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The mental wellbeing benefits of keeping in touch on maternity leave

Jessica Chivers. Credit Gail D’Almaine.
Jessica Chivers by Gail D’Almaine

By Jessica Chivers

Jessica is a coaching psychologist, the developer of Comeback Community™ and author of Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work. She’s also mum to Monty and Artemis and host of Comeback Coach, a new podcast for people riding the return-to-work rollercoaster.

The views that Jessica expresses in this piece are her own, based on her professional experience. This content is for general information purposes only and is in no way a substitute for legal or medical advice. The charity “Pregnant Then Screwed” offer a range of support services which you can find out about here. You can view our full disclaimer here.

If you love your job, the idea of stepping away and handing over to someone else can be anxiety-inducing. You might have discussed how you’d like your line manager to keep in touch with you well ahead of your leave date. But if that’s not you, and you long to leave your job behind, why should you stay in touch whilst you’re on maternity leave?

My work is about helping employees continue to feel confident, connected and cared for when they take extended leave from work. I’ve noticed over the years that women who stay in touch with their employer – and who do Keeping In Touch (KIT) days – seem to be more comfortable about their return to work than those who don’t.

I believe the following three things are key to mental wellbeing and they’re things we can keenly miss when we’re away from work: 

  • Connection
  • Stimulation 
  • Control

While you are utterly absorbed by the demands and needs of your baby, there’s a side of your brain that isn’t being stimulated in the same way that it is used to. Career aspirations, skills and specialities are on hold and for a time, and that’s fine. But temporarily losing that sense of making a contribution, or the financial, social or intellectual satisfaction that comes from work, can take its toll. You’re craving control but you don’t know where to find it and motherhood is full of things beyond our control. The connection you took for granted with colleagues is suddenly gone and you can feel on the outside and alone.

CONNECTION: That feeling of belonging whilst you’re away

We all know it ‘takes a village to raise a child’, yet that’s not how our society operates is it? When you’re struggling at home with a colicky baby and a tricky toddler it can be such a tonic to receive a text from your line manager or a postcard from a peer. Just knowing your colleagues are thinking about you, are interested in you and haven’t forgotten about you can give you the boost to make it through to bedtime. Even better would be the gift of a Mary Poppins type character turning up on your doorstep courtesy of your employer, but that’s unlikely…

The thing is, employers are often cautious about getting in touch with someone who’s on maternity leave unless you, the person on leave, gives permission. That’s why it’s a good idea to talk about what kind of contact you’d like whilst you’re away, before you go. And you can of course update these preferences as things evolve.

It could be as simple as ‘please drop me a short voice memo every month to let me know how the team is.’ You might also ask to receive invites to team away days and celebration events (when we get back to a world where those things happen) or training opportunities. You can always caveat this with ‘I might not always respond but I’ll be really pleased you’ve been in touch.’ Because that’s the thing: everyone’s experience of motherhood is utterly different and that can make it easier or harder to connect with work. Some women breeze through the early months with plenty of support. Others may be hit with maternal mental health issues. Many are sleep deprived at the very least. If we’re having it hard the last thing we want is to feel pressure to respond to an email from our boss. But having that moment where we feel connected and cared for, because a colleague reaches out, can be priceless.

STIMULATION: The impact of loneliness on new mums

I know how loneliness can creep up on new mothers. Even though mums are never truly alone (and you’re probably craving real solitude) long days without adult company can be gruelling. Once the initial flurry of visitors, cards and presents is over and your partner (if you have one) returns to work, the real labour of parenthood begins. Not only are you physically alone, you’re often carrying the enormous mental load of caring for a newborn. 

It can be boring too, churning through the relentless cycle of feeding, changing and napping and we can crave adult conversation (about something other than babies). We can feel sad about missing out on life with colleagues and friends and it’s also incredibly common for new mothers to resent their partner for escaping to the office (even if that is only upstairs at the moment).

This is where KIT days are so valuable. For a new mother to attend a KIT day, you’ll have had to organise childcare for your little one. This is huge the first time around, but it’s worth it. You’ll plunge into your old life for a day and may find it a relief. You’ll awaken your professional self and may enjoy the intellectual and social stimulation that goes alongside work. KIT days might also reveal that you feel differently about your work and allow you to recognise that you have changing priorities and career goals.

CONTROL: Keeping in touch can help you to feel less anxious

Women can sometimes worry about the implications of their team having coped without them and whether their cover has done a better job than they were doing. That’s where keeping in touch can help, especially in the 6-12 weeks before you go back. If you’re having KIT days or informal conversations with colleagues, you start to pick up the pulse of your professional world and quiet that anxious inner voice that feeds the ‘am I good enough?’ and ‘can I do it?’ fears. Even the act of organising KIT days can give you a sense of control, regardless of what you actually do on them.

A word about maternal mental health and returning to work

According to a survey by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), 81% of women in a survey of 2,300 ‘had experienced at least one episode of a mental health problem during or after their pregnancy. Low mood was experienced by over two thirds of these women, anxiety by around half and depression by just over a third.’

The NCT has published this brilliant piece on “Returning to Work after postnatal depression” which is well-worth reading. Most large companies have excellent mental health procedures in place and if you’re self-employed you might be able to tap into a friendly local (mums) business group for support. Please have a look at Motherdom’s Urgent Warning too, or call the free PANDAS helpline if you are struggling with PND right now.

Jessica is hosting a free ‘Comeback Conversation’ on how to take care of your perinatal mental health with psychologist, doula and author of Birth Shock, Mia Scotland, on Tuesday 25th May 8-8.45pm GMT. Booking here. Our founder, Anna Ceesay, is on a special edition of Comeback Coach for Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, 3-9th May 2021.



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