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The most important decision to make when returning from Maternity Leave (it's not about childcare)

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Guest blog by our Women with Ambition guest speaker Caroline Flanagan; Speaker, Coach and Author of"Babyproof your Career: The Secret to Balancing Work and Family So You Can Have It All"

The transition back to work after maternity leave is not exactly an easy one. Let's face it, there's a lot going on and an awful lot to think about.

Now I know this is a busy time. The problem is, we tend to focus on the logistics, the details, the specifics of every day and how it's all going to work practically. Childcare arrangements, drop off and pick off if you're going down the nursery or child-minder route, timings and instructions if a nanny or your mother in law is your child-carer of choice.

Then there's work. A new work wardrobe, perhaps, if those pregnancy pounds are proving harder to shift than you expected. I remember when I first went back to work after my eldest son Dylan was born. It's not so much that I was bigger. But my shape had changed. There were hips where previously there'd been clean(ish) lines. And don't even get me started about chest size. I went from average to zeppelin to untraceable in a matter of months! But that's a story for another blog.

So there's all this practical stuff going on, these big decisions to make. This blog is not about those, though they are important. It's about the strategic decisions that you need to make on returning from maternity leave that are the key to a successful transition back to work and sanity and success further down the line.

It's the big picture stuff. The stuff you only see if you're sitting at the top of a double decker bus and can see far and wide, the stuff that you don't see when you're the driver of the bus preoccupied with the immediate: all that noise and traffic and road rage around you. When you're stuck down there your decisions are impulsive, reactive. Stay there all the time and you'll lose sight of what it's all about, where you are going, the whole point of the journey in the first place, not to mention the ability to make strategic decisions that will make your journey easier. At best, you'll be stressed and exhausted, at worst, you'll make some mistakes that are fatal for your career.

There are several strategic decisions that every woman should make when returning from maternity leave (you can read about them all here). But today I want to focus on just one:

The decision not to be perfect

Renounce perfection

If you are a mother returning after maternity leave, make the decision to renounce perfection. 

Now I know nobody wakes up in the morning and consciously decides they are going to be perfect - a perfect wife, perfect employee, perfect husband, perfect daughter or perfect mother - but there is nothing like motherhood to bring out the perfectionist in us. We want to do our best for our kid, right? 

Right. But before we know it we are carrying around in our head a picture of what a perfect mother looks like and behaves like, and we try to hold ourselves to that standard. It's the mother we see in the pictures of all those baby books we've been reading, the mother we may have had or, harder still, the mother we always wanted.

Many a working mother has come undone by this awful impossible standard. You see them working themselves into the ground to ensure that, despite the demands of a serious career, they yearn to attend every school or nursery event, make everything from scratch at home and then beat themselves up with guilt when they fall short of the ideal.

Now I want you to consider the other working mothers, the ones that have renounced perfection. They are no less conscientious or loving, they've just made a decision that they can't do everything or be everywhere or please everyone all of the time and that that's ok because they are getting the really important stuff right - like the focus and attention and love a kid needs when they are around, the unconditional love in the air their children breathe, and showing up just often enough at school or nursery to reinforce the message.

I know the sceptics among you will need some convincing. For a start, how do you actually do it? How do you renounce perfection?

How to renounce perfection

Meet my trusty friend the 80/20 rule, also known as Pareto's Law, without which there is no way I would have been able to write this blog (and 3 others), spend 2 days dealing with builders and choosing tiles, stay on top of 4 kids' classes worth of school emails, draft a presentation, sign a new client and read bed time stories 3 nights. All this week. And all without getting stressed. It's taken me almost 13 years of parenting to reach this point, because I spent close to 10 of those subconsciously striving for perfection. I'm sharing my knowledge and experience with you, so you can get here in a fraction of the time.

Pareto's Law says that 20% of your effort creates 80 % of your results. It also says that it you do something to the standard of 80%, to achieve the remaining 20% that will make you perfect will require 4 times the effort you put in in the first place. All very well when you are single, childless and have all the time in the world. Not such a great strategy when you're raising a kid and building a career at the same time.

At first glance, 80% might not sound like a high enough standard to aim for when you're a working parent. Why not strive for perfection in the most important job in the world? Well, seeing as you ask, here are some compelling reasons why:

1. Perfection is not your job description

Opinions will differ about what the role of a mother is, but I don't know any one who would describe a mother's role as "being perfect". What do you think your job description is? I have four boys and I'll tell you mine: to love them and make them feel loved. If I can raise them to be happy, healthy, independent, tolerant, respectful and self motivated, even better. But nothing in my job description says I need to attend every PTA meeting and make an Easter bonnet or nativity costume from scratch (both of which I have done, by the way, and neither of which brought me a step closer to perfection or seemed to make my son feel more loved than if I’d bought it myself)

2. Perfection is overrated

When I think of the friends and family that I hold closest to my heart, the things I see around me that bring me joy, the experiences that make me happy, perfection is nowhere to be seen. And just thinking about it now, I realise how often the beauty can be found in the imperfection of a child's face, the awkwardness of a moment between lovers, or the uncontrollable giggles of close friends at an inappropriate moment.

3. Perfection is exhausting

It's not that you reach a point of perfection and then can sit back and relax because your job is done. It requires extraordinary maintenance, commitment and continuous hard work to stay there. I lived in Milan, Italy for 5 years - had two of my boys there - and I met a lot of people who were striving to have the perfect house or wardrobe. Don't get me wrong. On the outside it all looked very impressive. I even tried it myself for a while, but when I understood the energy, time and money consumed in trying to maintain this standard I got a huge headache and had to go and lie down. And speaking of time, energy and money...

4. Perfection comes at a cost

The commitment required to achieve perfection means that it is impossible to do many things to that standard. The thing is, when you're a working mum, you need to do many things and do them well - your work, your relationships, raise your kid, help run the home (or if your partner isn’t pulling their weight, run the home singlehandedly) and look after yourself. If you were a company there would be a different person dedicated to each of these roles. But you're not, you're just you. Very brilliant capable talented you, but there's only one of you. To achieve perfection in any one of these areas would inevitably require sacrifice in another area. Who wants to achieve perfection in the office at the cost of being a brilliant parent? Who wants to achieve perfection in parenting at the cost of all your relationships and your self?

5. Perfection is kind of selfish

The desire to achieve perfection is often attributed to insecurity, but it is also all tangled up in ego. There is something about striving for perfection that sounds like a cry for attention and praise, a need to be recognised and valued. I know this because I am at heart a perfectionist and one of my strongest values is recognition! Nothing wrong with this, except that it can throw us off course and seduce us into seeing perfection as an end in itself which, as I have already argued, it most definitely is not. We need to resist allowing perfection to become an end in and of itself so we can focus our attention on what really matters: fulfilment at home, at work and a healthy happy kid.

6. Done is better than perfect

Striving for perfection is like counting to infinity - there's always a step further you can go. Which means you'll never actually get there and you'll never be ready to deliver. "Real artists ship" said Steve Jobs famously, expounding the virtue and value of those who actually deliver over and above those who are so busy aiming for perfection they don't finish the job. Repeat after me and make it your mantra: "Done is better than perfect. Done is better than perfect."

Decisions about childcare and how the logistics will work are not the only important decisions to make when returning to work after maternity leave. There are also key strategic decisions about the way you plan to work and parent that are critical to your success in balancing work and family and enjoying it all. The decision to renounce perfection right from the outset is perhaps the most important and strategic of them all.

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