As Sophie’s* children returned to primary school last week, she was the one overcome by emotion.
It wasn’t the usual first-day-of-school jitters that many parents experience: after nine years away from the workforce raising her kids, this is the year Sophie plans to return to paid work.
“I need to go back to work, but I’ve just lost all my confidence,” she says.
“I’ve been upgrading my computer skills but, still, there has been so many technical changes in the workplace. And socially I’m just used to seeing mums and talking about children."
According to Kate Pollard, Director of Circle In, a company which supports working parents through all stages of parental leave and returning to work, Sophie’s loss of confidence and anxiety is not unusual.
“It’s the most common thing we hear from women, that they lose their confidence on parental leave,” says Pollard. “They return to work doubting their skills and are worried about how they are going to juggle the demands of family and work.”
Even women who take shorter maternity breaks suffer from a loss of confidence.
“The longer mothers stay out from the workforce, the more they tend to doubt themselves and their skills, often resulting in a bigger confidence loss,” says Pollard. “But all women seem to experience a loss of confidence.”
The good news is that, for many women, the loss of confidence is only temporary. And for some, motherhood has even bolstered their professional confidence.
Ghislaine Entwisle, a technical consulting director for the global management consulting company Protiviti, discovered that motherhood enriched her CV rather than detracted from it.
“It took me a while to realise all the value and skills I had developed while I was on maternity leave,” says Entwisle, who has taken parental leave twice, approximately one year each time.
“You come back with valuable life skills, such as your ability to deal with a crisis or your ability to better lead a team. You’re far more resilient because you’ve had all those physical, mental and emotional challenges that motherhood throws at you.”
Entwisle says that we need to reframe maternity leave from a career back-step to recognising it as a tremendous learning curve for women to develop skills that businesses value.
“If parental leave were a year-long personal development training course it would be very expensive – and there’s no question it would add value and marketability to the skill-set of the trainee,” says Entwisle. “But because this education is unpaid and comes with the territory of being a new parent, it seems to lose its value.”
Kate Pollard says that the first step for mothers to regain their professional confidence is to recognise that their new skills are transferable to the workplace.
“Mothers also need to re-establish a supportive network. Reach out to other parents who have recently returned and reconnect with key people at work who can support their career and transition back to work,” Pollard says.
Not only do mothers return to work with greater skills, research shows that they also have greater productivity.
Research conducted by EY found women in flexible roles – part-time, contract or casual i.e. roles often filled by mothers – are the most productive members of the workforce.
One reason for this is that these employees waste the least amount of time checking social media, gossiping at water coolers or analysing the office footy tipping competition. They come in to work, get the job done and then go home to their kids.
According to EY’s report: "In an average year, these women effectively deliver an extra week and a half of productive work, simply by using their time more wisely. In other words, for every 71 women employed in flexible roles, an organisation gains a productivity bonus of one additional full-time employee.”
Despite her misgivings, Sophie is hoping that in the long run re-joining the workforce will build her confidence rather than deplete it.
“I don’t feel independent having to rely on my partner financially,” she says. “And hopefully I’ll feel better once I’m using my brain again, meeting different people again, and getting out of the ‘just a mum’ category.”
*Name has been changed