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Adulting 101: What I have learnt returning to work from maternity leave

SINGAPORE — The weekend before I returned to work from maternity leave, I decided that if I was going to juggle motherhood and my career, I was going to do it like a boss.

Journalist Nabilah Awang examines juggling motherhood and her career as she navigates her return to work from maternity leave.

Journalist Nabilah Awang examines juggling motherhood and her career as she navigates her return to work from maternity leave.

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Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.


SINGAPORE — The weekend before I returned to work from maternity leave, I decided that if I was going to juggle motherhood and my career, I was going to do it like a boss.

I wrote myself a to-do list to complete before the big day of my return: Lay out the baby’s clothes, wash and sanitise all the breast pump parts, boot up my computer, clear my emails, buy new notebooks.

Check, check, all check.

I was nervous about returning to a demanding job, but excited as well. Excited to be surrounded by adults (albeit virtually). Excited to put on proper pants. Excited to feel mentally stimulated again after months of being attached to a baby.

And in my excitement, I was confident I could ace this whole full-time-working-mum gig right from the get-go.

That first Monday back at work, I cried twice.

First, because I was so sleep-deprived that my brain could not piece two sentences together.

The second time because I missed my three-month-old son, Luth, and looking at photos of him made my breasts leak non-stop.

I kept asking myself: How am I going to do this? Will it ever get easier? Will Luth be okay without me?

It made me realise my best-laid plans needed fine-tuning.

It has been three weeks so far since I got back to work, and I thought I would share what helped me manage my return, and pass on the advice I got from experts and others who have gone through this experience before.

#1. Make sure you have a plan for the first week

Two weeks before my return date, I gradually left Luth at my parents’ place for short periods of time, to acclimatise all of us, as my mum would be looking after him while I worked.

I started with a few hours here and there and gradually left him at their place for a whole day.

Still, I struggled with separation anxiety on my first day back at work and ended up insisting that my mum only pick him up to take him back to her place after lunch.

Do not do this on the first day of work. I repeat: Do not do this on the first day of work.

I should have stuck to the morning routine we had practised and handed him to my parents before the work day started, so that the tears — both his and mine — would have dried and I would have been in a professional headspace by the time I sat at my work-from-home desk.

Ms Sher-li Torrey, founder of Mums@Work, a social enterprise dedicated to supporting women to find work-family balance, said that it is important for working mums to plan a schedule that allows them to return to work gradually.

Most importantly, this schedule needs to be as flexible as possible, to give mothers some time to find their rhythm and adjust accordingly. This could mean having an option to finish early, start later, or work from home for a period while the whole family adapts to the change.

#2. Communicate with your boss

Two weeks before my return, I contemplated asking my boss whether I could use the remainder of my maternity leave to take Fridays off as I eased into things.

This would allow me to spend more time with Luth, with whom I get to interact for just about two hours on a regular workday. I figured it would also provide my mum with some free time to attend medical appointments, take walks or meet her friends.

But I couldn’t quiet this nagging feeling that I was asking for too much. My other fear was that I would not be carrying enough weight on my team and others might have to pick up the slack.

Thankfully, I have a supportive manager with whom I was able to have a transparent conversation about the problems I faced.

Ms Lavinia Thanapathy, the former vice-president of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, told me that even the most confident woman might feel the pangs of uncertainty as they return to work.

It is therefore important to have a supportive work environment and bosses.

“A little flexibility without penalty in the first year of your child’s life can make a world of difference,” she said.

The experts also pointed out that after such a big life shift, it is natural to feel like you are doing less than your peers, as your post-baby self would not always have the option to tie up some loose ends on evenings or weekends.

But Ms Torrey reminded me that there is no need to feel guilty.

“You can treat (your colleagues) with a gift to say 'thank you' but at the end of the day, you are part of a team. You help each other out,” she added.

#3. Manage your expectations on what you can achieve as a working professional and a mother

I must admit that I had too high expectations of myself before my big return.

I envisioned my morning schedule to look like this: Wake up at 7am, give Luth a bath, feed him, wait for my parents to pick him up, clean the house, eat breakfast, then start work.

But by lunch time, I would be exhausted and disoriented.

I struggled to read press releases and find the right words to use in my news reports — it was like I had forgotten how to do my job.

I’m someone who demands high performance from myself all the time, so the best advice I got about this was to manage my expectations, especially on the first week back.

A colleague I spoke to about this said it succinctly: “You may doubt your professional abilities after a period of absence, but believe me when I say, you know what you know.”

And she was right. I could think a lot clearly when I stopped following such a rigid morning schedule and allowed myself to take naps during lunch.

I’ve also gotten my rhythm going and am slowly regaining my confidence in my ability as a journalist.

I even start to feel that my skill set is much stronger now than ever before — I am better at working under pressure and multitasking.

#4. Let go of that mum guilt

Ms Torrey said that whether you are a working mum or a stay-at-home mum, it is your job to be present for your children when you can but it’s impossible to be with them round-the-clock.

Agreeing, Ms Thanapathy said: “I deal with mum guilt by reminding myself that I am an imperfect mother raising an imperfect child. I’m not trying to do it all. I also practise being present when I am with him so that I don’t feel guilty when I am not.”

She said that most of what she had to let go was the weight of family and society’s expectations on working mothers.

While this is something I’m still trying to navigate, I am reminding myself constantly that motherhood is not a race, and my mental health and my family’s happiness is paramount.

And even with the greatest plans, sometimes stuff happens.

You get sick.

The kid gets sick.

You and your partner both get stuck at work.

No one had the time to pick up groceries so everyone is having toast for dinner.

I have to accept that some days will not go as planned.

And that’s okay.


Nabilah Awang is a 27-year-old journalist at TODAY, where she covers community, consumer and health issues.

Related topics

Adulting 101 motherhood career baby parenting work-life balance

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