I am regularly asked by friends and indeed clients, whether ‘It’s right to go back to work’ or ‘how did you decide?’ and the answer is always, ‘You should do what feels right for you and your family.’ Now that’s easier to be said than done, but it’s honestly the truth, and here’s what I’ve learned in 20 years of working in HR and taking on board the fact that for the last, almost 6 years, I’ve been a mother too. I’m often asked ‘how did you decide what to do’ and whilst that’s a blog for another day, the truth is, I ultimately did what was right for me.

Perhaps I had some of my choices taken away from me, but from that point on, my path is the path that I have made, no one else made it for me. I chose not to return to another full-time or even part-time employed role, after everything during my pregnancy, I just felt that it wasn’t what I wanted for me and for my family. After extended maternity leave, I chose the self-employed route, I wanted to manage my time more effectively, I considered all of the financial obligations that we had and we made choices as a family. Now, as a mother of two, both of whom attend school and nursery, I really value the balance that I have created and most importantly, above everything else, I really enjoy being able to counterbalance when I want to take on more work or less work, whilst maintaining a commitment to clients. It’s not for everyone, but more and more I see women, friends, exploring this route and it’s something to take into consideration, for sure.

Now, back to Maternity Leave, how do you know how to approach what to do and when to do it? You’ve just had a baby and now you are already being asked ‘when are you going back’ before you’ve finished your first warmish cuppa with a friend. Here are some of my top tips:

There is no ‘one fits all’ approach to work

By that, I mean that there are so many different ways to think about and actually undertake work. So many mothers that I meet, consider work to be the job that they did before maternity leave or perhaps looking for a new job, but there are so many alternatives too. It comes down to a lot more than just do I like my job enough, do I earn enough and should I just go back? I always urge people to at this point grab a blank piece of paper, a pen or bag of coloured pens and get scribbling. Allow yourself to be completely free and write down everything that you feel about ‘work’ and what you want. I’ll come back to this shortly.

What are your driving forces to return?

Do you absolutely need to return to work for financial reasons, if so, not a problem, so do you know what you need to earn vs what you would like to earn? Do you have an idea around flexibility, days per week, shifts, flexible working? Does your current role fit that purpose? Do you want to stay within your industry? Do you want to completely change your career? Do you know the other options out there for you? What’s really important at this stage is to focus on your actual drivers for returning, your ‘why’ and your ‘why not’s.

What do you actually want to do?

This is the age-old question, do you actually want to go back to work? If you do, great, then get that pen and paper and start jotting down your ideas and how to go about them. This is a great time to flex your muscles, find out who you are and what you want to do. It doesn’t need to be days and days of thinking either, you have a new baby that will be really hard work to get that headspace, but I have some great tips:

  • Grab a notebook or a piece of paper or a big A3 pad if it helps.
  • Have it on your table/desk/coffee table and keep a pen nearby. Every time that you think about work or something pops into your head, write it down. This is a form of ‘mind mapping’ which is a great learning and development tool I often use.
  • When you’ve filled that piece of paper, sit down and grab those coloured pens. Start to look at trends or things that feel the same, maybe colour code all the pros for returning to work or the cons for not. Do you see a pattern emerging? Is everything about your next role? There are some great tools that I can recommend online too, which I’ll pop on the end.

Equally, if you genuinely can’t think of anything worse than returning to your current job, even any job, then you instead need to be asking yourself, can I/we afford to do that? Does it mean you just need to tighten your belt, not go on foreign holidays or reduce your clothing allowance, or do you genuinely think that you will struggle with paying your bills and core costs every week/month? Again, think about all of your incomings, outgoings, and potential changes such as childcare. Will it be cost-effective to return? Is that important to you as well?

When you are ready to have the discussion-have the discussion

I get asked all the time, how much notice do I have to give my employer if I am or I am not returning to work. So here are the hard facts:

If you have decided to leave – you need to ensure that you follow the usual process and notice period, just like if you were at work and not on maternity leave i.e. If you have 3 months’ notice, you should provide them with 3 months’ notice. You should also check your contract and any relevant policies or procedures with your employer to check any specific process. Some companies will bypass your full notice period and some will perhaps stipulate just 4 or 8 weeks’ notice. Depending on the circumstances of your role i.e. if you have maternity cover, then you could consider if you wish to use any of your Keeping in Touch (KIT) days to carry out any handover days, if appropriate. What I would say, is that is totally discretional and I would also say that it’s really for your employer to decide if this is something that they would like you to consider, not something that you have to worry about during maternity leave. In all likelihood, you handed everything over when you left.

If you have decided to stay – If you are intending to simply return on the required date at the end of your statutory maternity leave or additional maternity leave or allowance, then you can just simply return on that date. I always suggest to clients that it’s best to still confirm that you are returning and on the usual conditions i.e. X days and X times if you are not planning to make any changes.

If you have decided to return to work but you would like to either stay on maternity leave for longer than planned, take any accrued annual leave or return to work sooner than planned then you must give your employer 8 weeks’ notice before you are due to return. If you would like to return, but you would like to request a flexible change to your working pattern, then you must complete an official ‘flexible working request’ which will be outlined in your employers’ policy and procedures. Essentially it will be a formal request, to your line manager or specified person, requesting the change. I would always say that you should stick to the 8-week rule again, to be sure. If you know 4 months beforehand, great, get it done.

One of the hardest points is the actual decision to have that discussion. From an employer’s perspective, it can be frustrating to hear information at the very latest point of return, particularly if you are not returning, but it is of course your choice when you choose to do so. I always urge returning mothers to enable themselves to enjoy their maternity leave. If you know, day one that you will not want to return, just hold that thought. Revisit it again with 6 months to go and 3 months to go. You don’t need to decide right there and then. On the flip side, if you know, you know, so it’s always ok to have that conversation with your employer and enjoy your maternity leave and instead be able to focus time on perhaps looking for your new dream role or what you do want to do. Like with all of these things, it’s up to you.

Will your career suffer if you decide to take an extended break?

Now, there will always be exceptions to this, because there are some careers that require you to have worked x number of days per year, to retain a license for example, but in the current climate, there are more and more organisations making adjustments and thinking ahead and thinking flexibly. Don’t forget that even if you choose to not go back at this stage, it’s probably not forever and you should never be afraid of raising a family. I have on my own website and linked in profile and CV that I took a career break. I used the time to not just raise a family, but do some volunteer work for a local charity that I loved supporting and I just gave a few hours a week to do things that I would have probably done anyway. You can keep up to date with news, training, social media in your field of interest and if you do wish to, you can always refresh training or attend networking events to ease yourself back in. See it as an opportunity, not a grind to a halt of who you are and what you do.

So to go back to the original question ‘Is it right for everyone?’ the answer I believe, is no, it’s just not. It’s really frustrating to see so many friends and women that have to go through this, turn themselves inside out to have this dilemma throughout their maternity leave and it’s also something that equally lots of women don’t really allow themselves or have the time to think about enough and then when they return to their work, they feel disengaged, disheartened, unhappy, demotivated, stressed and have a sense of feeling as though they have been let down or they are letting others down. Becoming a mother is a huge transition for anyone and then making another huge decision in the 12 months proceeding that process, well it’s a lot!

Getting support during your maternity leave is also something to really consider and I know that during present times, it’s harder than ever to get direct face to face support, but one company that I must draw your attention to is ‘Pregnant then Screwed’ as they are frankly, amazing. I am not endorsed by them in any way, but as an HR Consultant, the work that they do support women and organisations is outstanding. They challenge policy, they make their voices and your voices heard and they are such a wonderful group of people behind the scenes and supporting women. I would highly recommend their advice and support line and indeed their blog and stories, they are really useful and I wish I had known about them more than 6 years ago. If you visit one website today, make it theirs.

Hopefully, reading some of my handy tips and talking to friends and family about the process, will make it feel a lot better. It’s never going to be easy, but if you make the right decision, you will know and it has to be right for you and your family. If anyone out there is reading this and still isn’t sure what to do or where to get advice, please contact me. I won’t charge you for asking a few questions and I would much rather point someone in the right direction and remember ladies…..whatever happens, ‘You got this!’

Tune in soon for more handy maternity leave tips.