Weaning yourself back to work after maternity leave
‘There is a constant worry about how you will balance home and work life’
“Companies can do so much more for their working parents.” Photograph: iStock
Whether you are dreading it or desperate for it, going back to work after maternity leave is never an easy transition. From breastfeeding to baby brain, from child minding to minding your guilt, challenges abound. That’s without taking into consideration the exhaustion, worrying about what some woman call the “5pm workplace walk of shame”, and concern over the impact maternity leave might have on your career.
A UK report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2016 showed that the gender pay gap widens consistently after the birth of a first child, mainly because many women opt for part-time hours and miss out on promotions and wage increments in order to balance family and career. By the time their first child is 12, women will be earning roughly a third less than men, affecting higher qualified women most.
“Companies can vary so much in their support,” explains Aoife Lee of Parent Support. “A big part of my job is going into companies to workshop on parenting topics like supporting relationships with teenagers, and back to work. I’m definitely seeing more inclusion, diversity and wellness being incorporated into company cultures, because they know that when they provide supports, productivity is better. Many recognise that we’ll perform better if our lives are better balanced. But there are many companies that haven’t caught up.”
Companies can do so much more for their working parents
A 2018 international report from PwC, Time to Talk: What Has to Change for Women at Work, shows that 42 per cent women felt nervous about the impact children might have on their careers, 48 per cent said they were overlooked for career advancement because they had children and 37 per cent did not take full maternity leave because of career pressure.
Ireland’s statutory maternity leave is 42 weeks, with 26 weeks of that paid. Last year, New Ireland Assurance found that half of returnees were anxious about going back to work, with just over 25 per cent having had no support from employers prior to returning. “The guilt is massive and no matter how much you know it’s right for you, there is a constant worry about how you will balance home and work life,” explains Lee.
The cost of childcare, which is among the highest in the 36 OECD countries, plays a major role in deciding when and how women are returning to work. A recent Newstalk survey found that the national average monthly cost for a two-year-old in full-time care is €745, a 5.5 per cent increase since 2013 (in Dublin monthly childcare costs were €1,047.49 in 2018). Lee herself left a full-time pensionable job after her second child was born, to set up her own business. “So many women don’t return or try to set up on their own because of the financial cost of childcare. I just couldn’t juggle the job with the kids, and I was working to pay for childcare.”
While Lee has seen a significant increase in company support for women over the six years she has run workshops, there is still a stigma in many places around bringing up issues relating to children in case it looks like they can’t manage the juggle.
“Companies can do so much more for their working parents to create a positive working atmosphere. I’ve been in male-dominated companies and I might have 15 dads round the table, and to see them suddenly have the opportunity to talk about their kids in a relaxed and supported way is interesting. When someone feels relaxed and supported, they’re at their best. But without doubt, women are the parents generally who are the first line of defence, and you do need to be stronger to make sure your needs are met. The more employers put supports in place, the better the workforce will be. Family life cannot be separate from the company culture.”
How to prepare for back to work
- Prepare several weeks beforehand, introducing separation and weaning so everyone is comfortable before you leave for real
- Speak to your line manager in advance, try and negotiate hours that work for you, and talk about what supports are available.
- Make sure you have contingency plans for when the baby or childminder is sick.
- Have that conversation with your partner about how you can work together in terms of drop-offs and pick-ups, housework and emergencies.
Laura Carey-Kleis, 32, is a part-time digital marketing executive from Kildare. She has three children, Mila (6), Jamie (3) and Noah (10 months).
“I went back this week and it’s been an emotional rollercoaster. I had my first two babies in Germany where your job is protected for three years and so Mila was three when I went back to work first and Jamie was a year. There is such a difference between 10 months and 12 months and so it was really challenging leaving Noah. On Sunday night I just sat and cried. I’d only ever been separated from him for three hours his whole life, and I felt real fear as I’m still breastfeeding.
I had intended going back after six months but I just felt neither he nor I were ready. I lasted 15 minutes in the job before I called home to check everyone was okay, but once I’d done that I was actually able to clear my head and focus on the work and I really surprised myself how quickly I got back into it. My boss is a father of three so he’s been very supportive and understanding, and allowed me to plan my return so I could have the week to get Mila started in school. Being a working mum, there is always an itch at the back of your head, and the guilt. We haven’t really got a back-up plan should there be an emergency, but my mum lives nearby so that’s in the back of my mind. My husband is German and has really struggled with the fact that he has had no time to be with Noah when he was born. In Germany, parents can split 14 months of paid leave and so he was able to take time off for both Mila and Jamie. I think he feels a bit robbed this time.
Thankfully my company is happy to support my hours, but realistically I’m not really earning until they are older and I can work more hours because you have to calculate it all out thought to see if it’s worth it, given how much childcare costs. Now this first week is done I feel I can manage it, despite only getting two hours’ sleep last night! The first day back I was so nervous that Noah might have forgotten me, but when I walked through the door, his face lit up with excitement!”