Features / International Women's Day

More anxious, more focused and much more tired: returning to work after maternity leave

As I write this, my daughter is asleep in her cot. Apparently there are people who write entire books on their maternity leave, which I’m now eight months into. Those people’s babies must nap longer than half an hour, because I’ll be lucky to finish this article, especially since our nights are still an exhausting scattergun of two-to-three-hour sleep stints meaning my sentences take a little longer to form. So my book will have to wait. In the meantime I’m lapping up the last few months being a full-time mum. It’s gone quickly (and painfully slowly at times), but now returning to work is on the horizon, and with it comes a tidal wave of emotions including excitement, trepidation and guilt.

I always wondered how I’d feel about coming back. I’d heard stories about how it changes you – like coming back from a bizarre gap year and feeling like a totally different person. People told me the things that once consumed your mind became insignificant, and your priorities were realigned. Last year I wrote about my worries going into motherhood, and how it would affect my career. I guess what’s most surprising with hindsight is how my feelings haven’t really changed. I always thought women transformed into mothers and were no longer the same person. I’m the same person, only with more to worry about and less time to figure out how to do anything about it.

Being a mum hasn’t affected my tastes, for the most part. I’m still design obsessed, and balk at the aesthetic decisions behind most baby miscellany. We spent way too long debating which colour combination of buggy chassis and hood to go for, browsing the internet for overpriced Scandinavian high chairs, and searching for places to buy Bauhaus-esque wooden toys. Eight months in, and the mid-century furniture in our living room is now visually and sonically drowned out by a cacophony of primary-coloured plastic monstrosities, singing and flashing like a miniature arcade. But if it buys me ten minutes to get dressed/look at Instagram, then it’s a beautiful piece of design.

When I think back on my maternity leave it’s rose-tinted, and most of it has been pure joy to see my little one grow and learn how to do, well, everything. I have to remind myself that it’s also been the most difficult and exhausting experience of my life, and promises to stay that way for at least another 20 years. Some days when I’m listening to the shrieks emerging from a grumpy, nap-imminent baby, I can’t wait to get back to work. To re-engage that part of my brain again. To use the perspective and focus I’ve gained in the time away. To chat to grown-ups without also maintaining a puppet show or aiming orange mush into my baby’s mouth. To make a cup of tea when I want a cup of tea, and not have to microwave it an hour later. Simultaneously I worry those synapses might have rusted; that my Instagram algorithm has diverged too far into baby-land to discover anything cool ever again; that when I get there, I’m just going to miss her, and feel bad for deserting her, and bore everyone with baby photos.

There’s also the practical aspects. I live in a family-friendly suburb of London and getting a place in a nursery is like getting a ticket to Glastonbury. Some have two-year waiting lists, so you need to be on the list before you’re even pregnant. Then, once you’re in, it costs a fair chunk of a design journalist’s wage. Now you have somewhere to put them, but do you want to leave them there for a whole working day? It feels long and tiring to me, never mind a one-year-old who’s used to dinner at 5, bath at 6, bed at 7, which in a previous life was when I got home from work, or arrived at a private view. It’ll be good for her social skills, but will she get the attention she needs? Ultimately it’s important for me to go back to the job I love, and for Maya to have a mum with a career, but I’m still evaluating the logistics. Trying to balance what’s best for my daughter and our family, I see a constant juggling act. I’m sure we’ll make it work just like millions of others, but to help, I’ve asked a few mums from the creative industry to share their wisdom.

Donna-wilson_mother-nature-and-blue-cat-mini-trays_product-design_motherhood_internationalwomensday_itsnicethat

Donna Wilson, product designer

I was 35 when I had my first son. My business was established and I used to spend all my spare time working, which I loved. I remember thinking that once I had the baby he would lie there asleep in his Moses basket and I’d carry on working exactly the same as I did before.

The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. As soon as this little person was in the world I felt all these extraordinary emotions: protection, responsibility, love, and GUILT. The first year of his life I felt extremely guilty leaving him and at the same time felt extremely guilty about neglecting work. The pressure was intense and I felt like I wasn’t doing a great job of being a mum or running a business.

Then after a year I managed to settle into my new-found responsibility and made the decision to stop feeling guilty and only do what I can do. It was a breakthrough and I am far less hard on myself now. Parenthood has helped me put things into perspective and now I don’t get as stressed with problems at work. It’s certainly given me a much healthier work/life balance.

Emma Davenport, head of integrated production at Mother

Maternity leave is a funny old time. You go from dedicating so much of your life to work, to being responsible for keeping a small human alive, who for a good portion of your leave gives little back and doesn’t have the best chat. It’s a shift to say the least and with it comes uncertainty and self-doubt, not only about how you’ll adjust back in to the working world but also juggle your new mum role and the aching responsibility you feel for your child when you do.

If there’s one thing I learned when I returned to work it’s to be unapologetic about the juggle, if you fight this it will drown you. It’s OK for your baby to be in childcare, in fact they often thrive in that environment. But also, be unapologetic at work. Yes, you need to leave work early to go and pick up your baby, but it’s amazing how that daily deadline motivates you to work hard and fast during the day, and you know that when bath time is done you’re back online making up for any lost time. I wear my motherhood and my commitment to that like a badge of honour and, if anything, I think it only makes me better at what I do at work.

Templo_anoushka-rodda_activism-tool_graphic-design_motherhood_internationalwomensday_itsnicethat

Anoushka Rodda, managing director at Templo

Approaching my second maternity leave, I’m grateful to be running my own business and in control of what my return to work looks like, but even so I’ve learned some hard lessons along the way:

Acceptance: Work/life balance is a total myth. It’s added pressure that makes you believe that you can do it all, when in reality you can’t. Some days you’ll be better at motherhood and others you will smash it at your job. Once in a blue moon you might ace both, but more likely than not the next day you will be at home giving Calpol to your sick child with one hand while frantically trying to join a client Webex with the other.

Flexibility: There is literally no way to do this if you don’t have flexible working. As soon as you feel able to share your pregnancy with your employers, have a clear idea of what you would like your working week to look like and ask for it. This might be working from home a few days a week, part-time, shorter days or even full-time, but be upfront.

Know your worth: There is nothing more efficient than a working mum and employers, especially those in the creative industry, need to realise that. When you know you have to run out of the door, no matter what, at the end of the day, you’re so much sharper and more decisive. Your day will look different to your 20-something colleagues, but it doesn’t mean you’re not working as hard.

Be organised: Put everything in your digital calendar, set alarms and get everyone’s bag packed/outfit/lunch sorted the night before. Baby brain is real and the only way to function at work is by using every organisational tool Silicon Valley has invented.

Sophie-ebrard_commissioned-by-rebecca-mcclelland-at-saatchi-and-saatchi-for-hsbc_photography_motherhood_internationalwomensday_itsnicethat

Photography by Sophie Ebrard

Rebecca McClelland, head of photography for Saatchi and Saatchi and Prodigious UK

My mantra is that life is a marathon, not a sprint, which I use to maintain a balance between family life and work. On returning back to work after my second child I learned to accept the “opportunity cost” of choosing family life over a 360 creative career. My industry rotates on an endless spin of extra-curricular invites, private views, festivals and awards, but what has been really helpful is to realise that I simply can’t do it all anymore. I place importance on being able to read my children a bedtime story or be with them on the weekend, so other creative opportunities are placed on hold. As a long-term strategy, it’s actually worked out for the best because I am far more channelled and selective with where I place my time.

Work has been made more enjoyable by the strong support I have from my team, the majority of whom are working parents. As well as brainstorming on creative productions for advertising campaigns, we share ideas on parenting and laugh at the bonkers situations we find ourselves in, at the mercy of the little despots in our lives. I aim to cultivate an even playing field where there is an understanding of the hard work we are all facing as parents. We don’t pretend that we aren’t having an issue at home just because we are in an office; we do keep the conversation contained, but I ask for empathy and an open discourse in our spare time. Seeking out other parents in your offices in this way is a lifesaver.

Unfortunately, as the national position on maternal leave is still very much lagging behind progressive thought, working mothers need to know their maternity rights. Empower yourself with as much knowledge as possible about flexible working and your rights, not only for your own peace of mind, but also to help your employers navigate best practise.

Astrid-stavro_elephant-magazine_graphic-design_motherhood_internationalwomensday_itsnicethat

Astrid Stavro, partner at Pentagram

Since having our son, my advice for young parents has always been to prepare as much as you can. The reality is that nothing can really prepare you to be a parent, it’s something that you have to learn as you go but still, trying to prepare as much as possible is worth it.

Our son was born a month early which we weren’t expecting, but it’s important to remember that anything can, in fact, happen at any time. Whatever your circumstances, having a baby requires flexibility and the capacity to adapt to new situations and unexpected scenarios.

Maternity and paternity leave are abstract concepts when you are running your own studio, which both my partner and I were doing. If having kids is a wonderful challenge, having them when you are self-employed is more so. But maternity and paternity leave should be equal. We complain about the lack of women in influential positions, yet when it comes to babies, it’s surprising how people still see mothers as somehow different to fathers. Like men, women should have the right to choose how and what they want to do with their careers. Fathers and mothers should be parents equally, from changing nappies to deciding who stays home and why.

I took five months out of my studio and when I was ready to go back to work it felt great, business as usual. My studio suffered from my absence but after a few months we were at full speed again. 12 years down the line I would do it all over again. And with more babies!

Illustrations by Sara Andreasson.