Before your child arrives, you may have a clear idea of how much maternity, adoption or shared parental leave you are going to take (and even agree a return date before you go on leave) and then find your feelings change. This happens, it's normal and giving your employer as much notice as you can about your desired return date is helpful to everyone. Many of those who have taken maternity and adoption leave advocate setting a date and sticking to it to give everyone clarity and make the return easier. The law requires that people on maternity or adoption leave give their employer at least eight weeks’ notice of a change to their return date.
"The key for me was sticking (as closely as I could) to the return to work date that I had discussed with my employer prior to going off. I appreciate that legally your employer is not entitled to pressure you on this but I took the view that they are ultimately running a business and need to know what resource is available to them and when. I believe that this showed them commitment from me and that I was taking my return to work seriously."
Views differ on how early it’s best to organise childcare. Some parents do it before their baby is born, others trust that they’ll discover the right care later on (and are prepared to use a temporary work around, if need be, until a place on all the days you need becomes available with your childcare provider of choice). Whichever route you take, organise a settling-in phase where your baby gets used to being in that environment/with that person, and without you. This minimises upset later on as well as giving you some time to do other preparation for your return to work.
"I had trialled my childcare arrangements for an extended period so was confident that my children were settled. I eased myself in using accrued holidays. I also co-ordinated with my husband and grandparents so that I was not the first point of contact if there was an issue with my children on my return. I felt it was important to show that, although I was proposing part-time working, I was 100% committed to work on my working days and would not be primarily responsible on those days in the event of inevitable illnesses that come with nursery."
"I was let down by my childcare provider immediately prior to my return first time around and had a mad panic to find and put childcare in place for my return. You need to look at the various childcare options in your area well in advance and before your child is born in many cases. There are many different types of care available and you need to find the option that works best for you and your family. My second child was booked into nursery the day of my first ultrasound scan and, as such, I had a far smoother return to work second time around. Most importantly you need to be happy with your childcare arrangements as this then allows you to focus your thoughts on work."
"Have a back-up plan (partner, grandparent, the technology to work from home) in the event that your baby is too ill to go to nursery - no one tells you how often babies and young children are ill when they first start nursery!"
Making back-up plans is important because children are often unwell just at the time you’re returning to work. It’s an idea to have your partner take responsibility for drops and pick-ups in your first few days and have him/her on standby to stay at home if your baby is ill when you start back.
"In hindsight I'd have planned back-up childcare better. I would have collected more childminding contacts and asked them to babysit a couple of times so that, if I needed someone to look after my child in an emergency (eg ill childminder), they would know where our house was and my child would be comfortable."
"Make sure you have your childcare sorted out and have some practice days of getting your child to nursery/childcare at the time you will need to do so once you are back at work and have at least one dry run of then getting in to work for your start time. Make sure you have contingency arrangements in place for the first month as, in my experience, babies are always ill when they first start at nursery and you really don't want to be telling your boss in the first few weeks that you need time off."
Look ahead to when you're due to start back and how that might affect breastfeeding and weaning routines. If you intend to continue breastfeeding and you can foresee that you will need to take breaks at work to express and store milk, think about how and when you will discuss it with your employer (see resources section for more on this).
"For two months, when my daughter was ten months – 12 months, the carer who was looking after her brought her to me at lunchtime so I could continue to breastfeed. This worked really well as it was summer. My work arranged a room where I could take her if I wanted to. It was great. I might have asked to work from home one day a week or something so I could do a longer day and spend time with her during the day a bit. But as it was a new position, I was not familiar enough with the workload to be able to anticipate that this would have been an option."
Get ahead with any domestic admin you'd rather no one in the family had to deal with when you're trying to settle into a new routine and time's at a premium. Bill paying, renewing pet/car/travel insurance, buying birthday presents and cards etc, as well as personal appointments such as a dental check-up, asthma clinic, optician visit are all worth getting out of the way for your first month back. Now's a good time to discus rebalancing domestic roles and agree what others will do to contribute to the smooth running of family life.
An example of a jointly agreed family plan. Kim (K) works three days and week and Paul (P) five. They have a cleaner (C). Taken with permission from Mothers Work! by Jessica Chivers.
Decide how much time you're going to give to domesticity and how much time you're going to devote to the family and your interests. If the time's lower for domestic life than when you were on leave, that probably means needing to do less or to a lower standard once you're back at work.
"I treated my maternity leave as a break, as a getting-to-know-my-child year and time to spend with my baby. I did not prioritise cooking and cleaning as I knew I wanted to go back to work and would not have anything like that time again to enjoy my baby. I did do housework (obviously!) but I never assumed full responsibility. I tried to go without a cleaner for the first few months but then gave in and it was the best decision."
Part of preparing to return to work is rekindling that bigger sense of self and purpose beyond being a parent. A haircut, buying new well-fitting clothes and getting ready to look and feel the part may sound fluffy yet this is about boosting self-esteem and projecting an image to colleagues and clients that says 'I'm back and want to do a good job'.
Picking up a trade journal, looking at client websites to find out what's going on, reading any work papers you've been sent or taken away from KIT days are all things that can help you reconnect and get your head back into the game.
"In hindsight, I would have used the KIT days more than I did and I would have used some of the leave to keep up to speed with legal developments. There were no CPD opportunities available to me during the leave, and this would have been very helpful as I found on return that new statutes and the usual statutory guidelines had been brought in as regards the specific area of law I work in."
"I spent time getting my mind back into working mode and I got up to date with developments in the law before I returned. I also kept in touch with colleagues and my line manager."
Your belief in your ability to make a smooth return is probably more important than anything else. Filling your head with thoughts of previous achievements at work, examples of your strengths in action and positive feedback you've received all help to bolster your self-esteem. Research shows our beliefs about our ability are a major determinant of our performance (eg see the 'self efficacy' work of psychologist Albert Bandura). Remind yourself of the benefits of going back to work and stay focused on why it’s a good decision (if you’re in any doubt).
A phased return can work particularly well if your employer is keen to get you back early. In exchange for you being flexible about the date, you could ask your line manager to allow you to gradually ramp up your days worked. Many people use accrued holiday to make this easy in terms of pay administration. A phased return can be particularly useful if you haven’t quite got the childcare cover in place that you hoped to have (for example, you're waiting for another day to become available at nursery).
"Agree a phased return for a week or two if you can (for example, starting later and finishing earlier than your eventual contracted hours) so that you have time to get into the groove of getting out the door in the morning and the nursery drop-off routine before you have any serious work deadlines. In hindsight, I would have taken more time off after my first baby. I returned to work after six months when I was still getting very little sleep and did not have my most productive spell at work. I had a longer maternity leave with my second baby and longer still after the third."