I returned from maternity leave once before. But as I prepared to head back to work after my second maternity leave in September, I was terrified.
“Parenting during coronavirus is a new level of burnout” and “Pandemic threatens to wipe out decades of progress for working mothers” were just a few headlines I consumed leading up to my start date. Not to mention the multiple studies reporting that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting women. With one quarter to one third of women contemplating a career change to focus more on home responsibilities, here I was actively choosing to re-enter the workforce. What was I getting myself into?
I knew returning to work in this era would be different than the first time around, but I’ve been surprised by how much satisfaction I’ve already derived from being back at it, even from a distance. I’m equally surprised by my lack of stress over the household chores piling up. Although my first few weeks were chaotic, there was a new filter I viewed everything through: does this need to be dealt with now? If yes, attack. If no, compartmentalize and revisit when you have time.
I’m still learning and figuring out this new way of life, but here are a few things that have helped me return to work this time around:
Accept and adapt. The gains women have made in the workforce are at such risk. But if we know the stats, we can do something about it. Speak up. Talk to other parents. Learn how we can adapt to this new norm, and support each other in the process. And on a day-to-day level, accept there will be more dishes in the sink and more piles of laundry to fold. There is not enough time for everything. Are your kids happy-ish? Is your work getting mostly done-ish? Are you only having one breakdown per day? You’re doing amazing, sweetie. Prioritize and do your best. Also: kids, pets and clutter are now conference call staples. The sooner you accept this, the less stressed you’ll be in trying to keep your laptop background perfect. Life is not perfect, and everyone is experiencing this together.
Connect with your colleagues. My “first day back” was incredibly anti-climactic. I did my hair, I put on a nice shirt, I logged on at 9:00 a.m. and thought, “well now what”. Keeping my colleague, David Wills, in mind, I picked up the phone (via Teams), and started calling people. I’ve scheduled face-to-face Teams chats with almost everyone in the office and I’ve been shocked by how effective it’s been at connecting. I’ve learned what folks have been up to and even gathered intel I can apply to other clients. Collaboration is different now. It requires effort. But make the effort. It will only benefit you and your clients.
Ask questions. More than a month into being back I discovered new hires were taking part in a mandatory “WFH Essentials” meeting, where they are taught how to use Teams, book conference calls at home — everything crucial to doing your job well in this pandemic era. I’m not new to MP but I am new to permanently working from home, so I put up my hand and requested this meeting. Technical support aside, I’m asking questions daily on life at MP, the media landscape and how my new accounts work. It can be easy to worry that my questions will take up too much of someone’s time, but ultimately I know that seeking out answers now is going to benefit the team in the long run.
Get inspired. Going back to work can be daunting at the best of times. It can be easy to get lost in thoughts of “What have I missed?” or “Everyone is ahead of me”. Instead of succumbing to your inner critic, use the lessons of others to help you grow and get back on top. Take part in conferences about what has changed in your industry during COVID and how the field is adapting. Listen to those you admire and respect to hear how they are coping during these extraordinary times. Much of the business world has spent more than half a year figuring out how to work on the fly. By now, they’re getting into a groove. We don’t need to start from scratch. Take what they’ve learned and figure out what works for you.
Speak up. I’m grateful to work for an organization that was recognized as a Best Workplace Managed by Women. Public relations is a female-dominated industry and I’m surrounded by incredible leadership — women and men — who know what it’s like to parent and work at the same time. In the past, I haven’t allowed my family life to interfere with my nine-to-five. Now that my two worlds are colliding, I need to be open and honest about what I’m experiencing to ensure our clients’ needs are being met. For years, Media Profile has offered flexible work hours and balance days as an option for staff to cultivate a better work-life balance. But now more than ever, the line between work and life is blurred and it’s causing employee burnout. Smart employers recognize that they don’t hold all the cards. If you have an idea for how your organization can better support you, speak up and offer your suggestion. Let’s figure out this new way of working together.
While it may take more time, it will be appreciated and ultimately more effective for all parties involved.