it is managed effectively and sensitively, retention can be very successful – even if the person decides they don’t want to come back full-time.”
A transition plan should start before the woman goes on leave, she suggests, involving her in decisions on how her work is going to be handled when she’s out. A “buddy system” to channel communications between the woman and the workplace during her leave is also recommended.
Sheppard would encourage employers to see how positive flexibility can be for everyone, and that initiatives such as coming back to shorter working weeks initially can be a “soft landing” for everybody and ensure there is an effective handover.
Breastfeeding mothers often think they will have to wean their babies before they go back but they don’t, says midwife and breastfeeding consultant Clare Boyle. Managing the change in feeding patterns is not as complicated as it may seem because the mother’s milk supply will adjust and babies are flexible.
Boyle, who is based in Co Cork, believes that continuing it can help both mother and baby with her return to work, as it is a nice way to reconnect at the end of the day.
“The other side of it is that babies will often feed a lot at night,” she acknowledges. They are also seeking “touch time” after being apart.
She recommends that two or three weeks before a woman is due back, she should start mimicking her new routine. She may want to express if she wants her baby to continue to drink only breast milk, and the baby needs to get used to taking this from a bottle or a sippy cup.
The right to take breaks at work for breastfeeding (or pumping) applies only where babies are less than six months old and most women are not back at that stage.
During maternity leave, women do most of the baby care and much of the domestic work that goes with it, so there’s going to be a major upheaval on the home front when it’s over.
The initial priority has to be making the separation from the mother as easy as possible for the baby, says Ryan. The partner needs to support the mother in doing this and help smooth her return to the workplace.
She advises couples to sit down and make a list of day-to-day tasks, prioritising what’s important to them as a family. The mother has to be realistic about what support she requires from her partner – he is not going to be able to read her mind – and to do that, she has to know her own needs.
The key thing, Ryan adds, is for the woman to be careful not to take on too much because she will get stuck with it.