Ask the everywoman Experts: ‘I’ve returned to work after becoming a mum…and now I feel I’m failing at both!’

In this month’s Ask the everywoman Experts, three specialists give their advice to a Network member who has returned to work after parental leave, and is struggling to meet the demands of both roles.

“I returned to work last year when my daughter was two years old. She is my first child, and the transition to becoming a working parent has been a bit of a shock. The practicalities of juggling my role as a parent as well as my role at work — I am a fairly senior team manager — are one thing, but I am also constantly struggling with guilt around whether I am giving, or able to give, my best to both areas of my life. I feel like I am failing most of the time. Self-care has gone completely out of the window as well. My company has been great, I have flexibility to pick up my daughter from nursery when I need to, and I don’t necessarily feel as if anyone is breathing down my neck. But I find I am increasingly hard on myself for any times I feel I’ve dropped the ball, and I do sometimes wonder whether I should just give up work. I love my career though and I have worked very hard to get where I am, so ultimately for my own sense of self (not to mention the mortgage!) I need to continue – but is it always going to feel like this? And how can I regain control and feel comfortable with such competing priorities in my life?”


Jessica Chivers

You talk about feeling like you’re failing — and that suggests you have an expectation, explicitly or not, about what you should be able to do or achieve now. And those expectations are likely to be out of line with what’s reasonable post-motherhood, because before you will have had more disposable time, better sleep and the ability to flex. Now you’ll have some hard stops, so you can’t just run on into the evening or stay late. Ask yourself, would you expect a friend to be able to deliver what you’re asking yourself? And if you wouldn’t, what do you think would be reasonable?

Part of the antidote to feeling like you’re failing, is taking a few minutes at the end of each day to write down three things that have gone well to take you to a more resourceful place of gratitude. You also talk about guilt and an antidote to that is having ‘service level agreements’ with yourself, your child and your line manager around important things. So, you don’t go to Tumble Toddlers every other day? Fine — but your service level agreement with your child is that you will be fully present to read three bedtime stories three nights a week, and go swimming with her every Saturday, for example. Then when guilt feelings creep up, you can say to yourself, ‘I know what I’m doing’.

Pre-motherhood, you might have had time at work to be doing more ‘side of your desk’ stuff or to mentor new joiners. Now you need to think about how much professional time you actually have each week, what the most important things you need to deliver are and when you need to bring your best quality attention to different things. Make sure you’re not asking yourself to do more than you have the time or energy to do because that’s when ‘priorities’ compete.

You might also want to think about where you want to go in your career. Are you happy where you are and therefore it’s just about keeping things stable? Or do you want to go to the next level, and if so what do you need to do to put yourself on that path? As Seven Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey says, ‘begin with the end in mind’ and if you don’t get kudos or benefit from doing office admin, for example, then don’t do it. We have to pick the things that are going to make the biggest difference – and parenthood can actually help us to develop that sharp focus and confidence at work. A mother is always going to be the one in a meeting who, when the agenda is going flabby will say, ‘What’s the decision we really need to make here?’

Jessica Chivers is a coaching psychologist, author of Mothers Work! and CEO of The Talent Keeper Specialists. She hosts the COMEBACK COACH, a podcast for people returning to work from maternity.


Zoe Bishop

I had all the same feelings and thoughts that you are having on my return from maternity leave, with my second child particularly, and the comment you made about feeling like you aren’t able to give your best either as a professional or as a mum really resonated with me. You are going to have to re-evaluate your definition of what being good at those things is and parenthood is a new world that you can’t compartmentalise. Success is about how you bring it together and do something that works for you and for the organisation and there are many ways to get that balance.

But first, stop beating yourself up about trying to be perfect and a high performer in both aspects, and remember that you’re the only one who thinks that you’re ‘failing’. I was working at Direct Line group at the time I had my second child and not as upfront or honest with my boss as early as I should have been. I was having all those feelings and anxieties probably for six months before I even mentioned it to him, and when I did it all came out sounding much worse than it would have done if I just recognised it earlier. However, once I did talk to him, the company connected me with a careers coach and put a support structure in place to try and help me succeed, which was brilliant.

You need to allow yourself to take a step back and not try to be the perfect version of yourself that you have in your own mind. And gradually you’ll begin to realise it’s okay. Nothing’s going to fall over at home or at work. It all comes back to asking for support in both aspects of your life, professionally and personally. If you have an open, frank conversation with your boss to say, ‘I can’t do everything in the same way that I did it before’ or ‘This is the different way in which I need to work’, you can come to an agreement that will release the pressure.

You’re the one probably being hardest on yourself. I bet you’re doing an amazing job. Keep going and look at the positives of your new situation; you’ll get a lot out of being a mum so take that into your professional life. You’ll be better at delegating at work because you have to be, you’ll be a better multitasker, you’ll probably develop more relationship-building emotional intelligence. Don’t compartmentalise work and motherhood, you might be a different you — and that’s probably a better version, so try and see it that way.

Zoe Bishop is Head of People Concepts & Development, People Team at the Ministry of Defence


Laila Datoo

You ask, is it always going to feel like this? And I want to tell you no, because it’s always going to change. My son’s three too, so we’re probably in the same position, and children’s needs and how demanding they are of you are constantly changing. So firstly, it’s about giving yourself permission to be okay with finding it hard to combine work and motherhood because I know I struggled with that for a long time. Other mothers might have their baby strapped to their chest while they do coaching calls and you can think why can’t I do that? But it’s about doing what works for you.

I felt heartbroken when you asked, ‘Should I give up my work?’. I’d be interested to know how much support you have – or you’ve allowed yourself to receive? Last month I went away for four days, and I did a huge amount of worrying around whether my son was going to be okay and how my husband was going to cope. When my husband goes away, he walks out of the door and trusts everything’s going to be okay, and that’s what we have to learn to do more as women. We hold on to these things so tightly because we worry that people can’t cope without us when actually, if we’re giving 80%, people will be fine.

Balance is also about giving yourself the permission to take time for you. Women often don’t feel like they can give to themselves, so they give to work and to their child and then whatever’s left at the end they give to themselves. Many of us need a mindset shift that says, ‘It’s okay to take time for me’. Pick one thing you love doing and that gets you back to feeling like you — it doesn’t have to be big, a run or a walk even — and make that a regular non-negotiable thing. If you start small then you’ve got something to build on, but it’s fundamental that you care for yourself if you’re caring for others as well. It’s just really shifting that priority of what’s important — you ask how you can juggle competing priorities, but you are also a priority in your own life.

As mothers who work I don’t think we ever feel like everything is comfortable and exactly where it needs to be so it’s about getting to be okay with the uncomfortable. Ask yourself what success looks like for you because if success looks like getting to nursery drop-off and progressing in your career, then you’re doing great.

Laila Datoo is a workplace wellbeing expert, certified coach and mindfulness trainer helping business leaders and HR professionals to support their employee’s mental health and create happy, healthy workplaces. 


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