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Important advice for mothers contemplating returning to the workforce

There’s no escaping the fact that new mothers returning to work is a tricky topic.

Tricky or not, one thing’s certain: with more women in paid work than ever before, it’s no longer considered unusual to return to your job post-baby. And now that women outnumber men in the junior ranks of many professions, transitioning women back into the workforce is a hot topic for employers and employees alike.

So why do new mothers choose to re-enter the workforce? What practical strategies can you deploy to ease your transition? And what can you do if it all goes pear-shaped?

The primary drivers underpinning women returning to work are very simple: to alleviate financial pressures; to pursue career goals; or both. Professional women are often perceived to place weight on the latter consideration, attracting both admiration and criticism in the process.

But the tide may be turning in favour of working mothers. In fact, a recent UK report has put a decidedly positive spin on mothers returning to work.

The Millennium Cohort Study looked at the issue of maternal employment by following the lives of 15,000 children born in 2000/2001 from birth to 12 years old. It found that mothers in paid work are less likely to be depressed than those who are not. Contrary to previous findings, it didn’t find any evidence that a mother working in her child’s first year of life had a detrimental long-term effect on the child.

What’s more, the study concluded that children are actually happiest when both their mother and father are working. Since its release, this research has been widely cited as a reason for working mothers to breathe a little easier. But even with that statistical clout, it’s still an emotionally-charged decision for any new mum to make.

So how can you make sure that a return to work is right for you? At the outset, one thing that you shouldn’t be factoring in is what your friends and colleagues are doing. Although it seems obvious, your starting point must be an objective assessment of your own specific family matrix; not what works for other people.

Are you in a relationship, or a single parent? If you’re in a relationship, what are the demands on your partner’s time? Is the role that you’re contemplating realistic given your partner’s career commitments? If you’re a single mum, how supportive is your child’s other parent? Do you have a wider network of family and friends that you can draw on?

I know how tough a call it is to make.I am lucky enough to have a supportive husband, a wonderful mother who nannies for us, and the resources to have help on the home front. All these factors combine to facilitate me working. But even with that considerable support, whether to return to my career was still a difficult decision. A clinical look at the realities of our family’s finances, and my own needs, made the choice clear. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that my profession went some way to validating me intellectually to the outside world – and I knew enough about myself to know that I couldn’t disregard that factor.

At the end of the day, it’s ultimately a decision that only you can make But if you do decide to return to your career, there are a few things that you can do to ease your transition.

Before you come back

1) Keep in touch. Returning to work is far less daunting if you’ve kept a cursory eye on what’s happening in your workplace and with your colleagues (both professionally and personally). Work is, after all, just another forum for developing relationships with others. If those relationships are strong, you’ll be more likely to subconsciously derive a sense of security from them in those unsettling first few weeks back on board.

2) Ask a former colleague to bring you up to speed with recent developments. This will not only provide you with some much-needed information from the coalface, but will also signal (to both yourself and others) that you’re keen and eager to get back into it.

3) Be clear about how you will make it work from day one. Before coming back, have a frank conversation with the powers-that-be about what can and can’t be expected of you. Sure, you don’t have a crystal ball, and you won’t know exactly how things are going to pan out. But if you go in with a clear plan about how you think things could work, then you’ll at least have a roadmap.

4) Emphasise your flexibility and your willingness to compromise. If you sense that a proposal is being met with resistance, suggest a three-month trial. It will be incumbent on you to make that work during that period, of course, but chances are that any fears that anyone may have had about it not working will be allayed when they see the plan in action. Present solutions to make it easy for your employer to say yes to how you want things to work.

When you return to work

1) Recognise that your life has changed. You can’t expect to go back in and do what you always have done, because life is just different now. The trick to making it work is embracing that fact rather than trying to fudge it.

2) Have faith in your experience. Being effective and efficient is not about knowing every nuance of every matter that comes across your desk; it’s about being alert to issues and knowing when it’s appropriate to raise them. It’s about communicating difficult concepts clearly and articulating yourself in a clear manner. And it’s ultimately a complex skill gleaned from many hard years of experience. Even if you wanted motherhood to knock all of that out of you, you couldn’t. Take comfort in that thought when a crisis of confidence is threatening to loom.

3) And if it all goes pear-shaped? Change it so it works! There’s nothing stopping you from altering your course. Take responsibility for your happiness at work and at home, and choose to do what makes you – and your family – happy.

What did you decide to do, and why? What factors influenced your decision? And what do you think is crucial to maintaining happiness at work and home? Let us know below.

Julia Batchelor-Smith is a lawyer and mother of two-year-old Allegra. She writes a column examining the issues facing professional women juggling motherhood and their careers in NZ Lawyer Magazine and also provides tips for making it work in her blog.

The original version of this article was published in NZ Lawyer Magazine.

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