“Our identity is so bound-up with our work that when we become a mother – particularly when we decide to take a career break – many of us struggle with the Mummy phase,” say Alice Olins and Phanella Mayall Fine, the authors of new book Step Up: Confidence, Success and Your Stellar Career in 10 Minutes A Day, and founders of the Step Up Club. “And the same is true in reverse – how do we recapture our working selves when we’ve been knee-high in organic snacks for the past five years?” This is just one of the many dilemmas faced by working women that the Step Up Club – founded by these two high-flying mothers - aims to tackle...
Alice, Red magazine’s features director at large and Phanella, an ex corporate lawyer and city trader turned executive career coach are on a mission to help women – whatever their job – really work their careers. Their book, career events and online content is full of advice on how to feel empowered and broaden your network and skill set – and they’re not short of hands-on experience themselves – sharing five children and four jobs between them.
Here is their five-point plan on how to make a smooth transition back to work after having a baby so that you can not only recapture but surpass your old working selves.
1. REBOOT YOUR CONFIDENCE
All mothers feel differently about getting back to work after having a baby. Having said that, lower confidence has the ability to rear its ugly head – and often does – for everyone post maternity leave. Why? Because we worry that we’ve forgotten how to do our jobs. And, especially after a long maternity leave, it can be hard to rebuild an identity as a working woman after so many months at home with a baby, when you’re defined solely as a mother. Thankfully, we can all rebuild our confidence levels. From the off, it’s reassuring just knowing that you are not alone – that even very senior women who seem to have everything in line and are powering forward with their careers, have also experienced this.
Also, take some time to remind yourself of your strengths – do this by showing yourself evidence of what you have done well in the past, and what you can achieve. The process of positive affirmations might feel trite, but it’s incredibly powerful and helps break the cycle of confidence doom too. If you’re struggling about how to show yourself that you still can, go back through old reviews and peruse all those lovely thank you emails that you’ve received in the past from clients and colleagues. By doing this, you will remind yourself why and how you were great before you left!
Then think about what you’ve worked on while you’ve been off on leave: being a mum is a stressful, demanding job and chances are you’ve been flexing some classic career skills while helping to raise your baby. Networking with new local mums, multitasking a busy home with the newborn and then there’s time management, patience and resilience when everything just gets too much. See, you’re doing it all already, just against a different – and usually more food-splattered – context.
Don’t underestimate these as valid experiences and skills – we say, you’ve grown and developed as a person by becoming a mother, now it’s just a case of dovetailing the old you and the new person sitting there worrying about going back to work.
STEP UP TIP: If you don’t have one already, going forward keep a positivity record – compliments you receive, things you achieve, everything should go in there. Then reread every time you need a return to work boost. This is a simple and practical touchstone when your confidence wobbles in the future.
2. LEARN TO PRIORITISE
Your day becomes so much less elastic when you have a baby and it’s more important than ever to prioritise. It’s so easy to let your time be completely consumed by the noise – constant emails, laundry – that many of us forget to fit in the crucial building blocks of our daily lives. The good thing about babies is that in the main, they do go to sleep for long (ish) periods during the day – and hopefully the night too! Use this time to your advantage. Make a specific time for household chores or catching up on personal admin (we find the evening is good for these), so that when your brain is in gear during the day, and you manage to catch a few minutes for yourself, you can work efficiently and get the most important rocks in the metaphorical jar. Then, like sand and water, life’s less important things can fit in around the edges.
STEP UP TIP: Accept when you’ve done enough. The peripherals – making Christmas bunting, reorganising your iPhoto account – may never get action-ed, and that’s ok too.
3. BROADEN YOUR NETWORK
Networking will always be the lifeblood of your career, no matter what is going on in the foreground. Having said that, with a baby in tow, it certainly makes those after work drinks a trickier ask. And anything spontaneous – well you might as well forget it now! What you need to do is learn to fit networking into your new schedule – we think that lunches and coffees, say, are easier than a breakfast or a 6pm glass of white.
Sharing the load is important here too… it can be tempting to do everything for your baby when you’re on maternity leave, but this can make things trickier when you transition back to work. So, while you’re off, make sure your partner has plenty of practice putting your baby to bed too, so that you can have the freedom to join the work gang for early evening drinks if the mood takes you.
STEP UP TIP: Don’t forget how much networking you can now do online too – social media, email, phone – all of these platforms and modes of communication are accessible from your sofa and help keep you in the loop.
4. GET INTO TOP GEAR
A uniform – in the least literal form – is the best plan of attack when you are returning to work. Now that you have a child in tow, as we’ve already said, time will be extra tight and you won’t have the clarity of mind to indulge in much wardrobe planning. So, instead work out a simple set of personal style parameters, and stick to them. Perhaps you feel most comfortable in a pair of wide legs trousers and soft blouse? Or maybe you’re more a dress and flats kind of woman? Whatever your style hack, stick to it and then use accessories to keep your look fresh and interesting.
If you can, invest in a few new pieces before you return to work. These wardrobe newbies will help you feel refreshed and back in the game. Work style is important on many levels: looking the part helps builds confidence, and when we feel confident others respond more positively too. Plus, your style choices help others identify who you are, when verbal communication is out of reach.
STEP UP TIP: Don’t underestimate the power of a strong look: when you set yourself apart and show your individuality (even by just opting for leopard shoes over plain back) others will be able to identify you against the sea of other employees. And a ast piece of advice: enjoy it! Putting on your work outfit is a brilliant way to step out of your mum persona and back into work you.
5. CREATE AN ACTION PLAN
Here are our top tips:
1. Think about how you want to go back. Do you want to return to work full time, part time or flexibly? There are a whole host of ways to work now – agile working from home, project based working, contract employment – so if you think your old working pattern is no longer compatible with your new family set up, but your boss won’t accept three days a week, don’t give up so easily. Be creative about how you suggest that you fit back in. Just make sure you remain realistic and offer practical solutions that work for everyone.
2. Ease yourself back into work gradually rather than heading in cold turkey. Use your Keeping in Touch (KIT) days (you get 10) to connect back with clients, attend training and slowly settle yourself in so day one isn’t to daunting.
3. Set up a meeting with your manager as soon as possible when you get back. You want to get the lay of the land for your prospects. It’s also advisable to take this opportunity to emphasise your strengths and ambitions going forward so you don’t fall victim to any Mum biases they might have. When you return from maternity leave, communication is key.
4. Get your childcare sorted early. A few weeks to ease into the new nursery run, or a nanny, before you return to work will give you peace of mind and make the practicals run more smoothly. Plus, while your child gets into his or her new grove, you might even find that you have a bit of time to do some pre-work reading or just get your haircut. All these elements are important to an easy transition.
Step Up: Confidence, Success and Your Stellar Career in 10 Minutes A Day [Random House] is available on Amazon and all good book shops