A crisis of confidence: Returning to work after a baby

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There aren’t enough words to describe becoming a parent. An intense sense of gain and loss. Equal measures of joy and fatigue, worry and wonder. 

But for all the delight, new experiences and precious moments, there is one question I continually ask myself:

“Where did my confidence go?”

Let me put a few things in context.

I spent the first seven months at home with my son. From seven months, we decided to put him into daycare two days a week to give me a chance to start writing again and pick up a couple of freelance clients- not rushing back into full-time work but just getting back to having a purpose other than taking care of him. A professional purpose. I had also enrolled in my Masters of Interaction Design at UTS. So it was back to work AND back to school. Yippee!

Maternity leave for me was very isolating. My partner and I don’t have any family in Sydney, and only a few friends having relocated recently, none with children. I know a lot of women speak about not being able to shower or get anything done during the newborn days. I will probably get shot down for this, but I never felt this at all. Probably because we had zero social commitments and all day to get things done. I never went without showering,  the kitchen was always clean, beds made, washing done, business as usual. But the loneliness. The isolation. That bit hit hard. When my partner got home from his job and asked, “What did you two get up to today?” My two-word answer, often spiteful reply was, “Not much."

I missed my work. I missed being part of creative projects. I missed office banter. Hell, I even missed my boss. The only KPIs I had were the number of loads of washing, the single deadline was to be out of my pyjamas before 10 am. So when the time came to put my son into daycare and get back to my career, I felt relieved and pretty bloody excited. 

Then it hit.

A crisis of confidence I'd never experienced before.

An overwhelming sense of self-doubt, uncertainty, sadness, insecurity sprinkled with side serve of mild social anxiety.

Where had this insecurity come from? And why now, FFS?!

It felt (and still feels, if I'm honest) like after taking a break to have a baby, my skills have disappeared. That post-baby I have less to offer. And that I'll struggle to find great work because I’m a Mum now. To loosely paraphrase Ibsen, I felt like the bouquet after the ball. 

Sounds dramatic. And ridiculous. But those thoughts were playing on repeat in my mind.

To make matters worse, in the next few months, three events happened to send me deeper into this decline. And these, even as I write them seem so innocuous and banal. But it’s really all it took for me to withdraw further from myself and from moving forward.

Meltdown Moments

1- I met with a creative agency who were looking for a UX writer for one of their clients. The producer had found me via Google, we’d spoken, I’d told her I’d been on maternity leave, my experience in copywriting and what little experience I had in UX. All good, she said. We tee’d up a meeting and went through the project. Then they asked to go over my portfolio. Portfolio? Gulp. I hadn’t updated my website in 12 months. And before that, I was working full-time hours with a fintech startup. Even though I was fully transparent about my previous work and projects, and clear about my capabilities, I felt like I did not deserve a seat at that table. The client decided to go in-house for the project (whether that’s true or not; I’ll never know) but this meeting absolutely crushed me. I took my tattered self-esteem home in pieces. Creative agencies can be intimidating at the best of times. And I was not equipped, mentally or emotionally, for all eyes to be on me at that table. What had happened to me? I didn't even recognise myself.

2- The more I got stuck into my Masters, the more I started enjoying the UX/User Research side of things. I started reaching out to a few digital businesses in Sydney to see if they needed any juniors in this area. Many emails never got a response; I was expecting that. However, The Head of Digital for an agency came back to me. Honestly, if I had a left testicle, I would’ve chopped it off to get my foot in the door with this business. Although I was not the ideal candidate he was looking for, he took the time to reply to my email and offered to meet up for coffee at 8am. And what did I do? Well, dear reader, I didn’t respond. Not my finest moment. The invite was for 8am, with a link to his calendar to book in a day. But, you see, with an infant, there’s no way I could get him to daycare and then get myself to Surry Hills before 8am. But, I couldn’t say this. Because- who the f*ck cares? My first interaction was going to be, “Well, sir… I’m a Mum… And… I have a baby… And daycare doesn’t open until 7am… and …” - The self-talk, again, of not being worthy to get a seat at the table, or merely coffee with another person- was running on repeat. So instead of making excuses, or explaining the reality of my situation, I just didn’t respond. 

3- I took a project that I knew was not going to end well. As freelancers, we’ve all done it! We accept work not aligned with our expertise, and it turns out to be a big mistake. The red flags were the number of writers she had worked with previously who ‘hadn’t worked out’. The other red flag was an obsession with wanting to sound like her main competitor despite all my best efforts to encourage her to find her own unique voice, tone and point of difference. We finished the project and parted ways which is fine. But the whole project I was second-guessing everything I wrote, questioning every phrase. And a job that should’ve taken 10 hours took 30. 'I really am shit at this,' I thought.

I started speaking with other Mums and friends from home and I found out I wasn’t the alone in this tough transition back to work. In fact, a 2016 national survey stated only 32% of Australian women felt confident to re-enter the workforce after having children. That’s 68% who did not.

I don’t have the answers in this post. I wish I did. But as the months go on, I am becoming more resilient and better equipped to get on with things. And as fate would have it, more opportunities are arising. Which in turn, rebuilds confidence.

For other parents who may be feeling similar emotions, we need to remind ourselves that during maternity leave our skills didn’t go anywhere. If anything, we've added to them.

We're still worthy. We still deserve a seat at the table. And we still have something to contribute. We're still just as valuable, shit, even more valuable than we were before. The trick is to start believing it.

So, where am I now?

  • I worked my butt of and received a High Distinction and Distinction for my first semester of my Masters of Interaction Design. Let me have a humble brag, dear reader- Lord knows I need it.

  • My son has (finally) settled into day care and is happy, healthy, sleeping and eating well. Praise be.

  • I’ve managed to get part-time work for a UX agency focusing on content strategy and user research, predominantly usability testing and qualitative research- which is fascinating and such a great skill that aligns with UX writing and copywriting.

 And what’s next?

  • To get back out there working with great people, on great projects. Small steps in the right direction. I have capacity to take on UX writing projects and I especially love working with interesting startups. 

Thanks for listening. And I hope this has helped any other parents returning to work. Hang in there! It gets easier.

I'd love to hear from you in the comments below or feel free to get in touch at hello@caseyelmer.com.au