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This Is The Reality Of Returning To Work After Maternity Leave — And How Mums Made It Work

What’s it really like to go back to work after having a baby? We chat to mums about their experiences, from the range of emotions they felt to the practical solutions that made things easier.
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People always say that having a baby is one of those life experiences that really “changes” a person — a total cliche, perhaps, but also a pretty accurate one. This can be especially true when it comes to returning to work after maternity leave. Some mothers find they have to navigate all sorts of new practicalities — finding childcare, concentrating after nights with little to no sleep, and figuring out finances — while coping with all kinds of confusing and complex emotions.

Although the pandemic has helped to normalise remote, hybrid, and flexible working to a degree and even led to an increased awareness and transparency about what some mums have to juggle when it comes to having a career and children, it’s fair to say that there is still a long way to go.

This year, MALTESERS® is continuing its support of maternal mental health by raising awareness of what mums may face when they return to work after maternity leave: both the positives and the not-so-positives...

Here are some practical tips that have helped real mums on the return to work:

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“Don’t be hard on yourself; no one is perfect.”

Donna, 40, works for the Metropolitan Police in London. After giving birth to twins 4 years ago, she took 18 months’ maternity leave, before returning to work for two 10-hour shifts, 2 days a week.

“I was tired, very emotional, and felt insecure due to time off and changes that had happened. I struggled with becoming a mum and how different I felt,” she explains.

Going back to such an intense work environment as a police officer also came with new, unexpected challenges.

“I never used to be scared in my role but all of a sudden, I was frightened of getting hurt and leaving the girls,” she says. What got her through the emotionally tough times was a strong support network that included her wife, mum, her wife’s best friend, and her best friend.

“Take the help when offered; get the sleep when you can,” she says. “There isn’t a written rule on how to be the perfect mother.”

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“One of the things I suggest people do before going off on maternity leave is to make a list of all the things they like about working / their job / their workplace.”

London-based mum of two Rhiannon works in the public sector and remembers the emotions that came with going back to the office after a year of maternity leave for her first baby and that nursery settling-in period. Thankfully, her workplace has a buddy system which helps parents returning to work feel more at ease, as well as a parent and carers network she’s a part of.

“I remember my first day back in the office, a lovely colleague and fellow mum came looking for me at 9am. Without saying anything else, she said, ‘You know, you get used to it and sometimes you even enjoy it,’ and I was nearly in tears because she was speaking my language and I was so happy to see someone who understood,” she says.

Her top tip for mothers going back to work? Write a letter or make a list reminding yourself of what you enjoy most about your job.

“When you are feeling a little nervous on mat leave, you read this letter and then on the way back in on your first day, you read it again,” she explains.

This list can be useful for all parents (even those who aren’t taking a full year of maternity leave) to help remind them of their purpose when away from their little ones, the community they’ve cultivated in the workplace, or even how much they like the baked goods in the office canteen. Adding career and skills goals to the list can be a good way of seeing what your career priorities were ahead of having your baby and if they’ve changed.

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“I ended up job-sharing with my maternity cover. She specialised in the area I was less familiar with so it worked well for everyone.”

Emily, now a mum of three, was head of marketing at a charity, newly promoted to the role a few months before starting her maternity leave. She and her mat leave cover got along swimmingly and they discovered that their skill sets complemented one another’s so well, they could use them to both their advantages.

“The mat leave and I met to discuss it as my boss was reticent at first but said he’d consider it,” explains Emily, adding that her former boss had left a few months before her mat leave so she hadn’t worked with the new one before returning to the workplace after her first baby.

“Me and my maternity leave cover came up with a plan together and then presented it to him. She (my job share) specialised in direct marketing and I have a background in above-the-line marketing (TV, radio, press) and brand partnerships, so it worked well. We both ran projects that suited our skill sets independently and so essentially divided the role, and had one day when we were both in to discuss things and share plans.

“We had managers who reported in to us so there was always someone there who was working on the projects. And we could ask each other to oversee things on the days we were off if need be.”

One of the reasons Emily felt confident proposing this more flexible-working job share idea is because she’d been hired by the company initially to implement and run a new brand identity for the charity, a task that was more or less completed by the time she’d gone off on maternity leave. She was eager to come back to a new challenge, while still retaining some flexibility.

“Our job share worked really well. We had the odd difference of opinion but on the whole ran separate projects. We both wanted it to work so we made it work,” she says.

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“I certainly hadn’t recovered emotionally or physically by the time I returned to work but I had the support of a couple of colleagues.”

Sarah is a 43-year-old mum based in Sheffield who went back to her teaching role after 9 months of maternity leave. She found that the physical impact of a traumatic birth in which she lost two litres of blood and experienced a fourth-degree tear — a severe laceration of the perineum caused by childbirth — was still impacting her life when she went back to work.

A fourth-degree tear is in many ways harder to recover from both physically and emotionally compared to a caesarean but it’s rarely recognised,” Sarah explains. She relied on the help of her colleagues, who would cover for her when she required urgent access to the toilet (teachers are not usually allowed to use the facilities when teaching).

Since her teaching role requires a lot of work outside of school hours (marking, planning, etc.) with no option for work from home, there was a lot of schedule-juggling when she went back to work. Everything felt rushed, like getting from nursery drop-off at 7:30am to school on time and running out of work meetings in the afternoon to make it to pickup for her daughter.

“We had support with childcare on some days I was working but only from one set of grandparents, which was great. But because we had no one else to ask, I struggled to keep on top of the work I needed to do outside my normal working hours, housework, and time for myself or as a couple. And we felt we couldn’t ask the grandparents to do more than they were already doing,” she says.

When Sarah first went back to teaching, to make the juggling act of work and early motherhood a bit more feasible, she hired some outside help around the house.

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“I negotiated going back to work four days a week, with one day in the office. After a year of maternity leave, I was so excited to go in again, while also having some flexibility.”

Sharon took a year of maternity leave from her job as an editor of a website and arranged to go back to work four days a week, with one day in the office. She was excited to return to a job and workplace environment she enjoyed spending time in.

“I used to say that it was so great because at home with your child, if they fall, you’re worried and anxious and saying, ‘Are you OK? Are you sure you’re OK?’ At work, if someone trips with some tea, it’s more like, ‘You alright?’ then you turn back to what you were doing. The lack of responsibility was freeing.”

Going back to the office one day a week and working the other three days remotely while her daughter went to nursery was the right balance for Sharon, who maintained this schedule for the next year and a bit, before deciding to take on a more freelance, part-time position with the company alongside other writing and editing projects.

“I enjoyed going out to lunch with my colleagues. I love my child but who doesn’t want a little break? Going back to work? It was a relief.”

For more information on how to help mums in the transition back to the workplace, visit

Mars Wrigley is donating £500,000 in 2022 to Comic Relief, operating name of Charity Projects, registered charity in England & Wales (326568) and Scotland (SC039730)

Quotes may have been changed for clarity and/or length.