After a long absence from employment outside the home — I have most definitely been ‘working’ for the last seven years — I’ve recently re-joined the workforce. I never intended to stay quite so long out of the rat race, but my maternity leave got somewhat extended by relocating to Chicago from the UK, having a second kid and waiting several years for green cards and permission to work. But as my youngest headed off to preschool last year, the time felt right for me to get back into the workplace and start earning my keep.
However, things have changed since I left my last full-time role, and while I’ve been able to dip my toe into the water fairly cautiously through contract roles, there have been numerous times when I have felt like a fish out of water. Here are a few things I’ve learned about returning to work in the last year that may be helpful for other moms in the same boat.
What (not) to wear
It can feel good to wear something that isn’t yoga pants or skinny jeans, but what is everyone wearing to the office these days? Even the most corporate environments seem to have a much more informal dress code than I was used to.
On a recent contract placement I felt pretty good about my fancy black leggings (the good ones without the saggy butt and knees), denim shirt and wedge ankle boots. I’d even managed to accessorize with a chunky necklace. Then I arrived in the office to see a co-worker 15 years my junior wearing an almost identical outfit. But just better, with better accessories, hair and even make up. I felt like I was appearing in a ‘who wore it better’ glossy magazine feature that I had lost!
However I do have a ‘top tip’ for dressing for work: don’t put on your shirt until you are just about to walk out of the door in the morning, because whether your kids are five months or five years, someone will always manage to smear something on you!
I used to hate commuting to work. The London Underground system is sweaty, smelly and sweltering, even in the winter. In the summer, it’s unbearable. Here in Chicago, the El does a pretty good job of replicating the grossness just to make expats feel at home. But … the walk to the station without having to deal with a stroller or shouting to “watch the alley” every fifty feet is a joy, even when it’s raining. Waiting on a platform or at a bus stop without repeating “stay back from the edge” on a loop is a revelation. I can read a book; I can flick through social media; I can answer an email or text message. Or I can do absolutely nothing, stare into space, or even ‘rest my eyes’. And when I reach my station at the other end of the journey, I can head to Starbucks where I can order exactly what I want, without having to negotiate requests for cake pops, juice boxes and chocolate milk.
Of course, this isn’t universal, but contemporary office spaces are often pretty minimalist. And white. And tidy. You can cross a room without running the gauntlet of discarded toys and legos. You can enjoy clean, bright break areas with hot coffee. You can eat snacks in the open — not hiding in the pantry or your bathroom because you don’t want to share. And you can have an adult conversation without someone repeatedly hitting you or tugging at your clothes until they get your attention. Note — if that does happen in the workplace, it’s an HR issue!
At my last role before moving to the US and finishing work, social media was barred by the company’s IT overlords. Now it seems it’s an essential tool, along with more file sharing and collaboration platforms than you can shake a stick at. There are so many ways of communicating with colleagues that it’s hard to know which one to pick!
I have already apologized to my mother for my frustration as she struggled to learn how to use a PC, making notes along the way and moving the mouse at a snail’s pace. I’m now one of the best customers of my company’s IT helpdesk, taking copious notes as I ask yet again “so how do I search for something?”
So to sum up, and just in case my current employers end up reading this, I certainly don’t view work as a vacation. But I’m enjoying being back, and they do say, “a change is as good as a rest … ”