colleaguesWhen I’m asked about struggles new parents face in returning to work after parental leave, one that is always high on the list is “worry about what my colleagues will think of me and my commitment to the role, now that I’m a parent.”  A few weeks ago, a member of the Mindful Return community reached out to me with a very specific example.  She wanted some advice.

Here’s what she asked:

My maternity leave is almost over.  I’ll be back at work next week.  When I’ve returned from maternity leave in the past, my colleagues have always asked, “Are you ready to be back?” And “can you take things on like you did before your newborn?” I welcome any advice on how to handle these questions. I want to answer them honestly but without losing work integrity. I’m up for a promotion and don’t want to lose this opportunity, because my colleagues assume that “I have a newborn and therefore must take it easy.”

Here’s my response:

The question you sent is such an important and common one.  These types of queries to us as we return from leave are also critical to address head-on because, as I’m sure you know, there are very well-documented and pervasive caregiver biases that exist in the workplace.

“Benevolent” though some of our colleagues’ assumptions may sometimes be, they need to be brought to light and corrected, so they don’t hold us back.  I love that you are consciously working toward being assertive and proactive.  I hope you’ll be able to head off any biases at the pass.

At the same time, I hope you won’t take personally any of the questions that are directed at you.  Deeply-entrenched systemic issues are at play here, causing this type of issue to be a struggle for us as parents, writ large.


With all of that as preamble, here are my thoughts on 3 specific and concrete steps you can take:

  1. Your Return Mindset + Journaling. Before you return on Monday, I recommend that you spend some time getting clear on your own mindset.   Sit down for 10 minutes today or tomorrow (set a timer!) and write out your responses to the two questions you listed.  (1) “Are you ready to be back?” and (2) “Can you take things on like you did before your newborn?”

During this writing session, just type or scribble down the first things that come to mind for each question.  The raw, honest truth.  Also ask yourself, “what else might be true?” as you write.  Then, let that sit for a day.

The following day, take 10 more minutes to look over your responses.  See how you might go about organizing the thoughts you wrote down.  That way you can have thoughts at-the-ready for your return.

Can you frame and word how you are feeling in a way that conveys both confidence and honesty?  As an example, my own instinct would be to bristle and immediately get defensive upon hearing my commitment questioned.  I’d probably work on starting a response with some version of “I’m so glad you asked that question. I am really excited to be talking about my career again!”

  1. Take the Lead on the Conversations You Have with Colleagues: It sounds from your note as though this potential promotion is really important to you.  Even if no one asks these specific questions upon your return this time around, how can you communicate your current truth in a way that puts you in the driver’s seat?

Is there a message you might draft and send out to your team upon your return, that highlights your commitment to your role and to the organization, while also asking for flexibility while you re-integrate?  For example, you might convey some form of the following sentiment:

I’m so grateful for all of your good wishes while I was out!  My family is doing really well, and I’m excited to be back.  As I know from prior returns from leave – something I’m an expert at now – this return will be a several-month transition process. I, with your help, will be working out the scheduling and other kinks as I go. My time away these past few months has made me even more committed to our team’s mission of X.  I’m excited about Y and Z project and can’t wait to catch up with you.

You can also weave these themes into conversations with the individual or team who will be deciding on your promotion.  Perhaps at some point, you might even directly say to whoever those decision-makers are: “In the event there is a question in anyone’s mind, I am still very much interested in advancing to {New Role} and am eager to move the team forward.”

To the extent such skills are relevant to the role you are aspiring to, perhaps there is even a way to communicate specific leadership skills that you are honing through parenthood that you will be bringing to the team in spades as a result of your experience as a parent.  (Working parents do, after all, make amazing leaders.)

  1. Believe in Your Leadership in This New Form. Leadership as a mom of 3 does not need to look identical to leadership as a mom of 2. Or a mom of 1. Or someone who is not a parent at all.  You will work differently than before.  Your schedule will be different.  It is inevitable that each birth experience changed you…I would argue, for the better, the more mature, and the more aware.

You are not “less” of a leader as a result of each additional child but *more* of one.  You have every right to stand in and own both your current role and the one you aspire to with the confidence that each is earned and deserves to be appropriately rewarded.  To the extent you need more support in believing this deep in your soul or communicating it to others, perhaps consider some 1:1 working parent coaching.  (We now have that available through Mindful Return – see the bottom of this blog post for more info.)

You’ve got this, mama.  I and the entire Mindful Return community will be cheering you on as you return on Monday.

PS – if you return and wind up feeling as though your employer might be discriminating against you because of your caregiving status, please reach out to the Center for Work-Life Law’s free legal hotline.  Many members of this community have gotten excellent advice from the practitioners there.


Back to Work After Baby

Want more practical tips on working parenthood?  Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave

Our Gift To You

At Mindful Return, we know that calm, thoughtful planning, and time for reflection, are keys to success in working parent life. Our FREE guide, 99 Questions to Ask Yourself Before, During, and After Maternity Leave, is our gift to you and your new bundle of joy.

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