5 valuable work lessons from maternity leave


There's some kind of expectation that when you return to work after maternity leave you'll be half as effective at your job. Your brain will be soggy, you'll be an emotional wreck, sleep-deprived and uncommitted, because of rushing off to collect your children in the middle of the working day. OK that can happen! But it's good to set the record straight too - returning mums can be EVEN MORE effective. 

Here are 5 lessons that had huge benefits for my work when I went back after 10 months off with my first child. They're things I wished I'd learnt earlier, and which are of general value in thinking about productivity.


1. Tidy as you go

If you leave it until later, it's chaos. You have to do it as you go. My desk used to be a shocker. If the director came to talk to me at my desk, I would shrink down trying to become invisible, from embarrassment at all the piles. Every now and then I would have to dedicate time to having a purge. It was hopeless.

While on maternity leave, I learnt to clear as I go. When I went back to work, my desk was always clear. Even though I had to race out at 5:30 for nursery pick up. No weekend tidying sessions. As soon as I finished a piece of work I recycled the bits I didn't need, filed anything I did. It was that simple. If anyone needed my office, I picked up my laptop and went.  Hot-desking! I would never ever have imagined I could do that! It was brilliantly freeing, and of course, a far better way to work.

2. Time Management

The baby's gone to sleep, you rush to your desk. You've got one hour, or more if you're lucky. You've got ABC on your list. If you get distracted and do XYZ you're just not going to get to ABC. You set your to do list with calm, cool perspective and a sense of priority. I mean, no one ever puts on their to do list:

  • Faff around on facebook for 20 minutes
  • Browse for new leggings because of an advert you saw on facebook
  • Watch youtube videos
  • Get into a long text chat with a friend

To have micro bursts of productivity with set time limits is a brilliant way of improving your to-do-list discipline. You don't need a baby to do this :)

Trust your list! You determined that these were the most important things to get done. Set a time limit, get them done - and then go off to play or relax.

3. Deadline management

I used to leave everything to the very last minute. I went through three years of my degree getting up at 4am each week to write my weekly essay (having done the reading) hand it in at 9am, grab a quick breakfast, and then a supervision at 10. Afterwards, relax for a week then repeat. By leaving it to the last minute I was removing the responsibility of deciding when the piece of work would be good enough to stop working on it. But it's quite a stressful way of working. Imagine how great university would have been, to get on with your work, finish it in good time and enjoy the rest of the week!

After maternity leave, and especially when I went freelance, I wanted to get started on big documents as soon as possible. Children sick, being sick yourself (something you never really had to think about before, but now a reality with all the nursery bugs), cancelled childcare - lots of unpredictables to thwart your work. Starting earlier has the great advantage that you do the work when the momentum and motivation is highest - when the task is first determined. Motivation can often decline from that point, so you want to ride the tide at the start. 

4. Take a break

I used to work through every lunch break. Leave the office late in the evening. Work some weekends. Find an Internet cafe abroad on holiday to finish working on documents that were due,  but I hadn't managed to finish before going on holiday. 

I was lucky - I know it's not like this for everyone - but maternity leave gave me the break I needed to come back to work with a fresh perspective and new energy. 

It reminded me how important it is take breaks - to make you more effective and help you see the bigger picture. You probably know this already!  We need a daily break - a lunch break, radical concept! We need a break at the weekend, a longer break every few months. And every few years, probably a sabbatical. 

5. Take a break before you take a break

It's midnight, you've just emailed off the last piece of urgent work you need to do before going on holiday (or not - see above!). Now you start to pack, tidy up the house, clear the fridge, find the foreign currency, passport, work out how to get there, and so on. Then get up at 6am to get your flight. 

It's exhausting, especially when you do it on top of working flat out the rest of the year. Add children into the mix and it's not longer do-able. Which is a good thing - I wish I had learnt this lesson earlier, like the deadline one. Anyway - better late than never. 

Now, when I plan a major trip, the planning and packing starts months before. When I get a spare moment, I work out the transport options from the airport, and gather a few things in a suitcase as I think of them. It could be 3 months before, which seems a bit excessive, but you have to chip away at it. I wind down my freelance work several weeks before the trip. I aim to finish everything the month before, knowing that I will have underestimated, and other things will come up. That way, I've managed to finish a day or two before going away... which is an amazing improvement on how things were before. 


So for any newly returning mums - take heart! It's not true that "when you're not in school you're not learning" (a sign in a local school that a friend of mine rightly took exception to). You've almost certainly been learning and developing in ways that are relevant to your work even while out of the work place, and what you gained is probably different from mine. 

For the rest of us, these are all things that can improve our experience of working and of life overall. Getting started, using working time more effectively and - equally important - stopping working at the right times. 


Photo by Arnel Hasanovic on Unsplash

(I could have put a photo of my own desk - I've managed to keep the good habits up!)