Reflections on my return from maternity leave.

By Rachael Sullivan on Mar 02, 2020


My son is approaching 18 months, and as he marks yet another baby milestone, I too am approaching a big milestone of my own – I’ve been back at work for 6 months.

Given the timing serendipitously coincided with my 6 months personal development review, I did something rather indulgent for someone who spends most of their spare time doing washing and singing incy wincy spider. I spent some time on myself, reflecting on my personal and professional journey over the last two years.

Many of my reflections are too personal to share. But in a world where too many women are still fighting for equal pay and equal representation in part because they take time out to have babies. I wanted to share some of my reflections in the hope that it might help expectant and new mothers feel more confident returning to work.

All of the views here are my own. You’ll probably find they relate more to you if you work in the advertising, creative, HR or digital space. Having said that, having a baby is an incredibly personal experience. Everyone is different and we will all have different experiences.

Here goes… what I’ve learnt 6 months back after maternity leave

  1. Winners start early

    Working right up to baby’s due date may sound like an efficient idea. But as I hit the 6 months mark, I listened to a few wise friends who advised I start my maternity leave as early as I could. By finishing early, I had heaps of time to get organised and more importantly to chill out. Winner. Truth is having a full year off may sound idyllic, but the reality is often quite different once maternity pay runs out and you are desperate to feel like you have a life away from motherhood again.

  2. Treat going on maternity leave, like you’re leaving.

    I’ve had many chats with female friends who felt they got sidelined as their pregnancy progressed and it knocked their confidence. In the business world this is normal human behaviour, it happens to most of us male or female, when we leave a job. Best to embrace it, rather than resent it. I sat down with my manager and agreed the key projects I would deliver before I left. It was win, win. I got a concrete scope of work and my employer got the best of me on a key project. I left feeling a sense of closure, in control and somewhat graceful, as graceful as you can feel whilst waddling.

  3. I was oddly grateful to my employer for paying me to have this baby.

    I don’t mind sharing; I struggled a fair bit with mummy hood in the first two months. I had a difficult birth, and this led to difficulties bonding. Thankfully I did not worry about money. IMA provide two months of full pay and I will be forever grateful for this one less worry to endure. I know many people, myself included would like this to be more, but we have to be realistic about what businesses and the tax paying public can afford. We have it far better than many in other parts of the world. Having a baby is a personal choice – yes let’s lobby for more, but first let’s be grateful for what we already have.

  4. I used all of my KIT days, to actually keep in touch.

    I’m astounded by how few people use their keep in touch days. I used all of mine and I used them purposefully for my own benefit. KIT days are a wonderful thing for 3 reasons. You get paid for them so it’s a nice boost to your depleting bank balance in the later parts of maternity leave. Secondly you get to practice getting ready for work with a small child, all with the security of knowing tomorrow you can be safely back in your tracky bottoms. Third, it’s a fab opportunity to get an understanding of how things have changed within the business and where you might add value. It provides knowledge and insight that will allow you to have a say in what you’d like to do when you return to work. I used my KIT days to steer conversations and to successfully create a case for a role change that suited me and my employer perfectly.

  5. Returning to work was same, same but different.

    The place felt the same. The people were mostly the same. But most things were different. Clients had changed, roles had changed, teams had changed. There was absolutely no point in worrying when I left about what I was coming back to because the only thing that was certain was that things would change.

  6. The 10,000-hour premise never felt more valid

    Apparently, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. So, even without sleep, Felix would be 14 months before I’d be deemed an “expert parent”. In the first few months of motherhood I had full blown imposter syndrome. I felt like a fraud. During this period, I needed do something, that I knew how to do well. Work was that for me. By going back to work one a day a week, when Felix was 2 months old, I felt like the old me again and it felt good. This weekly confidence boost helped me with a lot of things, especially with the things I was struggling with. It’s not something that is for or indeed possible for everyone. I don’t know how I would have felt if I’d gone back to work full time when Felix was that young. But I do know that it made me think differently about women who I had judged in the past. I now understand why some mothers are simply better mothers because they work. As Mrs Hinch would say #ifyouknowyouknow.

  7. GAS became a huge factor in my life

    GAS being the things I ‘give a shit’ about. Before I had a child, I used to plough through life and work with determination and enthusiasm but little thought for what really mattered. Today I use the GAS question to guide my daily decisions and prioritise my time. On balance it isn’t always my son who comes first. But when I am with him, I make sure I am there 100%, giving a shit that he’s showing me his favourite car or reading his book. That means no emails, no laptop, no phone. GAS is different for everyone, I’m happy to work later two nights a week, opting to do the morning drop off instead. I already miss bedtime so staying a bit later doesn’t make much difference. But client drinks, working away and even Christmas parties? Nah they are no longer for me. The 3 people I give a shit about most in the world are all at home (yep the dog is included) and if I’m not working, that’s where I’d rather be.

  8. I’m more assertive, but less accommodating.

    To my toddler I am staff. He yells, I do. That’s the only deal I’ve been able to broker because he has not yet learnt to articulate himself. I have more patience than I ever imagined, no matter how many times a day I want to bang my head against the fridge. Interestingly this has had the reverse effect on me coming back to work. Where I have far less patience for endless discussions on superfluous ideas and for people who don’t pull their weight. Interestingly this assertiveness has made me better at making decisions and problem solving because I no longer have the time to faff.

  9. Work has become a sanctuary

    Before I had my son, I used to have all sorts of lovely hobbies and rituals to relax. Today my treats are far less extravagant but all the more welcome. The drive to work with nothing but my thoughts, a Rich Roll podcast or Chris Evans for company. Catching up on emails in the works café over a posh coffee and a cake, that I do not have to share. Having lunch alone, life planning. Adult chats with brilliant work colleges that do not involve nappies and their contents. All amazing.

  10. I’m much more comfortable out of my comfort zone

    As a new parent you’re taken way out of your comfort zone and placed somewhere between Mars and Saturn. Parenthood takes you out of your own perspective for at least half of every day. You get to see the world from entirely new perspectives, you meet new people on maternity leave you’d never have otherwise crossed paths with. Given we work in the industry of getting under the skin of different people and working out what motivates them, I wonder if perhaps the industry would benefit from doing more to embrace new parents with this newly embedded skill.

After reflecting on my return to work at IMA. We have launched an initiative at IMA to support new mothers returning to work from maternity leave. In addition to our enhanced maternity pay package. Anyone returning to work from maternity leave at IMA gets a welcome back to work gift on their first day and access to confidential coaching which can be taken at any time during maternity leave or upon returning to work to aid with their personal and professional transition into working motherhood.