Returning to work after maternity leave can be an emotionally and physically daunting experience, especially since you now have to balance an additional set of responsibilities. Lynn, an editor at Ahma & Co, an HR business partner, and a mother, highlights:
“Going back to work filled me with mixed emotions. I was excited to go back to work and see my colleagues, have adult conversations, and focus on something other than milk and diapers. At the same time, I felt guilty leaving her for so long. I missed her every second and found myself scrolling through my phone looking at pictures of her.”
Many mothers feel the same, and so, this transition will be no walk in the park, but luckily, we have insights from many who have undergone this experience to share their tips with us. The following are the tips we've gathered.
When returning to work, you will need to iron out the logistics with your team in advance so that you can hit the ground running.
As you approach the end of your leave, be sure to check in with your manager (or HR) to discuss your return-to-work plan. This will help them prepare to welcome you back, and allow both of you the time to sort out any necessary logistics or paperwork. Also, try to reconnect with your team through lunch or a quick drink after their work hours. If your team works remotely, schedule a casual video meeting where you can chat while enjoying your favorite beverage. Setting aside this time before you return can help you become reacquainted with your team on both a professional and personal level before your first day back in the office; this also applies if you're returning to transition into a new role with a new team.
Adjusting to work will require time, as well as in-depth communication with your team. Be upfront with your manager about what you need. For example, if your baby is feeding on breast milk, pumping in the office may be inevitable; it will be essential to openly communicate with your manager so that you can incorporate pumping into your schedule and also ensure that you have a clean and safe space to do so. In the U.S., the Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) requires workplaces to provide mothers the time and space to pump.
You may also need to set additional expectations with the team, such as when you'd need to leave to pick up your child. Figuring out what works may take a week or two, and asking for accommodations may seem daunting and scary - but the transition can be much more efficient if you are straightforward and honest with yourself and the team, so that you can perform at your best with the appropriate support.
Remember this: it takes a village to raise your child, and if you have a partner, you have equal roles in childcare. Before you return to work, evaluate your work schedules and assess how you can divide and conquer. It'll be helpful to research company policies before returning - is there an option to return with reduced or compressed hours, or is the expectation that you'll return with your regular schedule? Will you return to an in-person, hybrid, or fully-remote role? A part-time schedule allows for flexibility but may include a change in pay or benefits; compressing your hours will require you to take on tasks in a concentrated way to get the job done; a full-time schedule allows you to return fully but needs adjusting quickly.
Once you have a clear picture of the scope and schedule of your return, consult with your partner to divide and conquer. Consider things like: how will you switch off on drop-offs and pickups, or coordinating with your childcare help? Throughout this process, maintain open communication and decide what makes sense for you and your family, and align with your manager to ensure that your schedule works for your team.
Going back to work after maternity leave can leave you with anxiety as you navigate the unknown. Before you head back, consider the following to mentally and physically prepare yourself for your return.
As you return to work, you may be experiencing a tornado of mixed emotions. You might be feeling excited about reassuming your professional duties, while simultaneously feeling anxious about leaving your baby. Whatever you experience, acknowledge the emotions as valid and take care of your mental health. Many companies have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that offer counseling sessions to assist you during this transition. It will take time to adjust, so lean on the resources and the people around you.
As a new parent, you may also have to recast yourself, strategizing on how you'd like to leave an impact while balancing your new set of priorities. The goal is to be realistic with yourself and your team about what and how you can contribute It may take time, but setting clear expectations and being mentally prepared to play a new role than what you or the team may be used to will set you up for achievable success.
If your role requires lots of physical movements such as walking, standing, squatting, reaching, etc., start practicing that type of activity beforehand to allow your body to slowly adjust. If you need medical accommodations, do not hesitate to ask for one. On the other hand, if your work involves lots of sitting, you may want to incorporate time for light exercise.
Finally, do a quick wardrobe check before your first day back. Your body has gone through a miraculous journey, and you deserve clothes that feel good! Take some time to try on your old staples, and feel free to treat yourself to a few new outfits that'll have you back at work ready to rule the world.
The first day back to work will be a big change for your family, so it's crucial for you to practice. A few weeks before your scheduled return, start easing your family into the new routine, and assess how the added factor of getting your child ready for the day without you will change your morning schedule - it's likely that your day will have to start earlier than usual to incorporate time for things like feeding, changing the baby, packing a diaper bag, and morning traffic following drop-off. If you are working at home, make sure that your workspace is comfortably set up and that all your electronics and logins are up to date and working.
Just as you need to prepare for your return, so does your baby. Preparing and assembling everything your baby needs before heading to work will give you peace of mind.
Before your first day back at work, you should have a clear plan for childcare, along with backups, that you trust. Securing the right care, such as finding a nanny or getting your child into a daycare program, can sometimes takes months; tackling this task earlier on in your leave will save you anxiety and allow your child to get acquainted with the care before you return to work. Many companies offer pre-taxed dependent care FSA (Flexible Spending Accounts), childcare discounts, or a guaranteed spot in a specific facility, so before you dive into blind research, look into what benefits are available to you.
If you plan on sending your child to daycare, ask about their rules as well as a list of what you will need to send with your baby. Familiarize yourself with the space your child will be spending time in, and start building a relationship with the staff members; your goal should be to ensure that you and your child have spent a few days in this care facility before your first work day.
If you plan on having a nanny, share the schedule that your child currently follows and set clear expectations. Lay out what you think the nanny should know, such as details about your baby, family routines, and the communication you expect to have with them while at work. Be sure your baby has met and spent time with your nanny to ensure that they are a good fit, and that most of the routine questions are answered before your first day back.
If you are currently breastfeeding, you can begin to build up a pumping stash in the freezer. Not only will this help with a quick feeding if you're working from home, but it will also allow the nanny or the daycare to have your milk on hand for feedings. Additionally, if your baby has been feeding exclusively from your breast, start preparing them to feed from the bottle well before you head back to work. Babies who have never used a bottle before may refuse it and starve themselves, so starting earlier ensures that your baby will get plenty of practice for when you're back at work. If your baby is formula fed, prepare formula and clean bottles in advance for the caretaker.
Returning to work after a maternity leave may never be easy, but with enough preparation and practice, it will be much more manageable, at the very least allowing you to assume your professional responsibilities again with more confidence and trust that you have the right support in place. A mother should never feel guilty about wanting both career and motherhood - know that everything will be ok, and that you've done your best in making the best decision for you and your family for the long-term.