Returning to work after maternity leave is a stressful time for many women. No matter how well you plan out your birth and leave, going back to work can raise questions and issues that you can’t plan for.

For first time mums, it’s difficult to know what to expect when you go back to work. Even second and third-time parents have different needs and emotions to juggle. Returning to work can be different for each child.

We’ve put together a guide on what to expect when returning to work after maternity leave.

Plan your childcare in advance

When you’re pregnant, planning childcare can seem like something in the far distance. You might have choices like family, childminders or nurseries. Or time, location and money might limit your options.  You can help plan your return to work after marketing leave by understanding your options as soon as possible.

Let’s say you want to use a childminder. Looking at the prices and availability will help you plan for how many hours you can realistically work. Plus, if you’re working from an office, you’ll need to account for travel. Your normal commute may be longer, with drop-offs and pickups from the childminder’s house.

You might be eligible for childcare vouchers to help with the costs. These come out of your wages before tax so you save some money. But if the cost of childcare leaves you with little at the end of the month, you might want to put in a flexible work request.

Flexible working can help you reduce some of the childcare costs as you can reduce that travel time. For help with making a flexible work request, we’ve created a guide for you here.  

Returning to Work – Your Rights

When you are coming to the end of your maternity leave, you have some basic expectations from your employer about your return.

If you take 26 weeks of maternity leave, you have the right to return to the same job.  However, if you take more than 26 weeks’ leave then you have the right to return to your job on the same terms as before but there may have been changes at your work. In this situation, you can be offered a similar job on the same terms.

These terms include:  
• Pay
• Benefits
• Holiday Entitlement
• Seniority
• Location

While you’re on maternity leave, you still accrue holiday as though you were working. You should talk to your manager about when you want to use this holiday.

It’s up to you when you return to work. You can have up to 52 weeks’ leave. Unless your employer decides to ‘top up’ statutory maternity pay – known as enhanced maternity pay –  not all 52 weeks will be paid. However, if you change your mind about when you plan to return to work, you need to give your employer 8 weeks’ notice.

Still breastfeeding?

If you are still breastfeeding when you return to work, your employer must give you a private space to pump or breastfeed. HSE explicitly states that a toilet is not a suitable rest place for expressing milk so you should never find yourself having to pump in the bathroom.

Your employer doesn’t have to provide space in the fridge for pumped milk but it’s a good idea to request it.  If you plan to express milk at work, make sure you let your employer know in advance so they can make adjustments in time.

What to do if things have changed

For some women, returning to work is often the point they realise they have limited options, their work has changed or the job is no longer the one they left.

The most important thing you can do in this situation is to take some legal advice. The sooner you get advice, the sooner you can weigh up your options.

Let’s say that your employer has decided to re-organise your department and this has left you in a position that has less responsibility than when you left on maternity leave. You’ve also been refused your flexible work request and are made to justify leaving a few minutes early once a week.

You have choices about whether or not you want to stay with the company. When you take advice, we can look at whether you might have a claim for sexual discrimination or whether you need an exit strategy so you can move forwards in your career.

The sooner you seek advice, the better as there are strict time limits to make your claim.

You don’t have to accept returning to work and being treated differently simply because you’re a parent.

Coping with how you feel

Let’s say everything has gone to plan and you’re ready to go back to work after maternity leave. Nothing can prepare you for how you will feel on that first day back.

For the past 9 months, you’ve been with your child looking after their every need. Now, you’re back in the office and need to slip back into work patterns that you’ve not done for the best part of a year.

You can have hot drinks, leave a room in less than three seconds and even go to the toilet in peace. But for the first few days, you might find yourself with the feeling of forgetting something important. Returning to work affects women in different ways.  Have someone close to talk to about how you feel as this will help.

Some women switch back into work mode full of confidence that their child is happy in childcare. Whereas others find they have mum-guilt. Moreover, returning to work doesn’t necessarily mean you can put aside being a parent for 8.5 hours.

Children get ill. When they start childcare they pick up lots of bugs and are probably ill on a regular basis. This means taking time off to pick them up early or look after them when they are sick.

In an ideal world, these jobs will be split between parents. However you manage this, remember that you can use your holidays or ask for parental leave. Again, this is also a time when flexible working benefits those with caring responsibilities as it reduces the amount of time you need to be away from work.

Our ultimate advice

Our ultimate advice for returning to work after maternity leave is to give yourself some slack. Being a parent is hard work. If you’re worried about how you’ll juggle the extra commute, extra feeding and washing, plus everything else you need to do, you’ll be heading for burnout.

Instead, accept that some things will slip. No one is perfect and we need support systems around us to help work and raise children. We can’t change culture overnight but we can help ensure how you’re treated at work is within the law.