BY DANIELLE MALONEY
In my short span of life, I’ve been witness to huge socio-political reforms that have furthered the feministic call for equality. No longer are we held to and bound by the stereotype of gender roles and more women than ever are merrily skipping back into the workforce post-partum.
Okay, ‘merrily skipping back’ conjures images of Disney-inspired characters calmly and graciously frolicking through the woods on a warm summer’s day; think Goldilocks and Snow White. I apologise for this ill-fitting analogy. The correct description might be more akin to trekking Mount Everest; it seems like a good idea in theory however the journey physically and emotionally flips you between the highest highs and the lowest lows.
So I hear you beg the question, why on earth would anyone want to do it?
Simple; because the experience of ascending that near 9000m mountain brings a greater sense of fulfilment, meaning and purpose to their lives. It challenges them, nourishes them, and connects them to a greater sense of self and the world.
So this brings me to my first point, it is important for Mamas considering re-entering the workforce to consider their ‘why’? Why am I motivated to do this?
Now more often than not this is motivated financially, our current economic climate seems to rely on a dual-income. That being said, many women also feel pressured to work in an effort to keep up with the status quo. While ‘stay-at-home-mum’ was once a default position, this new liberation of choice around our decision to work, has left many mothers feeling the ‘sting’ of criticism and condescension. Women are shamed for wanting to “simply” stay at home and nurture and nourish their children. After all, we’re told ‘we can have it all’ right? (insert obnoxious sneer).
So to all the Mamas out there, the first step is to try and disambiguate the need for wanting to go back to work in the first place. Now if it is motivated by the need to avoid judgement, criticism or shame – then you need to about face. There is a balance of research that supports both arguments with regards to the impact of mother’s returning to work on children – there’s a lot to say it’s a good thing and a lot to say it’s a bad thing. The central point that is unequivocally agreed upon is the mental wellbeing of the mother and how this impacts the child. Ever heard of the saying ‘happy wife, happy life?’ Well, I like to reframe it in this context to ‘happy mummy, happy bubby.’
The idea is you can make both work – whether you choose to stay home or go back to work. So make the decision for you. It’s not going to be without its challenges, but ask yourself, ‘is my choice to go back to work based on my values in that I believe it will bring my life a greater sense of fulfilment, purpose and meaning?’
Now at this stage, if your choice is to return to work swipe right. (I shall follow up this article with more tips and tricks for those lovely Mamas who decided to whole-heartedly fulfil the job description of Mother, so stay tuned for that).
Now I refer you to my previous reference to Mt Everest. Going back into the workforce ain’t as peachy as it seems. At the base, it is one, long, steady climb up. How long the climb is, is dependent on how long you’ve tapped out. So gear up, chin up and take a deep breath. And use the following tips to help you put one foot in front of the other.
Damn straight. I said it. Or perhaps rather, be assertive. Time at work is precious time spent away from your little one (or one’s). Understand what you want and go for it. Don’t settle. We often find that time spent away from the workforce diminishes our sense of agency and confidence within this context – therefore we drop into this default position of people-pleasing and taking what we can get. No, I’m sorry. You might be a little rusty, but soon enough you’ll be back to where you were so do not underestimate your value or abilities.
With yourself. As I mentioned, you will be rusty! Before you chose to have children, when you were in the thick of fulltime work, you must consider the hours of engagement and the impact this has on your level of fluency in said tasks. Exposure to certain tasks will promote learning – this means you will be more efficient and competent. Remember the first time you tried to swaddle your baby? The attempt was no doubt clumsy, ineffective and ill-fated. Fast-forward to child # 3, where you’re performing ninja swaddles one-handedly, whilst trying to cautiously heat milk over a hot stove and balancing the phone in your ear whilst counselling your best friend on her recent woes. This isn’t coincidental that you have acquired this skill. You have implicitly practiced it over and over so now it is simply automatic. Your brain remembers it and knows it well. This too will happen for you at work. It will slowly come back to you.
‘Us Mamas can have it all right?!?!?!’ – not really. Well, at least not in the way society says we can. Reality is, it is a constant struggle to fulfil all our competing roles. This is often exaggerated by the epidemic of what little ol’ psychologists like me call, perfectionism. And most Mamas suffer from this. Perfectionism is the relentless striving to achieve very high standards in various domains of our lives. The most damaging part of it is we use our achievement in said areas to evaluate our sense of worth and esteem. Perfectionists think in all-or-nothing terms and we criticise ourselves for not being able to achieve the ‘all.’ The hallmark of perfectionism is a lingering sense of guilt (mother’s guilt sound familiar?).
I am going to lay it out straight for you. You are NOT perfect, nor will you ever be. There will be times when you lose your temper irrationally; there will be times when you cannot make lil Sally’s swimming carnival because you’re stuck in a meeting at work; there will be times when you reject sex with your husband because you simply cannot conjure the energy to keep your eyes open; there will be times when you ditch the nutritionally sound dinner of steamed veg and paleo schnitzel and opt for a cheeky McDonald’s stop to feed your children (with a choc sundae to boot please!). The equation is simple, perfectionists develop an ‘inner-critic’ – and the antidote to this inner critic is self-compassion. Be bloody kind to yourself. It is impossible to be all things to everyone at all times – life doesn’t allow for it and neither does our nervous systems.
That said, getting organised will certainly help you feel like you’ve got your shit together. When we’re responding haphazardly to our environment and spontaneous cues, our nervous system doesn’t like it. And of course, life inevitably feels like this at times. However, we can try our best to organise what’s within our control. For example, plan your work week against the other fifteen hats you’re wearing. For instance; if Thursday is your long day, plan your dinner in advance. And this might be the abovementioned cheeky McDonald’s run I was talking about, but at least you know to expect it. Our nervous systems like continuity and certainty. We can get clever and use these little hacks to help us regulate our stress levels. Your nervous system will thank you.
What the hell does she mean by that? Time away from our children is a great time for us to check back in to who we were pre-mummyhood. And this is important. View your time away from them as a time for you to explore your needs, your wants your desires… separate to what your mummy role demands of you. Use your time at work to have open and ‘adult’ conversations with your colleagues, take 10min to mindfully eat your lunch as opposed to sucking up the scraps left over from lil Johnny… hell use your lunch break to take that familiar Pilates class you once did religiously. Go on do it. You deserve time and attention too.
So there you have it. A couple of tips and tricks to get you geared up for re-entering the workforce. Now chin up, deep breath and off you go. I promise as you ascend, it gets a little easier each step.
Danielle is a Sydney-based psychologist and influencer. Danielle has acquired experience treating a wide range of issues across a broad spectrum of age groups in a variety of settings which include both public and private health sectors. Today, this informs her eclectic style of practice, as she does not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. Her clinical practice and public work aims to cut the BS and de-pathologise common mental health issues in the hopes of reinspiring women to find a sense of hope and meaning in their lives, so that they can understand their suffering, not fear it, find meaning in it, learn to cope with it and move forward.