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5 things I wish I'd known returning to work as a parent

Updated: May 19, 2021

With the start of my Return to Work programme fast approaching, I’ve been thinking about the things I wish I’d known (or believed) when I went back to work after my first child. Here is a non-exhaustive list.

Choices are unavoidable, but make them your choices.

It is not possible to do everything. You can’t work full time, parent full time, have an active social life, work out four times a week and manage to read the book for book club every month. Compromises need to be made. For me, it was working four days a week and spending three with my child, accepting I could no longer have a spontaneous social life, and making it to the gym twice a week. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.

And the important thing was, these were my choices. I chose. Not my boss, not my partner (although I did talk to both of them about it, obviously), and certainly not people I didn’t know on social media.

It’s quality, not quantity – at work and home.

Time management author Julie Morgenstern argues that to feel loved and secure, children need 5-15 minutes of regular, undivided, high-quality attention, and that this is far more valuable than erratic bursts of partial attention. In my experience, this is equally true when it comes to work.

I’d always valued my work by outputs – how much I managed to get done in a day. Having a hard deadline to leave the office at 4.30pm made a big difference. Surprisingly (to me) I found that I could train myself to work in a much more focused way. I was working to the same level, at the same quality, and I was doing it without getting distracted by things I didn’t need to get involved with (for which others were probably very grateful).

No one else is as hard on you as you are.

The truth is that it probably doesn’t matter much to your colleagues if you leave half an hour early. They’ll only notice if it directly impacts them, which it probably won’t. If you’re working from home, it’s likely that no one will really notice at all.

No one is looking for you to make a mistake, or fall behind (and if they are then that says more about them than you). All the goodwill and credit you’ve built up as a great colleague over the years is still in the bank. In 99% of cases, you’ll get the benefit of the doubt.

This is also true for your child. They won’t notice if you’re ten minutes late to pick them up. If they’re getting the love and attention they need when you’re with them, they’re not clock-watching. All that parenting you’ve done up til now means they’re securely attached enough to cope with a change in routine - and they love you whatever.

To stick to your boundaries, you need to know what they are.

Boundaries are essential to keeping the working-parent-show on the road. But I certainly made the mistake of not clearly defining my boundaries before they were pushed.

I would make decisions on the fly based on what felt right. And I often felt put on the spot because I hadn’t thought beforehand about whether this was ok or not. Sometimes I agreed to things I wouldn’t have if I’d had time to think. Other times I could have compromised more.

These days, I’m very clear for myself about what is OK for me and what isn’t – and it makes it much easier to say no.

Everything changes

As the old parenting adage goes “everything is a phase.” Just as you and your family hit a groove, something else will come along. A new job, a new childcare arrangement, chicken pox, whatever. My eldest started school this year, which is a whole new world. His needs have changed. My needs have changed. There’s a younger sibling in the mix. Oh, and a global pandemic.

I’m getting better at learning to take things a bit more as they come. I’ve heard it gets even more complicated when you hit the teenage years….

If you’ve recently returned to work, or you’re doing so in the next few months, you might want to join my group coaching programme.

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