In this post Tessa Cooper, Senior Product Manager at FutureLearn, shares her experiences of returning to work after Maternity Leave and how FutureLearn helped her to settle back in.
Last year became the first year that anyone at FutureLearn went on Maternity Leave. In fact three of us in the office became pregnant at a similar time! I’m the first to return to work since so myself and FutureLearn have been learning together about how to best support new parents.
Here are a few things that helped make my return run smoothly:
Proper maternity cover
I was only on leave for 4 months so at one point me and my manager discussed the idea of not bothering with full-time cover and instead asking my team to cover me. This often happens with fathers who go on leave because it’s usually a shorter time. However, I would encourage all organisations to invest in proper cover for anyone that goes on more than a few weeks leave. It meant that I could focus purely on my new baby for those first few months without worrying about work. It also meant I came back to a team who had been well supported. I also benefited from two weeks handover with my cover too, it meant I was fully up to speed when it came to stepping back into my role.
Regular keeping in touch days
Most maternity leave policies include up to 10 paid keeping in touch days which I’d encourage others to make use of. Thanks to FutureLearn working in two week sprints it was easy to pick what days I should come in for. For the last two months of my leave I came in every other Thursday when the all-staff meeting happens. This meeting gives a quick overview of what everyone is working on, so it meant I was up to speed with what had been going on at FutureLearn before I officially returned.
Picking which day to come in and sticking to it was also really important. Firstly because my partner was taking on freelance work whilst I was on maternity leave so it was important to coordinate who needed to look after the baby. Secondly because it helped us to get into a clear routine. And thirdly because it eased me back into work gently – not only was I able to get used to being away from my baby for the whole day but it also helped with getting back into the swing of commuting. I think I would’ve been hugely stressed and tired if I hadn’t done a few commutes before returning to work full-time.
Expressing at work
Before I had my baby our HR lead mentioned to me that they would have to look at sorting me a room to express in. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about breastfeeding and this was the first I’d even considered the fact that I might have to express to avoid leaking all over my colleagues!
I could write a whole separate blog post on the trials of breastfeeding as a working mother, but the most important thing is that my employer and my colleagues have been willing to learn with me, and help me out whenever things didn’t quite go to plan. For instance, it was only when I first started expressing that we learnt that our meeting rooms full of windows weren’t ideal, but our office manager was soon able to sort me a space with frosted windows and a lock on the door.
I also realised that in a role where you’re often in and out of meetings all day it’s pretty hard to find time 2-3 times a day to express. Sometimes it’s necessary for me to ask my colleagues if I can express in meetings. Luckily I’m okay about doing this in front of people, and thankfully all of my colleagues have been very accepting and understanding. Some have even been hugely intrigued about the process and I’m more than happy to answer their questions. Unfortunately many breastfeeding mothers still experience intolerance or ignorance. I’m a firm believer the best way to tackle this is through education, so I would encourage anyone that is interested to ask questions about it to parents you might know. I’m sure they would be equally as happy as me to chat about their experiences.
The last thing I’d recommend if you are considering expressing at work is to make sure you keep a steriliser, a spare pump and spare bottles at work at all times. I had a few stressful moments at the start where I’d forget to bring all the gear in but thankfully my partner was able to drop by with the baby to avert any disasters!
Adjusting your working patterns
My partner and I agreed early on in my pregnancy that we would share the responsibility of caring for our child. We decided that I would drop from a 5 day week to a 4 day week, whilst he would do 2 days of freelancing and 3 days of childcare. My mum also looks after my daughter one day a week. In addition I’ve shifted my hours forward slightly so that I can feed our baby just before I go to work and make it home on time for her feed before her bedtime. I’d recommend finding out about potential working patterns and settling them early on with your employer, it can help calm your worries about returning to work.
Although I now work a shorter week, I still struggle with missing my daughter. To help alleviate this my partner and I agreed that one day a week he would bring her in so we could all have lunch together. It means I get a chance to feed her and change her during my working day. Thankfully FutureLearn have been very accommodating, and again, I’d recommend establishing a routine – not only so you can adjust but so colleagues know when to expect to see a baby in the office.
Being honest about how you are coping
When I first returned to work I felt like I had to ‘be strong’ and show that I was able to comfortably cope with juggling a career and being a parent. But in reality, no matter how much support your partner and your company give you, it is emotionally and physically draining. I have had many mornings where I have broken down in tears when leaving my daughter, and I have had many nights where I have felt so exhausted from the day at work that I feel like I’m unable to cope. However I recently shared how it was making me feel with my team in a retrospective and it instantly made me feel much better to get it off my chest and make them aware of how I was struggling. Don’t feel you have to put on a brave face all the time, no one is superhuman!
Supporting others to balance work and childcare
Now that I’m back at work I realise how much more could be done by workplaces to support new parents. I recognise that I am in a very lucky position to be able to share childcare with my partner, and I’d like to help others who may not be in the same position as me. Whilst FutureLearn has been supportive, and much more forward-thinking than many organisations, we’ve still got some way to go before parental leave and childcare policies are adequate. Having been through the process I’m hoping to work with others in the company to not only continue to improve our existing policies, but also to introduce new policies and support that will benefit all parents.
Want to find out more about life at FutureLearn? Check out Making FutureLearn.