Last week I read an article where the Radio 5 Live presenter Emma Barnett was very honest about her experience of maternity leave. She had found it a difficult and isolating time compounded by the fact that it didn’t seem ok to say this.
It struck a chord with me. Nearly 9 years ago I was due to start my first maternity leave at Christmas. It was exciting and daunting. Much of my attention was focused on the birth and not really the period afterward. I remember one of my best friends who had recently been through it said she felt she had been doing well if she managed to get dressed by lunchtime. Internally I thought that won’t be me. I’ll get lots of stuff done with my time and relish the time with my new baby.
Reality collides with expectation.
The reality was I found it hard, especially for the first 6 months and the experience reminded me of two things:
Firstly, I was starting a new ‘job’ where I had very little training or experience with a new boss who was very demanding and couldn’t tell me what they really wanted. As someone who enjoys a sense of achievement, getting things ticked off the list, it was challenging to realise my friend was right. I had to relinquish some control and I found that difficult.
Secondly, it felt like I was back at University having to make friends again. We had moved to a small town a year previously and I didn’t know anyone locally, I felt lonely. Pre-children we spent our weekends visiting family and friends or with them staying with us. Suddenly, at a time when I was not feeling at my best, I had to go out to meet new people.
As well as sleep, I missed the easy company of people who knew me, I missed having a job, being ‘good’ at something and I missed my professional identity. All of that felt very selfish when I had been blessed with a healthy baby to care for. It was a massive life transition.
I can’t help but link this back to the work I do now supporting working parents before, during and after they go on leave. Virginia, the founder, and CEO of How Do You Do It, always says that she designed the programme she wishes she had when her she was taking leave and I can’t agree more. I didn’t have any formal support at work and I muddled my way through my first leave making mistakes along the way.
For first time parents, we can’t predict how they are going to find their leave. However, we can discuss with them what can help based on our experience of working with thousands of working parents. I would highlight 3 things, all interconnected:
You are not alone.
Know you are not alone. Simply by writing this and being honest about how I felt I hope that provides some comfort to someone who is finding their leave tricky. Over time, once I had been brave, I did find a group of local mums. In the organisations we work with that hold pre-maternity sessions there is also a chance to meet other mothers to be at work who can also be a good contact point during leave. It may be tricky to physically meet but a WhatsApp message from another person in the same situation can be very helpful and maintain that connection to work which I missed.
Aside from building your support network at home and work, one area that I feel has changed a lot since my leave 9 years ago is the places where support is available. For example, there are some great Facebook groups and bloggers where the level of honest conversation around parenting and work can be had.
Maintain contact with work.
I used one Keep in Touch (KIT) day in 12 months. It was hugely beneficial to me and with hindsight, I should have used more. Emma Barnett said the same in her article. They can be used for a wide range of topics from catching up on emails, getting training up to date, planning your return, attending company events etc. etc. For me, it gave me a day of my work identity back, got me through some nerves about returning whilst my daughter settled in at nursery and meant my first day back properly felt more productive. Clearly, a paid day of work when my maternity pay had also finished was useful too! We are proud that at our client Deloitte the use of KIT days has risen by a third since we started promoting them as they are a powerful (and paid) tool to help support your return to work.
So, are you enjoying your maternity leave? I hope in reading this blog you realise you would not be alone in answering ‘no’ to this question. Be kind to yourself, find support in whatever form works for you and use those KIT days!