It’s no surprise that mums cite confidence as one of the biggest issues when returning to work. Your whole life has changed; you’ve been out of the workplace, things have moved on, and you are trying to establish where you belong and how to slot yourself back in.
I haven’t hidden how difficult the first six months of motherhood were for me. A big part of this was the feeling of losing myself and, as a consequence, the feeling of losing my identity as an individual, a wife and a professional.
Even looking in the mirror was a bizarre experience. A few weeks after giving birth, I hardly recognised my reflection looking back at me because of course my body had been through so many physical changes. All the changes made me question if I still had what it takes to perform at the top of my game.
I even questioned whether people would recognise me, and if they would question my ability. I had to do a lot of work on my mindset to really boost my confidence before I headed back to work for the first time.
It’s so painfully sad when women unfairly lose out on opportunities due to being pregnant or being a mother. But there are plenty of positive experiences out there, so I always encourage women to focus on the opportunities and not on the negative experiences of others, because these can be a detriment to your confidence and self-esteem.
We can’t talk about confidence as a working mum without talking about mum guilt. It’s that feeling that you are not doing enough for your children because of work or other responsibilities.
When I ask women in my masterclasses to rank where they are on the mum-guilt scale, with five meaning feeling extreme mum guilt regularly, and one not having any mum guilt, the overwhelming majority score three and above.
In fact, I have never seen a one yet. My experiences of mum guilt take me back to the early days of my first return to work. I went back full-time after my phased return was over and, wow, the feelings of guilt were high in those early days.
I initially struggled with the idea of working five days a week, because I felt that lots of other parents were working part-time and so were getting quality time with their little ones that wasn’t crammed into a jam-packed weekend. As time went by, the feelings of mum guilt decreased as I settled into working full-time.
I now experience it in waves, often during intensely busy times when I have limited time to spend with my children. I now know what my trigger is: not being able to carve out a good chunk of time with my little ones where it’s just us: no distractions, no emails, and not feeling like I’m being pulled in many different directions.
Mum guilt is hard and I can’t deny its existence, as I’ve personally experienced it, but I also struggle with the term when it comes to working mums. No woman should feel guilty about working to provide for her family, working to reach her goals or working just because she enjoys it.
It’s more than okay to go out to work and not be with your little ones all the time. Mum guilt also extends to non-working situations when you are out doing something for yourself and not with your children. Time doing the things you love without your children is incredibly important. You should definitely not feel guilty for doing that in any way, shape or form.
In fact, I encourage mums to regularly take a break from mumming and get comfortable doing things for yourself. You were you, engaging in the things that you love, for much longer than you have been a mum. I truly believe that creating space for you to indulge in the things that make you happy outside of being a mum makes you an even better mum, partner, friend and employee.
The dreaded mum guilt can be crippling, and it can hold you back from leaning in and grabbing opportunities with both hands, so let’s unpack some tips to help you deal with mum guilt.
The work-life blend
Ditching the idea of balance has been so liberating for me. Chasing after that elusive work-life balance can be exhausting, and the moment when it clicked that it is more than okay to blend my wider ambitions, family and career was a real turning point for me.
It felt like I could stop trying to resolve the fight between the competing demands. Don’t get me wrong, there are still points of tension, but I feel like they are all part of the bigger picture, and that family life and work life can co-exist.
Also, by embracing the concept of the blend, I feel that we move away from the pursuit of perfection. I find that the pursuit of perfection is dangerous. The image of the perfectly put-together woman who breezes through each day, exquisitely prepared for work, never flustered, who arrives in pristine condition just in time for pick-up with a Mary Poppins-like demeanour, is an absolute myth.
It’s the pursuit of that myth that leads to mum guilt, imposter syndrome and other confidence challenges. When working with a goal in mind and adding a family into the mix, it can be messy and challenging but hugely rewarding.
As you blend your family and work, be sure to celebrate every win along the way. No win is too small; for example, making it through your first day back to work after maternity leave is a win, sorting out dinner after a day in the office is a win, getting some positive feedback at work is a win, and finding time for self-care is a win.
All these wins truly make the blend worth it, despite the challenges. The beauty of blending something is that, depending on what you are trying to achieve, you will incorporate different elements in the proportions that you feel are right.
Just like baking a cake, a chocolate cake requires a different blend of ingredients to a baked Alaska. Even if you don’t know the exact quantities you need, you can keep trying out different combinations until you find what works for you. In many ways that is exactly what life as a working parent is all about: blending and adjusting things as you go! Boundaries are also a healthy part of the blend.
Every working mum needs boundaries to survive. Boundaries are super-important. I will admit upfront that I am very much on a journey with my boundaries. As my confidence grows in a particular situation, my confidence to implement the right boundaries also grows.
Boundaries are healthy; they protect our time and our energy, and they allow us to lean into the right things at the right time. They are deeply personal. Some boundaries are very black and white and some are more tangible. They apply at work as well as at home.
Knowing your triggers will help you define your boundaries
Knowing what your triggers are can help you keep the mum guilt at bay. Once you have identified those triggers, then create boundaries around them. The triggers don’t have to just be in relation to your children.
For example, I have to work out regularly. It is one of those things that I love to do and that really helps with my mental health. At the very minimum, I do three high-energy sessions a week.
To protect that time, I have put in boundaries in my work calendar to ringfence it a few times a week. Pay attention to the things that make you feel incredibly overwhelmed and use boundaries to help you reduce the intensity of the overwhelm.
With virtual working, I have found that my calendar fills up rapidly with meetings. Interactions that can happen so casually in an office environment turn into virtual meetings, which can creep into time that you really have to use to focus on delivering key elements of your role. So protecting your time to make sure that you have clear points in the day is another boundary that can avoid triggering feelings of overwhelm.
Communicate your boundaries
This can be the hard bit. Once you have defined what your boundaries need to be, you will need to share them with key people from time to time, so that everyone has a clear understanding and is on the same page.
Don’t apologise when communicating your boundaries; sounding apologetic can dilute the impact of your message. My team and my managers know that on a Wednesday, I leave the office early, and they know that during that time, I won’t be able to deal with any emails that come in, but I can pick them up once the children are settled in bed.
Defining what counts as urgent is also incredibly helpful. People around you may break those values for things that are urgent, but ‘urgent’ can mean different things to different people. With your team and your manager, have a chat about what is urgent and where those boundaries can be broken. It’s an important part of communicating your boundaries.
The Blend: How to successfully manage a career and a family can be ordered here.