In our latest interview with Maria Cricchiola, Director of Brand Communications & PR at SiteMinder, she opens up about the challenges and transformations of returning to work as a new mother, balancing professional demands with family life, and the importance of flexible work arrangements for new parents. Maria shares her personal experiences and insights on how motherhood has reshaped her approach to career and life.
Maria, as a new mother returning to work, can you share some of the personal challenges you faced during this transition and how you overcame them?
Having been in my company for almost 10 years, I think there were expectations that I’d just slot right back in without missing a beat. In truth, they were expectations that even I had of myself. But of course the transition was far from seamless, and that simply came down to the fact that I came back a different person. I came back as a mother, with thoughts, feelings, priorities, responsibilities and a perspective I didn’t have before.
Everything was hard in the beginning. Everything. After a very deliberate 12-month detox from work emails and almost all things digital, the most basic activities felt foreign to me, and establishing routines felt impossible.
There was a new internal language I needed to learn, an entire year of news to catch up on, new relationships to build, and shifts in ways of working that I had to adjust to. I came back to new leadership, and those in my team had grown in leaps and bounds while I was away. I felt ill-equipped to continue nurturing their growth until I sorted myself out, but I didn’t know where to start. I was told to be kind to myself, but I didn’t know how.
For me, the first step was blocking out my inner critic and accepting what was realistic. I lowered the ridiculous expectations I’d set for myself, and I got very good at managing expectations of when things would be delivered. I stopped listening to others’ definitions of self-care, and created my own. That wasn’t because I didn’t agree with their definitions; they just weren’t realistic for me. So, acceptance was key.
How has becoming a parent influenced your views on work-life balance and your career aspirations?
I’ve stopped trying to achieve work-life balance through evenly-distributed hours, and focus instead on quality time over quantity of time. Mornings are a mad rush. Then, once my standard working day is done, I have two hours, at most, to spend with my daughter before she goes to bed.
So, it’s redundant to try and achieve work-life balance through an equilibrium of hours spent working and with family. Instead, I make sure that those few hours are the best hours of my and my family’s day.
I’ve never looked at my family and career as mutually exclusive, and so I’m as passionate about my career as I’ve ever been. My aspirations haven’t changed. In fact, my self-belief has only grown. It’s said that parenting is the hardest job in the world, so I have even greater conviction in my abilities now than I did before.
With the demands of parenthood and a professional career, what time management and productivity strategies have you found most effective?
Coming back to work part-time sounds great on paper, but it isn’t quite a reality for anyone who works in a role that’s continuously live – and in a global company, no less. I completely underestimated the impact part-time hours would have on my ability to manage my time, or lack thereof.
Where I once looked forward to my weekly No Meetings Day, I discovered that I no longer could, because all my meetings were squeezed into the three days that I was working during the same hours as my colleagues.
In essence, those three days were a sequence of back-to-back meetings. Execution was done during my late evenings, once my family was in bed and my daughter’s meals and bags had been packed for the next day. There was almost no capacity to think critically.
Returning to work part-time made time very finite. I valued every minute and I became acutely aware of any inefficiencies in my day. I scrutinised every half-hour block, made sure every meeting I attended had a clear agenda and outcome, and removed myself from projects and processes where those in my team could add greater value. It allowed those team members to gain exposure and growth opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t get, while giving me the chance to refocus my time.
Can you talk about the emotional aspects of returning to work post-maternity, such as dealing with guilt or anxiety, and how you manage these feelings?
I’d been warned about mother’s guilt, but I wasn’t prepared for it to be compounded by wife’s guilt, daughter’s guilt, sister’s guilt, friend’s guilt and even team mate’s guilt. No one wants to feel like a failure or an inconvenience.
It took a real mind shift to recognise that, in feeling that way, I was only being a nuisance to myself and that I was perpetuating the stigma attached to mothers returning to work. I’d be lying if I said the guilt was completely gone, but I keep it at bay by thinking positively. Every cuddle from my daughter serves as a reminder that I’m doing something right.
One harsh reality of becoming a new parent is that, no matter how large your support network is, there are aspects that can inevitably feel lonely. I’m incredibly fortunate to have such a supportive husband, and to have the support of my team and leaders, but the emotional journey of returning to work has ultimately been one that no one could take with me.
So, I’ve allowed myself to cry and I’ve gone for walks to reset my mind. When I’ve needed to, I’ve found a space for solitude, where I haven’t had to put on a brave face or be strong. My faith is also a massive part of my life and, if all else fails, it’s the one constant that reminds me I can do this.
How has motherhood impacted your professional identity and approach to career development?
While my professional title has never defined who I am as a person, the title of ‘mother’ is now one I wear all day, every day, while at work and when I’m not working. It’s deeply upsetting that it’s a title that’s held back the careers of far too many women, as it’s made me more empathetic, patient and compassionate.
It’s taken my room-reading, list-making and diarising games to a whole other level. (They’re honestly art forms at this point.) Equally, it’s made me even less tolerant of judgement and discrimination within the workplace.
Do I experience setbacks? Sure. I feel the loss of not being able to spend as much time in the office as I would like to. I feel the anxiety of finding cover for days when a team day falls on a day I don’t work. I feel it even more on the consecutive days I need to suddenly take off to care for my sick child.
And, I’m perpetually mortified by how late I can be for some meetings, because my morning just didn’t go as planned. The sacrifices for parents – especially the primary carers, which are disproportionately mothers – are real. Rather than hide my challenges, I’m open about them. Rather than be apologetic, I’m thankful for the unspoken support.
To wrap up our conversation, in your experience, how crucial are flexible work arrangements for new parents, and what benefits have you observed from such arrangements in the workplace?
Crucial is an understatement. There is no amount of crisis training that can prepare you for a child crying relentlessly at 3am. And, just when you think you have a routine down pat, it’s time to start a new one.
The ability to work from anywhere has been invaluable as a parent of an infant who is in daycare some days, with relatives other days, and with me some days. I’ve also benefited from the ability to choose my working days, when life happens and my predetermined days aren’t possible. The flexibility has made me grateful. It’s given me security and assurance, which have allowed me to stay focused.
Ultimately, every workplace should remember that the journey of parenthood is an entirely personal one. Every parent approaches it differently. Likewise, self-care is also very individual. Many, many peers advised me against returning to work part-time in a demanding job, and I chose to ignore that advice.
I simply didn’t want to miss my daughter growing up. While I don’t have as much time as I’d like for self-care right now, it’s care for my future self. It’s a short-term sacrifice for longer-term preservation, because I don’t ever want to look back and wish I’d spent more time with my child.