A Psychologist’s Experience Of Returning To Work (& Top 3 Tips)

By Jayne Ruff @Parenting_Point

Eighteen months ago, I returned to work after nine months of maternity leave with my first child. This was something I was prepared for. In theory. Having trained and worked as an Occupational Psychologist for 15 years, I was aware of the challenges facing returning parents; the conflicting priorities, impact on confidence and emotional challenges that accompany the transition back into the workplace. Yet the reality of facing these challenges in practice was quite different. This time – the highs and the lows – taught me a lot about myself, personally and professionally. 

My professional self has always been important to me. Just a month before becoming a mum, I achieved my first dream of becoming a chartered psychologist. I was thrilled! It was (and still is) a big part of my identity. But one early morning in December 2018, when my son was born, my professional self was suddenly muted. Along came a new self in the form of motherhood – a powerful force that I had perhaps underestimated in both its wonder and its ability to kick other selves into touch.  

Although, adopting my new motherhood self was no easy ride. The first few weeks and months of motherhood were chaotic, exhilarating, enlightening and exhausting in equal measures. There were endless nights awake with a newborn, delirious daytimes full of nappy changes, and plentiful doses of self-doubt as I waded through the vast and, at times, conflicting parenting manuals. My experience of motherhood imposter syndrome was not helped by an unfortunate incident 8-weeks into my son’s life, where I failed to recognise him when presented to me at a postnatal Pilates class; a funny anecdote now but a motherhood-self crushing moment at the time! 

Over the course of my maternity leave, I developed my own identity and confidence as a mother. Yes, it was tough, but it was also a lot of fun watching my tiny baby grow into a bouncing little boy. I surprised myself with just how much I enjoyed regular conversations with other parents about the perils of baby poo and other such childhood development delights. So, when I reflect now on just how hard I worked to build belief in my motherhood self, it’s no wonder that I was a little reluctant to fully let go of its exclusive status when the time came to return to work. 

A Psychologist’s Experience of Returning to Work

It has taken me time to figure out how to balance these two areas of my life in a way that’s meaningful and fulfilling for me, and to be honest it’s an on-going re-balancing act. I thought I’d to share 3 top tips that have helped me so far, and that I continue to put into practice today:

  1. Characterise your emotions to help you see them differently

As working parents, we often carry with us a mixed bag of high vibe and low vibe emotions. You can feel excited – perhaps even positively desperate – to get back to the office for some adult-to-adult interaction. Whilst at the same time worrying about your little one and how you’ll balance it all. 

One thing that’s really helped me to manage my many different emotions is learning how to disentangle how I’m feeling from who I am. It’s known as ‘psychological distance’ and it’s a bit like creating your own personal space to observe your thoughts and emotions – without judgement. To create this space, it can help to characterise your emotions.

I often use the metaphor of ‘the demons in my rucksack’. Each emotion or thought I have is one of those little monsters on my back. Some are cute and fluffy, others outright menacing. And boy, they can be loud! The simple solution might appear to be to ‘ditch the rucksack’, but those demons just love to jump back in! Instead, you might need to change the way you interact with the demons. Accept that you are carrying them but increase your control over the way they influence your behaviours and actions. So that you stay in charge of the path you wish to take. 

There’s no right or wrong way to feel; creating this safe space is about recognising whether the feelings you’re experiencing are helping or hijacking the person you want to be at that moment in time (which can be very empowering). I’ve tried to stay tuned into my evolving feelings since returning to work. I still get ‘mum guilt’, but I also get excited and energised by my work again in a way I initially thought might be lost. I’m now more comfortable experiencing these emotions without them impacting the person I want to be at work and at home. 

2. Write down what’s most important to you at work & in life

Working parents often report experiencing what feels like an identity crisis when returning to work. The ‘old’ self seems far removed, and yet the ‘new’ self’ hasn’t yet found its feet.

In my first few weeks (and months) back at work, I found re-engaging my professional-self hard. It was as though every day was an emotional tug of war between my ‘old’ working self and new parent identity. I struggled to see how I could operate with the clarity I’d once had at work. And I felt anxious about the time away from my little boy (not helped by the tears at nursery school drop off and pick up!).

This ‘mum guilt’ and ‘work guilt’ wasn’t helping me be the parent or professional I wanted to be. I needed to find a way to re-focus.

I achieved this by taking time to write down what’s most important to me at work and in life. My values. What this helped me to recognise was that, rather than viewing my roles as a parent and professional as two competing forces – I needed to see them in co-existence. Yes, my context had changed, and my priorities had shifted. The way I would work and parent going forward would be different. But ultimately, both would continue to be an important part of my evolving identity and growth as a person. 

The great thing about this exercise is there are no right or wrong answers. It’s simply designed to help re-gain confidence and clarity in the personal strengths and qualities you want to express across all the different areas in your life (work, family, relationships, health…), which in turn helps to re-connect with (or re-evaluate) the direction you wish to take. 

Doing this regularly (before, during and after leave) means you can revisit and remind yourself of the things that are most important to you, which is particularly valuable at times when your attention can feel a bit one-sided. It also offers the chance to take stock of what’s most important to you right now, so you can focus first on that.

Once you have this clarity, it becomes a little easier to take steps towards achieving more meaningful work and life goals, however small. Which you can then develop and grow over time. Watch out for unhelpful expectations (your own and others) that you can instantly switch from 0 – 100mph back into your career and try to find constructive and positive ways to manage this. My focus on work now is quite different to where it was a year ago. And I’m constantly celebrating the little successes that tell me I’m making progress, even if that progress is slower some weeks than others. 

  1. Remember you are not alone – build a support network

When I ask working parents to share what helped them most in their transition back to work, the most common response is ‘my network of friends, colleagues, working parents’ group, NCT buddies…’. Returning to work after leave is an exciting time, and it’s an emotional time. Whilst everyone’s experience is unique, returning to work is something that many parents have been through, and so there’s valuable advice and reassurance out there. Having someone you can openly talk to – without fear of judgement – is also very powerful. 

The continued support I receive from my amazing network of wonderful mums has been such an important part in my own return to work journey. This support was instrumental in building my self-belief and confidence in readiness to take my biggest leap yet towards achieving my meaningful work-life balance. As a Psychologist, I’m driven by the hope that what I do has a positive impact for the people I support. As a mum, I want nothing more than to be a positive influence in my son’s life. And so, three months ago, I decided to launch my own company: Parenting Point – a meaningful work-life balance company offering practical guidance and psychological support to working parents. 

As part of my work, I openly and honestly tell my own evolving working parenthood story with others. Because when we share our experiences, they become normalised, which helps everyone feel more connected and supported during the ups and the downs that we all face along the way. 

I regularly share practical psychology tips on my Instagram page @Parenting_Point to support the working parent community. And I love to hear yours too.

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