Five lessons from my first mat leave return

Lucy Newson

Five lessons from my first mat leave return

When I was getting ready to return to work last year after having my first child, I felt many things - sad about leaving my daughter after a year of maternity leave, excited about being back in the agency I love, curious as to how things had moved on, but mostly pretty daunted.  

I knew pre-baby work life, and I now knew parenting life, but I couldn’t fathom how the two were going to work together.

Despite being in the industry for years, it felt like a complete step into the unknown. How do you go from being in a bubble with your child (filled with nursery rhymes on repeat, nappies and ‘only’ one small person to answer to), to suddenly going back to your work self, having to pitch, present, be a ‘leader’. You’re the same but also completely different, and now having to juggle your role with all the things that come with being a parent.

In the words of an ex-colleague, ‘it’s a bit of a head f**k’.

But there weren’t many people talking about it. Previous colleagues and friends all seemed to have handled it so well (or maybe I wasn’t tuned in enough at the time) and many talked about being excited to get back to work and be their ‘old selves again’. However, the more I spoke to people; fellow parents at work and friends, many did open up and admit how hard they’d found it, how conflicted they’d felt.

So, I decided to write some reflections from my own experience to hopefully help anyone else who is returning to work feel supported and reassured.

1. You don’t need to know everything on day one. You may be putting pressure on yourself to be on your A-Game in your first week back, but no one is expecting that of you. Give yourself time to get up to speed, read, be nosy, spend time with people in the business - new and old - and generally get your head around things. Hopefully you’ll be given the time to do this, if you’re not then I would suggest speaking to your team / line manager about this as part of your return. You’ll probably be thinking about all the things you’ve missed since being away, but one of the benefits of being out of the business for a period of time is that you have fresh perspectives and that can be hugely valuable.

2. Staying in touch helped me. KIT days and how you use them are very personal. I knew I wanted a period of time when I was focused on my daughter and wasn’t thinking about work, but after a while it was really useful to use them to stay connected to the team and business. I used some more formally (e.g. being part of our business planning) and some for more casual catch ups. On reflection I would have used more in the run up to coming back, so I could ease back into the business. I’d recommend having conversations before you go back around what your return and role will look like so you and your employer feel prepared, agree to have a review after a few months so you can both assess how things are working

3. It’s a process. I was so focused on ‘the return’ that I didn’t really factor in that being a working parent is an ongoing process. Yes, that initial return was probably the hardest part emotionally, and it’s why I feel really passionately about making sure that part is handled well. But I think it’s good to be open about the fact that being a working parent is an ongoing juggle - some weeks it will feel like you’re a bit all over the show (nursery bugs don’t account for busy pitch weeks), but other weeks the stars will align, and you’ll feel like you’re smashing it and that will feel like a huge achievement.

4. You’ll be amazed what you can do with less time. There’s nothing like having less time to focus the mind! You can’t just work a bit later because you have to do pick-up, your morning routine is likely to be jam-packed before you even get to work. The positive (in my experience) is you faff less, make quicker decisions and use your time to focus on the things that really matter.  

5. You may be different but that’s a good thing. There’s often an external pressure to ‘go back to how you were’, and appear as if having kids hasn’t impacted you. But the reality for me is that I am different. I have a little human who relies on me, being a mum is part of my identity now and I wouldn’t want it any other way. That doesn’t mean that I’m not ambitious or don’t value my career, but it does mean I need to set boundaries around my time (I’m still a work in progress on this one!). It also gives me a different perspective on things. I understand our clients who are juggling pressured jobs and parenting, and I can share real perspectives with brands who are targeting parents. There’s often a focus on what you’ve missed on your time out of the business, but the reality is you’ve found a whole set of skills you probably didn’t know you had.

This is one perspective, and I’m incredibly lucky to work in an agency that is progressive, supportive and flexible, but also be in a position to shape our working policies and practices. With more parents within our business, and ever-changing needs, we’re creating an updated returnship programme putting into practice some of the things I’ve learnt first-hand (part 2 of this blog will include thoughts on how employers can improve their support for returning parents).

I believe it’s so important to get those first weeks and months when women return right - to make them feel welcome, supported, valued, and motivated, as it can set the tone for the rest of their careers.

Lucy Newson, deputy MD, Alfred