Eliminating Self Doubt after a Career Hiatus

Many women experience doubt when they return to work after maternity leave. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, reports Carina O’Brien, after returning to work herself.

Take a few moments to think about how much has changed in your workplace in the past 12 months. Most workplaces experience some type of significant change over a year. They can include the implementation of new computer systems or overhauls to organisational, strategical or structural procedures. There might be new products and the subsequent obsolescence of older ones.

Now consider the idea you were absent while those changes took place. The workplace you return to is radically different from the one you left. That’s typically the situation facing working mothers returning to work after maternity leave. It’s difficult to think of a similar life event that leads to departing from the workplace for such a significant period of time.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 74% of mothers returned to work after spending at least 4 months at home with their child. One in four returned to work after 10 months or longer.

As a new mum, women can develop so many new skills and abilities they didn’t realise they had.  These skills were not acquired through formal study. They were through on-the-job training for the hardest – but easily the best – job anyone will ever have.  All new mums – whether they want to admit it or not – experience the same periods of self-doubt. Am I feeding my baby enough? How can I get my child to go to sleep and self-settle? Is my child growing/developing at the ‘normal’ rate?

There are so many questions raised for mothers returning from maternity leave that it can be overwhelming. The self-doubt can easily be compounded by the guilt associated with not devoting the same effort to work as prior to baby’s arrival. It can lead some to ask, “Can I be a good mother while still working? What if I miss an important milestone? Does my employer still see me as a valued worker now that I’m working part-time?”

Research proves the feeling is not imagined with a UK Household Longitudinal Survey in 2019 finding working mothers are 40 per cent more stressed than women without children.

One contributing factor is that mothers generally take on an increased mental load, taking responsibility for organising medical appointments, school activities, sports functions and social occasions. The feeling of being pulled in different directions can lead to women questioning themselves. Add in the extra stress of coping with changes in a professional setting and it’s plain to see why so many working mothers’ self-confidence can take a hit.

The good news is there are plenty of resources available to eliminate doubts and restore belief.

“When I returned to work this year it took me a couple of months to feel confident in my role and the job function I was responsible for,” said Carina.

“I returned to work in a new business segment and in a role that had been vacant for more than 18 months. That took me out of my comfort zone and initially I felt I was treading water.

“It wasn’t until a larger project came my way with some key deadlines that I started feeling like ‘me’ again.”

That was the point Carina discovered she felt she had a purpose again and realised she still had work goals she wanted to achieve.

“Now I have some runs on the board, it’s given me personal and professional confidence again. I feel happier in myself and this has had a beneficial impact on my relationships with both my husband and my son.

“I enjoy work and believe I am a better mum by working. The smile and look of excitement I get from my son when I pick him up from childcare are priceless and my favourite part of the day.”

Carina suggests seven self-help tips for mothers returning to the workforce:

  1. Don’t set high expectations for yourself. Start slowly and build up. Training for a marathon takes time. Build slowly and celebrate small wins.
  2. Prepare for your return both mentally and physically. A lot can be said for reflecting on how you and your partner may face different situations and the emotional aspects of being away from your child. Preparation is key.
  3. Communicate with your village. It’s vital to set and define expectations with a support network. It’s okay to say ‘no’. Learn to ask for help when needed and accept when it is offered.
  4. Communicate with your employer. When discussing your return to work with your employer be open about your goals and expectations. Understand what your manager’s expectations are so both parties are clear and there is no misunderstanding.
  5. Use your 10 keeping in touch days. The Federal Government has a Keeping in Touch provision as agreed by your employer.  These are a great way to keep engaged and up-to-date with your organisation and industry.  Great ways to use these include team planning days, conferences and social functions.
  6. Don’t judge yourself based on others. You have your own story to tell and everyone’s story is different.  Focus on yourself and be happy with who you are.
  7. Keep a journal of your thoughts. Write down any ideas and concerns in your diary, tablet or smartphone.  Writing helps with making a thought ‘real’. Recording it is the first step in understanding what might be causing you to doubt yourself and help identify a way forward.

Self-belief for mums is critical. Every mum has their own story and should be regularly reminded they are doing a good job.

As Annabel Crab said, “Women are expected to work like they don’t have a child and parent like they don’t work”.

Carina urged all working mothers to support each other.

“It is through the networks and communities we create to support and inspire us that women are most powerful and together we can achieve our goals, fulfil our ambitions and satisfy our dreams.”

Carina O’Brien is Melbourne-based and works in Marketing & Communications. During her maternity leave she founded Working Mumma – to support, inspire and connect working mothers on how they can have a career, family and hopefully one day break the glass ceiling.