Most moms have a lot of emotions about returning to work after having a baby—some of them conflicting. You may feel sad to leave your baby. You may feel relief to let professionals be in charge of baby care while you return to a job you have some idea how to do. (And then you may feel guilt over that relief!) You might be anxious about leaving your child in the care of someone else. Maybe you’re angry that your workplace doesn’t offer more (or any) maternity leave.
Whatever you are feeling makes total sense. This is a big transition and the research shows that—for many women—the return to work happens sooner than they are ready and is harder than they expect. But there are concrete things you can do to help you adjust to your new normal.
Hash out the logistics.
Just getting to work is going to involve a whole new routine that may require packing baby bags or leaving sets of directions, working in a last feed, possibly schlepping a breast pump or even a baby if your child will be attending daycare near your work. Lori Mihalich-Levin, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, recommends brainstorming how the mornings and the evenings will work and coming up with a starter plan. Yes, you will learn things right away and over time that will alter it, but it can make you feel more at ease to have a preliminary routine in place.
Bring your baby to work before you start back.
Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby—who returned to her job as an editor at Glamour magazine after her first son was born—recommends bringing your baby to work before you return. Doing so enables you to blend your worlds a little and makes your new reality visible to your coworkers. Plus, babies are made to attract people, so it’s likely he will soon have a fan club around him and you’ll build in some goodwill by introducing your son to even your most taciturn colleagues. And, you’ll get to show your child where you will be spending your time and explain why. Of course, he won’t understand, but you will, and that’s what matters.
Do a childcare trial run (but then get a haircut).
Whatever morning routine you come up with, try it out before you have to be at work. This enables you to ease into your childcare arrangement, practice the routine to see what works and tweak it, and, then—bonus!—you can go have a few hours by yourself to get a haircut or whatever else will help you feel good about entering the world of no pajamas and daily showers.
Start back midweek.
That first week back is going to be exhausting. Start back on a Thursday if you can swing it. You will be that much closer to a weekend where you can rest and think about what worked in those first two days and what to tweak before your first full week.
Return gradually if possible.
If you can, use a little bit of your leave to have a few days off in the first weeks back, consider a part-time schedule that enables you to get used to being away from your baby and to your new routine. For instance, Brody suggests thinking about cutting your leave short by a week and then taking those five days and using them to be at home for the first five Fridays of your return.
Consider working from home if it might be an option.
After my first daughter was born, my work was willing to let me work from home one day a week, which not only made the transition easier but helped me keep my milk supply up, since I had three days of breastfeeding and four days of pumping.
“If you ask to work from home, come up with a plan of how it will work,” advises Brody. “Show how you will meet your deliverables, make it clear that you will have childcare in place when you are at home, and include a date to reassess the arrangement. It will help your boss feel more comfortable if he or she doesn’t think it is forever.” Of course, if it’s going well . . .
Find support among working moms.
“When I was on leave, I had great support through my local yoga studio, prenatal classes, and moms’ groups,” says Mihalich-Levin, “but they were not necessarily working moms.” When Mihalich-Levin went back to work, she found there were a lot of working moms in the office, none of whom were talking about it. So, she created what she calls her “working moms’ posse,” inviting them to lunch once a month and creating an online discussion forum for them to share their experiences, concerns, and advice. “It really changed the connectedness of the parents where I work,” says Mihalich-Levin.
Check to see if your office already has something like this, and, if not, consider starting a group. Or, if that seems like too much right now, just invite one or more working moms out to lunch or take a coffee break with them in your first week back and ask them how they made the transition. You can build from there.
Work through “I have to quit.”
Every woman Brody interviewed for her book—"no matter her career or level of ambition—said that she had a moment of feeling like she ‘had to quit,’” says Brody. “Some women felt that way for months. Others might have just had one really bad morning when it all came to a head.”
For many moms, quitting is not an option. And for those who can make a change, those early months of working-mom adjustment are not the best time to make that decision, says Brody. Most of the women felt the compulsion to quit when they were still in a developmental transition—what Brody calls the fifth trimester—and hadn’t yet made it to the other side to make a more settled and informed choice.
Looking at research on endurance, Brody found a few ways to work through those initial moments when you feel like leaving your job is the only solution (even if it’s not an option):
• Realize the transition you are going through is finite.
• Make a list of what you get out of your job (including the paycheck!).
• Make a list of what you bring to your workplace.
• Acknowledge your new learning curve. While you may be returning to a job you know how to do, you are now learning how to be a working mom.
• Celebrate small successes. For Brody, this can mean writing something on your to-do list that you’ve already done, just so you can cross it off to feel a sense of accomplishment.
• Be patient. “Try not to make any major decisions for three months,” says Brody.
See your return as a career opportunity.
Though it may not happen in the early weeks or even months of your return, once you are settled into life as a working mom, “you will become infinitely more efficient,” says Mihalich-Levin. She recommends looking at your return to work “through a leadership lens, because you walk away from becoming a parent with so many newly developed skills that you can be using in the workplace.”
In our culture of inadequate support for working parents, it is easy to feel apologetic about taking leave or having to cut out in time for daycare pickup or missing a meeting to pump. But remember what you are bringing back to the job: a whole set of new skills, a developing ability to multitask like a master, and the incentive to work as efficiently as possible. You are valuable to your workplace and will only grow more so as you settle into this new phase of your life. Don’t apologize for raising a person and doing a paid job. Brag about it. You are freaking awesome.
Adapted from STRONG AS A MOTHER: How to Stay Healthy, Happy and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood by Kate Rope, copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press. On sale May 1, 2018.