Becoming a parent is often a life changing experience.
It can be one of life’s most profound transitions. In my work as an Executive and Maternity Coach I have found it’s a transition that many mothers, including myself, were ill prepared for.
Becoming a mother is what I would call a vertical development experience. For most people their careers will have focussed mainly on horizontal development. We have probably added more knowledge, skills and competencies to the way in which we do things. Horizontal development is where we grow and develop incrementally. Vertical development is a much more transformational experience and involves a change in mindset, identity and sometimes values.
The Centre for Creative Leadership shares that one of the conditions of vertical development is what they call ‘heat experiences’. A heat experience is when a leader faces a complex situation that disrupts and disorients their habitual way of thinking. They discover that their current way of making sense of the world is inadequate. Their mind starts to open and search for new and better ways to make sense of their challenge. All of which can describe the experience of motherhood – I know that was the case for me.
When the time comes to return to work after maternity leave this often creates another vertical development experience. The uncertainty of how to recalibrate our relationship between our work and life outside. The complexity of balancing the seemingly competing demands of motherhood and work. This is the time for most working mums when new fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities surface. It’s a time when we need to feel resourced to deal with this new life-changing reality.
Here are four key strategies which can help support you during this critical time. Helping you navigate the transition back to work in a way that support your career and your life.
Power your resource network
If not carefully planned and thought through, returning to work after maternity leave can feel like an isolating experience. It can leave us feeling under-resourced. Perhaps feeing like we don’t have the support or capability to deal with the perceived challenge of transitioning back to the workplace.
It can be really useful to get clear on the resources that we do have to support us. These might be our internal resources; our skills, our experience our personal qualities. Perhaps it’s reminding ourselves of our resilience, our courage, our creativity. Reconnecting with our inner resources, even if we don’t feel that we have access to them in that moment, can help us to acknowledge what we are capable of.
Reflecting on the external resources available to us is critical. Often we discount or overlook all of the different people, tools and information that we have access to. This might be considering how we leverage our relationships with people such as our line manager, work colleagues and HR business partner.
Maybe it’s finding an internal mentor, external mentor or executive coach that can support our transition. Perhaps it’s finding a ‘returning to work’ online programme that can walk us through this process.
Spending time reflecting on our resource network can in itself leave us feeling more resourced. Having a conscious plan that sets out how we intend to reconnect and build upon our resource network can be hugely beneficial.
Build your support team
In my experience working with achievement orientated women (and being one) is that we often build our success on being strong and independent. So recognising we might need support is sometimes difficult and asking for help is even more difficult.
This can leave working mums feeing isolated and that they have to shoulder the challenge of their situation alone.
The so-called ‘double-burden’ of work and motherhood can feel overwhelming. So in preparing to return to work it can be useful to over estimate the support you might need, especially in the first few months. Think through what support might be useful at home as research indicates that women still do more work in the home than men.
As the Lean In report on Women in the Workplace 2017 published by McKinsey & Company states:
“Women with a partner and children are 5.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to do all or most of the household work. And even when women are primary breadwinners, they do more work at home. Women who bring in more than 50 percent of their family income are 3.5 times more likely to do all or most of the household work than men in the same situation.”
Is it having someone do your cleaning, ironing, gardening, cooking? Is it asking your partner to pick up more of the household tasks? Be honest with yourself about what would help and get comfortable asking for that help.
Have your trusted inner circle
Speak to any mum and you find that we all experience guilt in some way shape or form. I once heard someone say that when a woman gives birth they push mother’s guilt back in place of the placenta! Add into the mix being a working mum, then guilt takes on a whole new level for us.
“I think while all mothers deal with feelings of guilt, working mothers are plagued by guilt on steroids!”
Let’s face it mother’s guilt is so pervasive that we presume that it is just part of being a mum. And often we can’t see all the ways in which we are triggered into guilt because we literally swim in the stuff all day.
As guilt hangs around motherhood so much, it’s important for us to practice guilt resilience. The best way to practice guilt resilience is to have people in your life who help you to feel safe and comfortable enough to share your guilt. Often just sharing our vulnerability reduces it. Knowing we’re not alone can be freeing. By finding people with whom we can share our guilt we prevent the insidious force taking power in our lives.
So having a space where we can show up and feel safe and secure in being ourselves and sharing is important, Take time to build your trusted inner circle of people that you can do this with. Make the time to meet up with them for coffee, lunch or dinner knowing this is a necessity and not an indulgence.
Focus on what matters most
Whilst it’s true that we are lucky to have the opportunities that previous generations didn’t, this isn’t without its challenges. If we take full advantage of being able to have it all, it can leave us feeling overwhelmed by trying to do it all.
Taking care of our kids. Taking care of our homes. Being amazing at work. Running a thriving business. Making really good money. Giving back. Showing up for our friends and family. Making organic home cooked food. Practicing self care. And the list goes on.
Many of the high achieving women I work with hold high expectations of themselves. These high self ideals have often helped them achieve great success in their careers. However when we combine motherhood with these high ideals it can trip us up. These unreasonable beliefs, standards and expectations can lead to overwhelm and burnout.
Before children we might have succeeded by working harder and putting in more hours. This isn’t a sustainable option once we have children. And if we do try it, we soon learn that it can backfire; leading to exhaustion (if we weren’t already), disengagement and sickness.
So it’s really important to get clear on what is most important. Challenge yourself on this. Are you holding onto unhelpful standards and expectations about yourself and about being a working parent? How appropriate, reasonable and helpful are your expectations? Get clear on what your non-negotiables are. Find ways to let go of everything else. Because if you don’t take stuff off your plate you won’t find the time for the things that really matter.
Returning from maternity leave is one of the most underestimated challenges in our careers. Having a plan, strategy and resources to support this transition is vital to ensure that we feel supported to navigate the challenges and opportunities this presents us as working mums. There is no one way to navigate this. Each mother will require different levels of support and will find different ways in which to obtain the support. The key is to be proactive and feel empowered to discover what is right for you.
About the author
Nicky Lowe founder of Wisdom For Working Mums is a qualified and accredited Executive Coach who is an advocate for achievement orientated, motivated, ambitious women who also want to be amazing mums. She is invited by some of the world’s biggest organisations to support their leaders. Many of these are working mums. She has contributed to the book “Mentoring for Working Parents” based on her experience. As a busy working mum (with another child on the way) she knows only too well the challenges of combing motherhood with the work that fulfils her. Prior to becoming a coach Nicky had a successful corporate career in in the IT industry managing global teams and has first-hand experience of working in face-paced demanding environments whilst delivering on aggressive targets.