Your first day back to work is creeping inexorably towards you. You’re both excited and relieved after months of nappy changing and childcare.
An inevitable and endless series of questions run on continuous loop through your head: How is this going to work? How will I fit back in? Do I remember everything? Do I remember anything? Have I just been left behind?
I had this conversation with myself on my own return to work after having both of my children. I confess that I didn’t handle it very well, particularly the first time. In fact, I resigned within three months of my return because I felt marginalised, exhausted and like nobody cared. Ultimately, I stayed because I knew my decision was really a cry for recognition and direction.
What I learnt from my experience was that I needed confirmation that I was not giving up time with my child to be with people and an organisation that didn’t care if I was there or not. As one friend and colleague put it – my time away from my child better be worthwhile and valued or it would not be given.
I also learnt the most important and most difficult lesson of all – that, while my life and priorities had changed dramatically, nothing much had changed for my firm or my team in my absence. So although returning to work was a shock for me, for them it was largely just going to be business as usual, with an extra pair of hands to lighten the workload.
So in light of all of that I thought I would share my thoughts and tips for anticipating and coping with the return to work.
Acceptance - getting your head in the right place
First things first, you need to spend some time reflecting on and accepting a number of home truths before you leap into your first day back on the job:
1. You are not exactly the same person you were before having the baby
You will probably respond to people and problems differently and the ‘new you’ may be a shock for the people you work with. Be sensitive to that and allow your colleagues to get used to the change.
2. Your relative lack of freedom
You simply cannot expect to be able to work late nights and weekends or attend every function, impromptu get-together, firm retreat and Friday night drinks. Don’t fight it – it is what it is and going home will seem like Nirvana at the end of each day anyway (you may even get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep).
3. Guilt is a wasted emotion
Of course you feel guilty; about ‘leaving’ your baby and about not being able to work and commit the time that you used to. But you are wasting precious time and effort by indulging in that guilt. You have decided to return to work and you are going to do the absolute best job you can, just in tighter time constraints, so let the guilt go.
4. While you are at work, you must BE at work
Do not sit in your office and spend the time wishing you were somewhere else. It’s not fair to you or your team.
5. Your colleagues may be empathetic but they can't care about your situation as much as you want them to
They are not you, it is not their baby and they have not gone through the experience with you. They will be supportive when your baby is sick and when you have to go early or not come in at all. They do understand that you are exhausted and doing your best. They may get resentful every now and then when you are not available to them or your absence means more work for them. You really don’t have the right to be angry with them for that because they are bearing the burden.
Managing and meeting expectations
Once you have your head in the right space you need to set and manage realistic expectations for yourself and for the people that work with and rely upon you.
Let people know what you can and cannot do within your new time constraints. Do not just return to work and fall into the same work patterns that you had before the baby.
If you make that mistake you will be treated accordingly by your clients and your colleagues, so make sure you set some ground rules from the outset.
1. Initiate a meeting with your partners before you return
Be honest about how and when you would like to work and what you believe you will be able to do in terms of out-of-hours marketing and team support commitments and agree some workable ground rules.
2. Engineer an early team meeting following your return
This gives you a chance to be formally welcomed back, making it clear that your return is a big deal, not just another day in the office. It also allows you to share the return-to-work plan and ground rules that you have agreed with your partners.
If you feel comfortable, share your fears and concerns and involve them by asking for their input or concerns. Remember that they may have their own worries about how you will transition back into the workforce – how it will impact their workloads, client relationships and time management. Your team’s concerns are legitimate and they will appreciate being asked.
3. Contact your old clients
Let them know how you are proposing to manage your time and confirm whether that works for them; also alleviate their concerns about how it might impact their turnaround times and work management.
Having agreed the ground rules and set those expectations, you are the one that is going to have to ensure that they are adhered to. So:
• Do not muddy the waters by committing to things that will mean working on your days off, unless there is genuinely no one else who can take care of it. If you say yes, your colleagues and clients are going to assume you are OK with it. You, however, are likely to start feeling exploited and angry when really you must shoulder some of the blame for not sticking to the rules that you all agreed to.
• If you are going to commit to something that will mean longer hours then don’t do it for free. Negotiate extra pay or, at a minimum, compensation by getting additional childcare costs covered by the firm.
You are not alone
Given that most of us enjoy sharing our experiences of motherhood and are more than happy to share the tips and pitfalls for managing the return to work in your particular firm, don’t be afraid to gain advice from other women in your firm.
Regenerating your practice
Regenerating internal and external trust and relationships is critical in order to generate and get satisfaction out of your work. The great and somewhat irrational fear for a lot of us is that, when we return, our most beloved clients or work will have been allocated elsewhere and will not be given back, or that the client will have moved on.
In those circumstances it is important to remember:
• You have changed. You may not in fact want that work or those clients back. Find out what else is going on and see whether you could try something new before you get bogged down with what you used to do.
• Respect the effort of your colleagues who have been taking care of your work and clients in your absence. Those people could well have invested considerable time and expertise in that work/client to the point where they may not be willing to walk away and that is fair enough. Be sensitive to that and find a way to work through it together.
• Ensure that the industry knows of your return by using your marketing and business development resources to help you spread the word. Do it in a carefully orchestrated manner and within your new time constraints in order to get maximum ‘bang for buck’ before the novelty of your return wears off. Also organise a return-to-work function with key clients and make use of social media.
• See yourself as a lateral recruit. Get excited about the ‘new job’ and ensure that your firm does for you what it would do for any lateral recruit – get shown around, reintroduced, taken to events and to meet with clients.
In a nutshell, if you are going to return to work then be clear, be firm, be organised and do it in good grace or don’t do it at all.
Having the courage to walk away
All of this works on the basis that the people you work with and for are genuinely good, caring people with families and lives of their own; capable of empathising or caring enough for you that they want you to be at work and be happy (or at least content) to be so.
If you have done everything that you can possibly do – managed expectations, tried to rebuild your network and your career, supported your firm and your colleagues in every possible way within your new time constraints – and your colleagues or your firm do not hold up their end of the bargain, or fail to respect your new work priorities, then have the courage to go somewhere where they will.
Kristina McGeehan-Hall is a partner at TressCox Lawyers.
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