A mother reflects on her journey of going back to the workforce postpartum.
I remember walking back into work after my ﬁrst baby. Over those 10 precious months, my whole world had turned upside down. Everything felt diﬀerent, but eerily, all the same. It seemed everyone else had remained in some kind of time warp. Same conversations, same complaints. Nothing had changed, except me.
You could say I crash-landed into motherhood: difficult birth, unwell baby, autoimmune disease diagnosis. It changed me, inﬁnitely more than I realised at the time. But when I walked back into the office just short of a year later, it was like the whole world had frozen in time.
Most workplaces approach returning to work after maternity leave as if the woman has simply been on an extended holiday somewhere in Bali: rested and ready for the long hours, the commitment, the ambition. The reality is, even if you love your job and can’t wait to ﬁre up your brain juices again, you’re not the same. Nothing is.
Somewhere in my studies sometime ago, I discovered an emerging area of research regarding what happens to a woman when she becomes a mother that ﬁnally explained what I’d been trying to understand for more than a decade: matrescence. Matrescence is the radical identity shift that occurs when we become mothers. The very best way to understand it is to view it in light of another massive life transition: adolescence.
What is matrescence?
Like adolescence, matrescence is a complete transformation: physical, emotional, hormonal, societal, economic, spiritual. Once you enter it, there’s no going back; with the birth of your child, you are reborn. And unless we acknowledge and support women through this transition, we leave new mums feeling like they’re living under a facade; pretending nothing has changed, while hiding the fact that everything has.
3 tips for returning to the workforce after maternity leave
Talk to your employer
Be honest and set boundaries right from the beginning. How many hours can you reasonably commit to? What time do you want to log oﬀ for the day? Just because you can be accessed 24/7, doesn’t mean you have to be.
Organise a meeting with your boss in the lead up to your return and outline your goals for the next few months and the year ahead. If you feel inherently diﬀerent about the role you’re returning to, speak up. It’s much better to set the ground rules before you dive in, than trying to claw them back months into the rigmarole, suﬀering potential burn out. As Samantha Sutherland, a coach and consultant supporting women in the workplace, says: “Don’t hide that you’ve just had a baby. The biggest thing in your life has just happened and if you’re in a workplace that makes you feel like you have to pretend it didn’t, then you’re in the wrong workplace.”
Reflect on your new values
How do you feel about your job now? It’s allowed to change. In fact, if we accept the greater role of matrescence, it’s meant to.
Despite my pre-baby belief that I could still be the foreign correspondent that I’d dreamt of since my early twenties, it wasn’t long into my motherhood reality that this vision began to crack. As did my desire to work unmanageably long hours, ﬁve days a week. But, because my identity was attached to being ‘that woman’ at work, I resisted change. I hung onto busy-ness as a badge for many years, burning myself out in an attempt to prove I was still who I used to be.
When I ﬁnally stopped and asked myself what I really wanted, it wasn’t the corporate ladder. Give yourself the time and space before you return to acknowledge your ambitions and reﬁne your values.
We need to take the mask oﬀ. If we’re going to create change in the way mothers are valued in the workplace, we have to stop pretending that we’ve got it all together. Don’t burn yourself out trying to be the perfect mother at home and the successful go-getter at work. Get help. Speak up. Outsource as much as you can. Demand the same equality in the workplace you would in your home.
No more superwoman mentality here, it’s time we were honest about what it takes to raise a family, and that’s taking care of ourselves ﬁrst.