Returning To Work After A Long Break — How To Make It Work

On my first day back at work after a two year break following the birth of my twins, I stayed away from home for fourteen hours. On that long day, I missed them so much I cried a few times. I called their day care several times, secretly hurt when the teachers reassured me they were doing fine every single time. But I also felt happier, more motivated and energized than I had in a very long time.

Of course my first day at work also happened to be the first day of my course in Digital Marketing from Harvard Extension School, hence the fourteen hours. The first month was a blur. I regularly fell asleep exhausted in the middle of recounting my day to my husband. The kids fell sick with clockwork regularity; I sometimes showed up late for meetings, the train broke down frequently, back-up care nannies proved utterly unreliable and I ate salami and cheese out of a Ziploc bag for breakfast — Every. Single. Day.

Yet not only did I survive, I thrived. Our family adjusted to the new routine. I fell in love with my job and four months later on a beautiful spring evening, we celebrated the completion of my Digital Marketing course, which I finished as one of the top 4 students in the class.

None of it was easy or perfect. Not even close. But none of my worst fears materialized either. And many of my preconceived notions about being a working mother remained just that — notions.

So, in no particular order and based on my experiences and those of others around me, here are a few ways to successfully return to work after a long maternity break:

  1. Don’t compromise — When I first started planning to rejoin work, I couldn’t hear enough of how such a long break had effectively ruined my career. How I couldn’t possibly hope to return to my previous level, how bad the job market was and how I would likely not even find full-time employment. I decided to ignore the naysayers and you should too. Turns out they don’t know much anyway.
  2. Re-skill — When returning to the job market, it helps to show that even when you’ve been away, you’ve kept yourself updated. A short course to reskill yourself helps. Look for online courses in your area of work, chances are you will be able to find something affordable and flexible. Keep yourself updated on industry trends and news; 30 minutes on LinkedIn every day can work wonders!
  3. Stop the guilt — A lot has been written about women and our habit of guilt. Whether at home or office, we never stop apologizing and constantly feel like we are letting someone down. Usually that ‘someone’ is our own self. Sometimes, it is okay to leave your office in the middle of the day if you have to take a sick child to the doctor, you’re not a terrible parent if you spend one hour on a Saturday afternoon finishing a slide deck and you’re certainly not losing it if you show up to work wearing mismatched socks.
  4. Don’t be a hero, take the help — There is no glory in running ourselves down to the ground. That judgmental voice we keep hearing? It’s usually our own. Ask help when you need it, both at home and office. Enlist your spouse, family, friends and hired help. Nobody will think the worse of you for it — however if you don’t ask for help and then fail to do what is required, when it is required, it will certainly go against you.
  5. Done is better than perfect — Most women I know suffer from perfectionism but when you are trying to juggle multiple competing priorities — remember that done is better than perfect. You can live with an imperfectly organized closet if it means you get an extra thirty minutes to curl up with your child and read a book.
  6. Self-love instead of self-doubt — You will be plagued with self-doubt often and will naturally assume that it’s due to your new role of working mom. In those moments, try to remember what you were like before you went on maternity break and chances are your past has been full of self-doubt too, because let’s face it — from world leaders to top athletes, we all are plagued with self-doubt. It is not because you are a new working mother. So relax and replace self-doubt with self-love.
  7. Look for efficiencies throughout your day — In my first couple of months back at work, I examined my day relentlessly and stamped out any unnecessary tasks. This freed up time and energy. I figured that by spending 2 minutes at night programming my coffee machine, I saved a precious 10 in the morning waiting for the coffee to brew before I did anything else. Now my coffee is ready exactly 5 minutes before my alarm goes off and I am functional from the word go!
  8. Digital-free zone — One evening on returning from work, just as I was enquiring my 2 year old son about his day, an old friend called and I started chatting merrily. Soon my son was tugging at my skirt and in a voice choking with tears he implored, ‘Mama put your phone down.’ That was a wake-up call. Now when I reach home, I leave my cell phone on silent mode inside my bag and it stays there ignored till my kids go to bed. I spend so few hours in a day with them anyway that no distraction is worth it, everything else can wait.
  9. Do things together as family- Doing things together as a family not only gets work done, but also makes it a lot more fun. My husband likes to run (infrequently) and I like to exercise (even more infrequently!). This summer we combined these two things along with the one activity our kids love — going to the playground. We found a park near our house that has a lovely playground, a sprinkler, a jogging trail and a wide soccer field. This is where we spend most evenings — running, sliding, playing badminton, soccer, Frisbee or simply getting wet. It’s a great workout and it’s the most fun part of my day!

Challenging as it seems, returning to work after a long break can be navigated successfully. Your career does not need to suffer and your kids, family and home certainly don’t need to either. There are a lot of things that can and will go wrong and don’t underestimate the support of your partner or your own good health.

But at the end of a long and tiring day, if sometimes you can earn a ‘good job mama’ you know that you’ve made it work!

Swati Bhoumick is the Founder of Ideaswalla (www.ideaswalla.com), focusing on creating content, building and optimizing websites, generating and nurturing leads, building marketing strategy, PR and branding for clients.