From first day jitters to daycare bugs: How we navigated the return to (paid) work after maternity leave

Ahead of Mother's Day this weekend, BMF's creative director, Josie Fox, and associate creative director and innovation lead, Emily Field, share their experiences of returning to work after maternity leave and how their work styles have changed since having kids.

It took just one coffee and some “I don’t know about you, but I” chat to realise we had a surprisingly similar experience of returning to advertising after maternity leave. Not only did we both become first time mums within six months of each other, and both return to BMF in new leadership roles, we had a lot of similar expectations of what being a mum in a creative department would be like. And as it turns out, many similar realities. So, in the hope another creative parent finds comfort or solidarity in it, we thought we’d share some.

Why our first day back at (paid) work didn’t play out like the movie in our heads.

In our minds, our re-entrance into the paid workforce was monumental. We’d both booked ourselves a trim, carefully picked out our outfits, and one of us (deeply afraid of failing at both motherhood and creative hood) downloaded a cringey affirmations app to amp up.

Then the day-care lurgies hit us each hard, with one of our bubs even ending up in hospital with a trifecta of illnesses, and we both had to delay our respective start dates. Thankfully, our babies quickly recovered, and our managers were very supportive. Also, our head of HR had forewarned us this might happen and not to worry if it did. Because, just as adults get sick, so too do babies. It’s life.

Take two. We ironed out outfits, hugged our babies goodbye, albeit at arm’s length to dodge the spit up, and strode into the office expecting… something. Look at us, we thought, we’ve done it: had a baby and returned to work with coordinated shoes and no baby vomit in sight. But suffice to say it was anticlimactic.

What had felt like a lifetime to us (and for our babies, it literally was), had, to our colleagues, felt more like a holiday. A humbling but comforting reminder that people aren’t paying as close attention as you think – an excellent fact when you’re still trying to figure out what motherhood in a creative department looks like.

The good news is no one is analysing your every move as much as you are.

Motherhood has a way of turning your sense of self upside down. And for us, that’s felt true of our professional identities as well. We’d both wondered (or dare we say, worried): Has our leadership style changed? What are our new boundaries? Priorities? There’s a bit of an expectation you’ll know exactly what these are. When in reality, we’re still figuring them out – day by day, job by job, virus by virus.

Thankfully there’s a flexible working culture at BMF and people have been pretty respectful of our boundaries, at times even helping to set and reinforce them. But every day, we still have to make the choice to walk out of meetings that run over or ignore emails that crop up during pickup and bedtime.

The tricky bit has been navigating the weight of every boundary set or breached. Does one email sent at bedtime set an expectation? And does that expectation set the wrong example for other creatives wondering if parenting is for them? But while we’re still figuring it out, what we both know for certain is this: setting boundaries is the hardest but most important thing anyone can do. Aside from the obvious mental health benefits, they force everyone to take a breath. And that oxygen benefits the work.

It’s also worth noting that while we’ve felt hyper aware of every decision we make, it’s become clear the agency isn’t watching our every move under the same microscope we are. (There’s that old friend, worry again). And even though we both expected more difficult conversations and awkward moments, the reality has been that the biggest push back has come from within ourselves, and the confidence to ask for what we need.

You can ‘have it all’, but the ‘all’ might change.

Intended as an empowering message to future mums, we found the mantra ‘you can have it all’ intensified the pressure we already felt to be flawless in our new roles as working mothers, while glossing over the structural barriers and biases that still exist. While things have come a long way from even just a few years ago (and hats off to all those who did this before us), there’s a way to go. In fact, the words of the late Betty Friedan still ring true: “You can have it all, just not all at the same time.”

Inevitably, we have less downtime, free time, us time, we time. We can’t work the same hours we used to, but parenting is a crash course in efficiency so we can still get as much done. When it all boils down, for each of us it’s about choosing which role we prioritise when. And reminding ourselves we bring something else to the table. Stepping away for bedtime, caring for another human, and reading fairy tales before lights out gives us a different perspective. And our work is benefiting from it.

And for anyone wondering if becoming a parent will stall your career or mean that you miss out on big stuff, in our experience and to our relief, that hasn’t been entirely true. We were both promoted on maternity leave. Emily (and her bub) went to Cannes. And we’re both back wrangling big campaigns.

It’s definitely different. But it’s still good. And there’s still time to chat and snack, we’re just less prone to faffing about than our pre-baby selves. So perhaps what we’re really saying is this: It’s not necessarily about finding ways to fit ‘it all’ in. But rather, reassessing what your ‘all’ is*.

*With a big caveat that we know everyone’s circumstances are different and we’ve only been back a few months, so ask us again how it’s going in a year.

Josie Fox is creative director and Emily Field is associate creative director and innovation lead at BMF.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.