Returning to work after having a baby is a tremendous transition for your career and your family. After weeks (or potentially months) away from the office, it might feel strange to suddenly have to clock back in every day – especially if it means leaving your child behind at home. You might walk through your office doors as a brand new person with different priorities and expectations of what you want to get out of your work. The end of your maternity leave will be fraught with all kinds of emotions, uncertainties, and changes that you’ll need to contend with. On one hand, getting back to work might mean introducing some variety to your life and allowing you to further develop your career aspirations. On the other hand, if you do return to in-person, full-time work, it means spending several hours a day away from your child and the comfort of your home during a time that can already be emotionally challenging. In the weeks leading up to your return to work, and during the first few weeks back at the office, you may feel emotions such as fear, guilt, stress, and excitement. It might be a struggle to balance your child’s needs with your boss’ demands – and all of this on much less sleep than you’re used to getting. Given all this, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and off-balance. The difficulties that working mothers face when their maternity leave comes to an end are completely understandable and should never be overlooked. There’s no such thing as a perfect mom or a perfect employee, but there are several tips and advice you can keep in mind when navigating your return to work that will help you manage the transition and prioritize your mental health.
The first thing to remember is to be patient with yourself. New mothers are often faced with a lot of pressure to do things perfectly, whether it be “bouncing back” to your pre-baby body, making a full return to work, or being an ideal mom who never makes mistakes. These expectations are detrimental, and they should in no way inform the decisions you make about your work-life balance. Instead of attempting to immediately return how it was before you took your maternity leave, try to give yourself some breathing room. Remember that is a taxing time and you’re going to be walking into the office after a long night of feedings and diaper changes. You will most likely be tired, frustrated, and struggling with self-doubt. So, don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to avoid scheduling any key meetings during your first week back and don’t immediately take on any large-scale, demanding projects. To avoid feeling like you’re drowning in everything you’ve missed, you can schedule breaks in your calendar to review the materials of the past few months and reconnect with your co-workers. Some parenting experts even recommend easing back into work slowly by starting off part-time. If you’re only working part-time, you simply don’t have the time to launch yourself full-throttle into catching up on old tasks and taking on new ones. Instead, you are forced to discriminate between which projects you take on and redefine your priorities. This gentle easing-in can be pivotal for determining what your post-maternity leave work life will look like and what goals you want to set.
One aspect of working life you should try to develop before you return to the office is your childcare system. It’s important that you build trust in your child’s caregiver because if you’re confident that your baby is being loved and cared for while you’re at work, you will perform better. You can do this by getting to know your baby’s nanny or caregiver beforehand. You can have them start on a reduced schedule while you are still at home, which gives both you and your baby time to develop familiarity with a new routine. To build a solid relationship, you and the caregiver can try to care for your baby together – allowing you to glimpse what your child’s day might look like when you aren’t there. If you’re opting for a daycare instead of a nanny or babysitter, make sure to take advantage of the tour and get to know the place you’re going to be sending your baby. If you want to feel extra secure, you can also ask to sit in for a day to observe and ask any lingering questions about your child’s care.
So, your baby is going to be in good hands – but what about you? Returning to work is still a monumental change and you might initially struggle to manage your workload, emotions, and parenthood. That is why it’s so crucial to set clear boundaries early on. During your first week back, you should try and have a chat with your boss to delineate exactly what he should expect from you going forward. It’s good to be upfront and acknowledge that the next few weeks might not be smooth sailing as you try to jump back in. If you are working with a team of coworkers, you should also try to manage their expectations and familiarize them with your new schedule. It could be helpful to learn about deadlines and commitments early on so that you know how to tackle them. Even if you’re working from home - a likely possibility during the ongoing pandemic - boundaries are still critical. You should never try to take on the role of parent and employee at once and should instead try to separate your work from your home life. You can achieve this by leaving your electronics in another room when you’re spending time with your baby or by establishing clear time blocks that are solely for working. While you’re defining your new normal in the workplace, you should also try to advocate for your needs (and your child’s). You should be clear about what you want, instead of assuming that people will know what that is. This process could look like trying to reschedule meetings to coordinate with daycare pick-up times or having co-workers take your place on projects or meetings you know you simply cannot manage. While you may feel demoralized or guilty about not stepping up to a task, remember that you JUST had a baby – an incredible and demanding achievement. No one expects you to manage everything that gets thrown your way, so you shouldn’t hold yourself to that standard either.
Throughout your work week, there are still plenty of ways you can make time for your child and the demands of motherhood. For one thing, if you’re breastfeeding, it’s important to schedule a time to pump during your workday. You should block off time in your calendar, allowing a 10-15 minute buffer in between pumping and jumping back into work. Remember that federal law dictates that employers must provide both a time and a place (other than a bathroom and free of intrusion by other people) for nursing employees so if scheduling this time poses a problem, don’t be afraid to take it up with your boss. You can also create time for your child while working by being deliberate about the time you two spend together. Will it be mornings? Nights? Will you have the nanny FaceTime you during your lunch break? If your baby’s daycare center is in your workplace, will you drop by during the day to visit? By figuring out these questions, you can set up special time each day to work on cultivating that emotional bond with your baby. That way, you can think back happily to those moments when you’re apart.
The final – and perhaps the most important – item to consider is your support system during this challenging time. While it’s great to be able to rely on your partner or family, you might also consider branching out into parenting groups or activities. There, you’ll find many moms who are going through the same struggles as you and can lend you an attentive ear or a shoulder to cry on. Emotional support during this time can also mean self-care and carving out chunks in your day where you can focus on just you. You should try to find moments every day where you’re free from the responsibilities of being an employee and a mother like a Pilates class, an early morning walk, or even just a scheduled lunch break. You may find that by giving yourself room to breathe, you’re in a better mindset to confront the challenges in your life.
Going back to work is a trying time, but it doesn’t need to be a debilitating one. The guilt, fear, self-doubt you may feel – it’s all justified and understandable. When you find yourself in moments of crippling insecurity or stress about work, it’s important to remind yourself: you are enough. You were a woman before you had a baby, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to pursue your career goals or fear about leaving behind your child. As a working mom you’re already a superhuman and with a little patience, some adjustment, and plenty of mental health breaks, you can have the best of both worlds.