Before I had a child I'd look at some of the working Mums in my office and feel no empathy for their plight. They had a good deal. Work part time? Yes please. Leave at six. Sounds nice. Have a day off to do what you please? Lovely Ta!
And my impression was that some women had a child and basically lost their business acumen the minute the baby arrived. Their brain turned to jelly. And they were still jelly when they returned (unless they were the new breed of 'man-women' but they were a bit weird). Some of these ideas were myths propagated by colleagues (chiefly male) and some were part and parcel of the popular discourse and culture.
Now I'm a Mum I have a different perspective. Suddenly you have this small, lovely bundle carrying your DNA into infinity and it is the most important thing in the world. Maternity leave is consumed with nappies, feeding, sleep deprivation and worry. I actually forgot all about work. I was in awe of other Mums. Why hadn't anyone told me how hard it was? How the heck did women even get dressed? Let alone work! My days were spent talking to other women about controlled crying (too scary), baby-led weaning (a complete pain in the arse) and the latest offers on wipes in Lidl.
Life became much smaller yet all consuming at the same time. It was quite literally the best and worst of times.
And then it was time to come back. It felt like going back to school but worse because I couldn't sit at my desk and scribble notes to my mate about how the teacher had bad breath. At work you need to work. Nobody is interested in whether your baby can eat a whole carrot or not. Why would they be? It's bloody boring! And they're normal -working people who have deadlines, clients to please, travel to book, emails to send. It's a rude awakening but also a good awakening too.
There were difficult things about those first few weeks. I cried whenever I dropped my daughter at the child minder, calling my Mum to rave about how awful I felt. I got into podcasts because if I listened to sad music on my way into the office it made me feel terrible. But then after the third week I looked around and I felt something shift inside. It wasn't that bad at all. There was no small person dragging on my sleeve, shouting, threatening to jump out of the buggy or needing a change of pants. I could read the paper. I could stare out the window. I could think about stuff. It was just me and a million other commuters going about our business in complete silence.
Few Mums coming back off leave will talk about how much they enjoy work. It's taboo. You're supposed to feel guilty all the time. And some mornings you do. But then there are other mornings when it's great. Focusing on something that is not child-related is liberating. It's nice to immerse yourself in a problem that isn't related to poo or sleep.
And I don't believe in the whole 'Mum-jelly-brain' thing either. Working Mums often have brains that are even more focused. They've honed their instincts. They can separate the wheat from the chaff. They don't want to spend time waffling on about trivia (unless you get them on the subject of sleep - then they'll bore you to tears). They want to get stuff done and go home again.
So now when I know someone is coming back from maternity I have a whole new level of empathy. I'm aware that they're operating on no sleep. That they can't listen to sad music. That they've made an effort to ensure there's no cream cheese on their jacket. That they're grinning more than usual to compensate for the fact that they're having a bad day.
And my advice to Mums coming back is simple. Get on with it and don't worry about what will or won't happen. Congratulate yourself at every opportunity. And if you get a 'well done mail' from a client send it to your boss. Send it to your Mum, boss and all your friends. You're doing great. And you've got clean hair! High five!
I'm aware that for people without children it sometimes looks like a cushy deal. And yes maybe it is. Work part time? Yes please. Leave at six. How nice!
But the reality is once Mums (and Dads, let's not forget them!) leave the office they're leaving for a different kind of work. It's the kind of work that doesn't stop at a certain time, subsumes just about everything and is brilliant yet awful at the same time.
And it's the kind of work that leaves you thinking that maybe your job isn't quite so hard after all.