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'You had a baby, not a lobotomy' – returning to agency life after maternity leave

Making the transition from new parent back into working life has never been without its challenges, but against the backdrop of Covid-19 it's even harder to navigate. Women in advertising who have already made the leap back, along with those getting ready to do so and industry experts, offer up their advice to others in the same position.

Taking time off work to look after a new baby should be a time for any parent to cherish. However, with coronavirus restrictions having dominated most areas of day-to-day life since March, maternity leave across almost every industry has looked very different in 2020.

Pre-pandemic, research from MMB Magazine found that just 18% of women felt happy and confident about returning to work after maternity leave. 72% of these people worked at management level or above and 37% of the women questioned said organisational support was so damaging that they'd considered handing in their notice.

Amid Covid-19, fresh pressures have arisen for women navigating the return back to their desks (or sofas, kitchen tables and home offices).

Though the current situation is forcing a rethink about childcare and flexible working practices, ad agencies — infamous for their 'who can stay latest' culture, long hours and tight deadlines — are being urged by groups like Creative Equals and Pregnant Then Screwed to update their own parental leave policies to better accommodate working mums.

While the industry awaits a long-overdue culture shift, though, The Drum has reached out to women currently navigating their return back to the office to seek out practical tips for those in a similar situation.

Advice ranges from making a gradual return to making sure your partner is on the same page and going in with the confidence that you're still the same person you were pre-baby.

Scroll down to hear their stories.

'Start Slowly'

Sarah Humphreys, account partner at creative agency Isobel had her daughter Mabel just before lockdown. She's due to return to work soon.

"For me there have been two major challenges to maternity leave in lockdown. The first is the financial side. My husband was made redundant (he works in events - an industry decimated by Covid-19) so we have dipped into our savings a lot more than we had originally planned to.

"The second is not being able to see family. My family are all in Canada and with the restrictions on international travel they didn’t get to meet Mabel until she was seven months old.

"My agency Isobel has been very supportive with regards to helping me plan my return. We’ve been able to talk through various options and we’ve agreed that I will use my accrued holiday to ease my way back into the office. I’ll start with three days a week of work (from home) and two days of holiday per week and I’ll gradually work up from there. It also helps that throughout my maternity leave I’ve been able to join in the agency meetings when it’s been convenient for me so I still feel up to speed with what’s going on.

"My advice to others in the same boat is to start slowly. I will likely spend the first few days and weeks catching up with people individually to get a better sense of how everyone is doing and how our clients are doing as well.

"Pandemic or otherwise, mat leave or otherwise, the most important thing working in account management is to understand your client’s business, so that’s where I’ll focus my energy when I go back.”

'Still shoot for the moon... but pick your battles'

Jade Tomlin, creative director at Tribal Worldwide, went back six weeks after she and her wife welcomed their new addition. She is loving being consumed by a little human after years of loving being consumed as a creative, and says shared paternal leave has been crucial.

"Tribal has been amazing. We have a working parents' Slack group and it’s brilliant for all parents at the agency to talk about different things that come up from fun tips to sharing knowledge around Covid.

"DDB also has a brilliant shared parental leave policy where I’ve been able to take three months this year to spend time with our new son.

"This scheme is mainly used to share the maternity leave, so parents feel more equal in being the primary carer. For me as a non-biological parent, I felt conscious to make sure I bonded as much as possible with our son while he’s young. So, this scheme for me has really been a huge benefit and wonderful experience.

"For me, the biggest thing has been making sure I speak to like-minded people about how you’re feeling and share stories about your child. You may think people won’t care but if it’s a decent agency most people will love it. It will probably make your day easier and cheer them up.

"If I have a bad night sleep, I’ll mention it at the start of a meeting especially if I’m presenting. I think it’s important to express yourself as this new person you’ve become, people are usually happy to help where needed.

"Be patient with yourself, pick your battles, still shoot for the moon but maybe take the slower lane there – for your first weeks back. No one can feel how you are feeling so be super kind to yourself – have tea and biscuits at least twice a day."

'If you can have a baby and survive lockdown, you can do anything'

Dani Bassil is chief executive at DigitasUK. Her baby Kiki was born before lockdown and she went back to work last week.

“Mums and dads feel isolated in the first few months of maternity and paternity leave under normal circumstances, but add actual isolation on top of that and you get some really long, lonely days.

"I look back on those days quite fondly now only a few months later, but at the time it was hard. I felt sorry for my baby Kiki not getting to see her extended family (and still not meeting any of mine in Australia) and there were many times when I felt pretty sorry for myself too.

“On the bright side, my husband worked from home which helped immensely and coming out of lockdown was pretty joyous. From a work perspective, everything has changed now and not being able to be fully part of the team that helped steer the ship was really hard for me. I’ve also had a lot of time to think and, with today being my first day back after eight months, I’m raring to go.

“I started getting my brain back to work about a month ago. Work has been great. To have the freedom to do another job for 8 months knowing that you have the most brilliant team back at the ranch smashing it made it easier for me. I will always be grateful for the support from the executive management at Publicis Groupe. I couldn’t have felt more supported by them or by my immediate team.

“Take your time and be easy on yourself. Your new experience will make you better at what you do. If you can have a baby and survive lockdown, you can literally do anything.”

'You can do this, you've already done it'

Joeli Brearley is the founder and chief exec of charity Pregnant Then Screwed. She is also mother to Theodore and Jack. Brearley was sacked from her job when she was four months pregnant with her first child and ever since she has been on a mission to raise awareness of discrimination and to help other women.

"You can do this because you have done it. You have done this job before, you have had new starts before. You had a baby, not a lobotomy. But it will be daunting and overwhelming and you'll have to adjust to new demands on your time. There will be times when you'll feel like you're going to collapse under the weight of balancing everything, but its really important to remember that you're not alone.

"You have the right to request flexible working, use it. If you need help, call our helpline and one of our advisers will support you in making a request.

"Connect with any parenting networks in your organisation and if there isn't one, consider starting one or consider joining a union. Reach out to other online groups for working mums. There is strength and solidarity in numbers."

'Taking a break from home can be quite liberating'

When Covid hit, Amber Faulkner, Publicis.Poke's head of new business and marketing, had three months of maternity left and her baby had just turned nine months old. She's now back at her (makeshift) desk.

"I found returning to ‘work’, whilst actually being at home, made the whole thing far less daunting.

"Without doubt the biggest advantage of working from home has been that I see a lot more of my child, making it a much gentler transition for both of us. Knowing that I can pop downstairs for a cuddle and give him his lunch most days has really helped.

"Working in new business, I was concerned about how I’d deal with the inevitable late nights before a pitch. But working from home means I can feed and put my child to bed before cracking on with work. And I can go straight from my desk to my bed, without a late-night cab home.

"It sounds shallow, but after a year of wearing slouchy dungarees and no make-up, I was really looking forward to buying my new back-to-work wardrobe and getting my hair done. Transforming into the new ‘work me’. Instead I was sat in a home-made office in joggers with four-inch regrowth.

"What I also really miss the spontaneous chats at the coffee machine. It’s made it harder to reconnect with people outside of my immediate team and to get to know anyone who has joined the agency whilst I’ve been away.

"Now that Zoom meetings have become the norm, it’s really easy to grab a 20-minute chat with someone. And without all of the commuting across London, people have more time in their diaries. Take advantage of that and ask someone who might usually feel out of reach, perhaps a mentor or someone you admire in or outside of your company, if you can have some time with them.

"If your child is going to be at home rather than in childcare, agree with your partner how you are both broadly going to manage it. But make sure you build in some flexibility as it never goes according to plan. Then discuss your plans with your boss and HR before you return to work.

"Whilst working from home has many advantages, try to get back into the office as soon as you are able to, even if it’s just one day a week. Being away from home and all of the ‘baggage’ that comes with it is incredibly liberating.

"There are so many good quality, free webinars available since Covid began. Join as many as you can, especially in your first few weeks back at work when you’re likely to be a bit quieter.

"Sign up for the industry news updates from your personal account and have a quick, regular, skim of them. It’s an easy way to get up-to-speed on the key trends (and industry gossip).

"Finally, make the most of the rest of your mat leave and the time you have to devote to your bubba. Things are about to get a whole lot busier."