Returning to the workforce after parental leave – with Rebekah Fraser

Returning to work after taking care of a baby is fraught with a range of emotions like feeling daunted, exhausted, overwhelmed and even excited. We spoke with Rebekah Fraser, founder of The Back to Work Coach, on some tips to balance work and home-life commitments when returning to the workforce.  

Rebekah Fraser with a new mum

Rebekah, what's the split of mums versus dads who're taking parental leave these days?  

In this blog, I will talk primarily about mums returning to work after parental leave, as that's the lived experience of most New Zealand families. Increasingly, organisations demonstrating a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion goals are encouraging and supporting their male staff to share in the parental leave journey. Research shows men who take significant periods of parental leave results in a more equitable sharing of unpaid work and mental load between parents during the parental leave and on-going. It breaks down stereotypical gender norms allowing men and women to be both caregivers and financial providers. It also shortens women's career interruptions resulting in career breaks becoming BAU for both men and women and contributes to reducing the gender pay gap and motherhood penalty. 

In your experience, how do mums feel when they decide it's time to return to work?  

Everyone feels different because everyone comes from a unique position.  

The mum's personality, that of her baby, the mum's work history and experience, how she felt about work before she went on parental leave, the culture of the workplace and the manager and colleagues she's returning to are all different.  

Having said that, some of the common feelings may include feelings of nervousness, apprehension and anxiety: 

  • "what has changed while I've been away?" 
  • "can I still perform as I used to?" 
  • "how will my peers regard me now that I can't work long hours like I used to?" excitement: 

  • "I get to have adult conversations and use my brain again." reluctance  

-"I don't want to work, but we need the money") guilt 

-"I want to work, but what does that say about me as a mum?" 

and, maybe gratitude 

  • "I'm so lucky to be able to go back part-time." 

Rebekah Fraser

What rights do parents have while on parental leave?  

Ideally, they would have discussed and agreed on a Keeping in Touch (KIT) plan with their manager before taking leave.  

A KIT plan includes:  

  • when and how often your manager can contact you  
  • what topics you'd like to be informed about, i.e., invitations to training and development, conferences, team days, project work, social events, organisational changes (the parental leaver can be paid for up to 64 hours of this work after the first 28 days and before the end of their paid parental leave period) 
  • who you'd like to hear from 
  • what your contact details will be while on leave 

This on-going communication is the basis for ensuring parents continue to feel connected and valued by the organisation.

The KIT Plan should inform when to make contact with parents about their return. 

Is mum guilt real?  

"Mum Guilt" is a term used to describe the pervasive feeling of not doing enough as a parent, not doing things right, or making decisions that may "mess up" your kids in the long run.  

It often stems from comparisons we make with other mothers - either in our wider social circles or on social media.  

Mums often experience guilt and negative self-talk about returning to work. Traditionally, women had a single role of childrearing. Nowadays, there is a lot of social pressure and expectation on mums to excel both professionally and as a parent. As women, we've been told we can have it all, and many of us want the best of both worlds. It, however, can lead to feelings of failing at both. For full-time working mums, it might sound like "maybe I'm a bad mother because I work and don't spend as much time as I like / other mums do with their children / the kids spend more time in daycare than they do with me."  

For stay-at-home mums, it might sound like "maybe I'm a bad mother because I don't work, and I'm not providing a professional role model for my kids. They might grow up thinking that women are best suited to caring roles".  

For part-time working mums, it might sound like "I'm torn between two worlds and am not doing either of these jobs well". 

How do you combat those feelings of guilt? 

My experience has shown me that there are a couple of strategies for minimising these feelings of guilt.  

One way is to be clear with who you are and what you want to achieve in life.  

The other approach is to identify where the guilty feelings are stemming from. It may be that you're feeling guilty about being excited to go back to work and putting children into daycare. It's very common! I tell my parents to reframe their thinking - it may be that you're a better parent when you're intellectually fulfilled and don't have money worries.  

Ideally, parents should identify any actions to assuage any remaining guilt—things like staggering work start times, sharing drop-offs and pickups or getting a cleaner, so you have more time in the weekend to spend as a family.  

Will the office environment feel different when parents return to work? 

Many people describe having children as one of the most significant events in their lives. As such, it often does change people.  

The office experience can feel quite different when you return following parental leave, but the changes are not always for the worse. Any negative feelings of 'everything's changed' can be minimised by developing your KIT Plan with your manager before you go on leave. This regular communication with the office can keep you abreast of any changes within the organisation and industry, and help you stay in touch with colleagues so that you still feel in the loop and up to date when you return.  

How do you avoid exhaustion when you return to the workforce? 

For a lot of working parents, tiredness is a regular part of their lives.  

While exhaustion can be a family age and stage thing, it can also be a consequence of bad habits or not looking after our health. It's valuable to establish and maintain boundaries in terms of looking after yourself and saying 'no' to things which don't add value. 

When our daughter was young, I took full responsibility for looking after her, along with all of our household management. When I returned to part-time work, I continued to shoulder all of this domestic workload too. At that stage, I was reluctant to hand over the home stuff as I believed I was 'better at it' than my husband. As time went on, I came to realise something had to give. We worked out what an equitable sharing looked like for our circumstances, and that created a much more sustainable balance for work and life for me. My energy and overall happiness quickly picked up after!  

What do parents do when their children are sick?  

It's a great topic to discuss with your partner and manager and to have contingency plans in place ahead of time.  

Find out and discuss your leave entitlement(s) and what arrangements and tolerances your workplace(s) provides. Decide how it will work within your household before the need arises. Will you take it in turns to take leave? Will you determine who takes leave depending on your respective commitments at the time? Will you work from home? Will you call on a grandparent or sitter? Work out your Plan A and your Plan B and make sure you're on the same page as each other and your workplace. 

What is your advice for staying sane when work and home collide?

There are times when even the best-laid plans come unstuck, and everything feels as if it's converging. First of all…breathe. Seriously! Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. It's because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. With that feeling of calm comes the ability to access your brain's executive functions such as problem-solving and decision-making. It is impossible to make well-reasoned decisions when you are stuck in 'fight or flight' mode.  

Next, make a list of all the things that need to happen. From this list, choose your focus. Ask yourself what is most important and has the most value.  

Next, identify those things that can be delegated or delayed. Outsource. Ask for help. Put something on hold. Communicate with key stakeholders regarding timelines and expectations. Prioritise the critical and valuable things that require your input. Keep filling your cup. Eat well. Sleep well. Get some fresh air or exercise. And lastly, speak kindly to yourself. There is no value in haranguing and criticising yourself. You will be doing your best. Act as your own best friend and in so doing, grow your resilience for dealing with whatever life throws at you.  

Connect with Rebekah Fraser on LinkedIn

Next steps

Rebekah will be joined by Doug Johnson, Managing Director of Tonkin + Taylor, Scarlett Ma from T+T’s People and Capability Team, and Kate Searle, a recent Parental Returner at T+T for a webinar: Family-friendly workplaces: Tonkin + Taylor’s journey, learnings and insights at 12pm, Thursday 29 October. Find out more and register