You can do anything – but not everything

Anything EverythingThis is my favourite phrase. It reminds me that that much as I’d like to be a superwoman there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be one. It suggests I’m not a failure if I don’t achieve everything – just that time is limited and no-one else could either.

I thought of this phrase when I went to chat to a group of new mums who are soon to head back to work. Having 6-12 months out of work to bring up a new baby is an amazing experience. But it can also leave us feeling rather vulnerable when we go back to work. Not only are there many questions floating round our heads about whether we remember what to do, how we will ever see our baby, will flexible working be possible, do we need to prove our work commitment all over again and whose job takes priority when baby is ill, or childcare falls through but we may have lost a little work confidence too, making it a nerve racking time. Before baby we were able to stay late, work weekends when projects required it, and have a good gossip over lunch. When nursery hours are limited and we want to get home for baby hugs we need to remember that ‘superwoman doing everything’ goes out the window and prioritisation comes into play.

So I chatted with the girls in my NCT group and we came up with five areas where a bit of honest reflection, some planning, and a dash of performance psychology techniques could help us get back into working life as comfortably and stress free as possible.

Feeling out of the loop professionally:

Lots of us were worried about things having moved on in the time we were away. It could be systems, computer programs, teams, colleagues, line managers, senior staff and, particularly for those in legal, HR, clinical and accounting professions, regulations and laws having changed.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • Ask for a KIT (Keep in Touch) day a few weeks before you go back so you can reacclimatise to the workplace, understand what has changed and prepare yourself for it.
  • Be open to learning new stuff – you have just learnt from scratch how to keep a baby alive so picking up computer changes will be well within your capabilities!
  • Instead of thinking you are going back to your own role maybe try to see it within your head as starting a new job – mentally it will feel less frustrating than going back to the same job with lots of changes.

Feeling out of the loop socially:

If you have been away from an office or your work environment you will not just have missed processes or systems changing but people. When you start in a new company going on staff nights out or lunches is a great way to get up to speed. But if you are working compressed hours to get back in time for nursery or childminder shutting or would rather spend your evening with your little one than networking in a pub then this isn’t possible.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • A baby commodifies everything. You are constantly prioritising and working out the value of something again the cost of childcare and whether you genuinely want or need to do something over seeing your baby. So accept this rather than fighting it or feeling it is unfair. I’ve found it helps me make decisions about what I value doing and prioritising becomes simpler. Would I rather go to X event or spend my evening with baby. Baby wins a lot!
  • Agree with your other half on how you will deal with evening events. Do you have one evening a week each to use for yourself; work, networking sessions, seminars, gym, drinks with friends? Or agree to own certain nights as your bath / bed nights for baby where the other one has more work or social flexibility.

Having to prove yourself again:

If you have spent a long time building your reputation in work, particularly in companies which have a long-hours culture or are very heavily male dominated, you may feel you need to re-establish your reputation and deal with some of the stereotypes that may be banded about around where your priorities will be.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • This one can feel really unfair and can be a real issue in some industries. Write a stock answer you use for all the annoying comments. Something like: ‘Work will feel easy after looking after a baby 24/7’. Repeat it over and over again until they get bored of winding you up.
  • Don’t try to prove yourself to anyone except the people you have to. It just causes lots of stress. Use your lack of time and flexibility to your advantage and be really focused on just what you need to do and who you do that for. This means being really clear from your line manager what your objectives are and what they see as priorities. Stick to these. Goal setting can be really helpful here. There is a template and worksheet you can use here. It is based on athletes but works just as effectively for mums heading back to work.

Justifying decisions:

Many of us fear being judged. We want to do the best; for ourselves, for our babies, for our companies, for our society. It can be difficult being questioned or judged about the choices you make, or even thinking you will be questioned. Many of us worry if we have had too much time off or too little? Should we go back flexibility or ask for fewer hours? And not only do we question ourselves but very unhelpfully lots of other people feel it is ok to question us too.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • Everyone has an opinion. Either because something genuinely worked for them and they think they are being helpful, because they want to validate the choices they made or sometimes just trying to make conversation. But it can feel intrusive, personal and judgemental – especially if you are questioning any of your choices yourself. Expect the opinions. Makes it feel less personal.
  • When you are offered advice, nod and smile and say “that sounds interesting I’ll think about that.” And then forget it instantly. They feel important and listened to. You get them off your back.
  • Internally, in your own head, have a mantra. This is a short phrase you repeat over and over to yourself and can block out some of the negative or guilty thoughts we have. It could be ‘I’m here so my baby has a great role model.’ ‘Baby is learning great social skills at nursery.’ The mantra needs to be personal and honest but can help you block out the naysayers outside and inside your own head.

Staying robust and resilient:

Finally, it is hard to stay robust and resilient when you lack any confidence. And if you have had a chunk of time away from the workplace it can be easy to let your confidence slide. Add to this fears about the choices you’ve made for childcare, the fact you may be surviving on very little sleep and simply missing your little one and your confidence can be knocked very easily.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • Actively build your confidence. Confidence comes from many sources but the two most robust ones are knowing you have the skills to do what you want to do and feeling you have the experience and evidence of this experience to do what you want to do. So grab a piece of paper and write down all the skills you already had in the workplace and the ones you have added by learning how to look after a baby. The mums I chatted to had some great strengths they had developed over their maternity leave including procrastinating far less, an enhanced ability to multitask, a new sense of perspective on what was really important and the ability to do everything on very little sleep.
  • Create your ‘what if’ plan. Every Olympic athlete does this but it can work really well in our daily lives too. Down one side of a sheet of paper write down all the things you are worrying about happening, then what you can do to prevent them happening, and what you will do if they do occur. This means you front up to everything that is weighing down on your shoulders and you feel much more prepared if something does happen.

We prepared a couple of examples:

Fear To prevent it happening I will… If it does happen.…
All the regulations in my field have changed. I’ll have to learn everything again. Ask if there is a junior or intern in the office who could pull together info on any regulatory changes in the last year.

Sign up to email updates for my profession to keep updated.

Get hold of the last nine months of magazines for my profession and read them during baby’s nap time.

Agree with line manager that I can have a session with them on changes in the sector while I have been away.

Ask line manager if I can attend a professional conference where many of the recent changes will be discussed.

Ask for someone to mentor me back into the workplace while I find my feet again.

 

Being new to the team I worry I still have to prove myself and I can’t do this if I have to leave by 5pm to pick up my baby from nursery. Work out with my other half that one of us will do drop off and the other pick up so we can work hours needed at one end of the day.

Log on after baby is asleep so you can show you are working flexibly.

 

Explain to line manager that you feel you are being judged on time in office rather than productivity and ask for their support.

Find another parent in the office and discuss how they have been able to prove their worth and be there for their children (People are really flattered to be asked for their advice so this can work well)

So hopefully there are some ideas above that can help you feel a little bit more like superwoman -while remembering that you don’t have to. The most important thing to do is to reflect on what is worrying you and prepare for it. The more prepared we are, the harder it is for something to knock us over so we can be strong for ourselves and our babies.