Spring often brings a fresh start and, for some moms, that fresh start is returning to work after maternity leave or from a more extended career break. Whatever your circumstance, returning to work, either full- or part-time, is a major transition. This mommy did it twice and so can you.
Set realistic goals. Women sometimes set themselves up for failure by creating unrealistic goals. While you may want to go back to work with the hope of landing that big promotion next year, that may not be possible or practical. The reality is that you will be tired, stressed out, forgetful, and you will make mistakes. Put aside attempts at perfection and celebrate your small victories. I have vivid memories of commuting to work on less than three hours of sleep, stumbling out the door in mismatched shoes (or none at all), and discovering spit up on my shirt midway through presentations. I always tried to think of those embarrassing moments as blips on the screen and to be grateful for being a mother who had the ability and opportunity to return to a job I love. Just knowing that motherhood changed me fundamentally and, by extension, made me a different employee eased the pressure of trying to resume my pre-baby working lifestyle. Going back to work will be a transition for your child, too, and reducing your stress simultaneously eases your child’s adjustment.
Plan ahead at home. Making a plan to handle the logistical issues can make your emotional transition back to work smoother. In the weeks before returning to work, plan and prepare meticulously. Try to put your child on a regular sleep and eating schedule, write down those activities, and make multiple copies for childcare providers and backup babysitters. You may need to adapt to a new schedule, too, and that should include choosing an outfit, showering, or making school lunches the night before. If you are breastfeeding and plan to continue after you start working, pump and freeze milk to build up a good supply. Introducing your child to your childcare provider, even dropping your child off there for a few hours before you go back to work, can help, too. If you thought you were time crunched before having a baby, your normal time for dinner prep will likely be spent commuting, so make or buy extra dinners and freeze them so that you have quick options if you need them.
If you weren’t a listmaker before you had children, you’re about to become one. I found it helpful to have lists for everything. I made lists of everything my daughter needed for daycare, everything I needed to bring to work each day, a written hourly schedule of my daughters’ sleeping and eating times, the names and phone numbers of nearby family and friends who can be contacted for emergencies, food shopping lists, and a schedule for errands. I still forgot things, but not as often thanks to those reminders.
Prepare for things to go wrong. Things won’t always go smoothly no matter how much you plan. While you’re still on leave, do several dry runs of your commute during different times of day and remember to build in a comfortable cushion of time for traffic and other contingencies. Babysitters will call in sick (or never show up at all), so line up alternatives and scout out emergency childcare centers near your office. I stopped counting how many times I went to work so sleep deprived that I forgot something or in such a rush that I spilled something on myself. Having a spare pair of shoes, an extra work appropriate outfit, and personal items in your office or car can be lifesavers during those early days.
Talk to your employer. You and your employer should have a very clear understanding about your mutual expectations after you return to work. Have a candid discussion with your employer about your job responsibilities and don’t agree to take on more than what’s realistic for you. Ask if there have been reorganizations, changes in leadership, or other issues that will shift priorities in your department. If you want a flexible or part-time work arrangement, create a specific proposal and discuss it. Even if your employer isn’t ready to commit to that kind of arrangement before you return, your manager may be willing to see how it goes for a few months and then reevaluate. If you plan to continue breastfeeding, ask if there is a clean and private facility at work. Inspect it and make sure you would be comfortable using it. When HR tells you the room is “private,” is there a lock on the door, is the room soundproof, is there an outlet and a secure place to store a second breast pump. You should also agree on a return to work date, preferably midweek to make your first week back a little easier.
Talk to your coworkers. Your colleagues can also make or break a successful return to work. You will need their support, whether to cover a meeting for you during a childcare emergency or help you remember next steps on a big project, so don’t alienate them. If you are the first in your department to have children, your coworkers may not appreciate your new schedule and its limitations. Make sure they understand that your days of happy hour drinks are probably over, but you can still socialize over lunch or coffee. Your coworkers might naturally inquire “how’s the baby,” but that isn’t necessarily an invitation to whip out your phone and make them sit through dozens of pictures and videos.
Leverage technology. Fortunately for working moms today, technology can help balance work and personal obligations. Consolidate your family calendars. Create profiles on websites like Care.com and Sittercity.com, which can help you find babysitters in a pinch. Applications can help create weekly meal plans, keep track of and pay bills, and plan birthday parties. You can schedule events and send out invitations on social media and find support from online communities of other working mothers.
The road back to work from maternity leave isn’t easy and it’s paved with sleep deprivation, juggling, some frustration, but also a lot of happiness. It’s not possible to cover all of the challenges and possible solutions in this article. My best advice is to be kind to yourself. You’re about to take a big step, there will be pitfalls, celebrations, and you will need to be flexible. You may not be able to celebrate success the way you did before you had a baby, but a little “me time” and a lot of patience can go a long way.