You’ve probably heard of the “burst of energy” that many pregnant women experience that predicts imminent labor—they scrub their bathroom grout with a toothbrush, say, or alphabetize the spice rack, 1950’s housewife cliché-style. How industrious!
At work, it’s the same thing. The surest sign that someone’s water is about to break in 3, 2, 1, call the carpet-cleaners!...is a pristine desk, a maternity-leave hand-off memo on your Drive (updated hourly), and perhaps a thoroughly-researched proposal for how your company can trounce its three biggest rivals using minimal resources and maximal team-building. Everyone would think you were on speed if not for the fact that you can’t even have coffee!
I experienced this Work Burst myself but also heard about it from the hundreds of new moms I interviewed and surveyed for my new book, The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby (out today, April 4!) Bottom line: The Work Burst is exhilarating when you’re in it, but coming back to work, it can bite you in the rear. Why? Because it’s the last impression everyone (yourself included) had of you before you vanished—poof—on maternity leave.
Weeks or months later, you reappear, sans belly (and perhaps avec sexy breast pump). Suddenly, that last image of your hyper-energized self can be haunting. As you block out precious time to pump, or quietly announce your new “hard stop” of 5:45 so you don’t miss daycare pick-up, it’s natural to wonder if you’re only a fraction as valuable at work as you once were—particularly if you’re going back before you feel emotionally and physically ready. The women I interviewed said they felt “normal” again at the 23-week mark, on average—months after most had needed to be back at their desks. A full 75% said they returned before they wanted to.
But my research uncovered a very shimmery silver lining, too: While you might not be that same plump whirling dervish of energy that you were right before parental leave, you are actually so much more: More efficient, more decisive, more strategic. And, actually, more capable. If you are in this wildly complicated post-baby transition, or work with anyone else going through it, please internalize this list, and shout it far and wide. Policy changes for new families are paramount, but smaller cultural shifts like transparency and pride move the needle, too. So, know that...
New moms are better at pivoting: At home on maternity leave, you were subject to the whims (okay, needs) of the world’s tiniest, hangriest drill sergeant. If Lieutenant Baby woke up famished, you stopped whatever you were doing and fed him. If he blew out a diaper, it didn’t matter where you were -- you were prepared for the assault, with backup everything, including socks. At work, this new skill translates. You have been conditioned out of needing transition time. The meeting got moved up? The conference needs a new sponsor? Something lands on your desk with a deadline of now? No wallowing, no second guessing, it’s handled.
New moms are pros at time management: If you have managed a three-hour-and-six-minute cycle of “wake, eat, play, sleep,” you are now and and forevermore painfully aware of the march of time. This is good news at work. At home, it may have crushed you to realize that, no, you really weren’t going to squeeze in a nap while the baby was napping. But at work, you will have a new superpower: time guessing. It will be years before you look at a clock again and think: wow, it’s that time already? You will just know. More practically, where you may have once over- or underestimated the time required for a task, you are now spot on in your expectations -- and when something takes too long, you find a workaround. Because: hard stop.
New moms are savvy about saying “no.” Congrats! You have just being a lifelong game of “would you rather.” Would you rather: Meet a potential new client for an after-work drink, or save $30 of babysitting overtime and see your baby before she goes to bed? Would you rather: spend two hours training the new intern, or turf that task to someone else? Every decision you make in your new, more efficient workday is done with this kind of mental tango -- and your footwork? It is fancy. When you say no to something it’s no longer even a question of being lazy. It’s because you’ve asked yourself: Is this truly valuable to me (or to my employer and therefore to me)? Because if it’s not, some drooly little person in a onesie would be very happy to claim that time.
And new moms are more committed when they say “yes.” That tango? Once you’ve danced it and decided that YES -- yes, you will go for that promotion; yes, you will extend your work trip; yes, you will take on that challenging new project -- it’s because you’ve really thought it through and committed. You are keenly aware of the compromises you’ve made, and you are motivated to see real results from your efforts.
New moms are better at delegating. This is not a backhanded compliment. Becoming a working parent forces you to make some pretty big-picture life and career decisions—and to quit sweating the small stuff. At your job, you delegate more readily, opening up your calendar and brainspace for highly-valuable big-picture planning and thinking. That’s great for your own career and your workplace’s success -- and the people under you who stretch to pitch in. That’s C-level thinking.
New moms are making the workplace kinder for all of us. This last one is so simple and so true: Like it or not, everyone at work now knows that you have a personal life, and they feel more comfortable sharing theirs, too. When they see you struggle and triumph, they know: This is doable. I, too, can have a child. I, too, can care for an aging parent. I, too, can have a life outside of work that motivates and fuels me. I too, matter. And that’s how the needle gets moved.
Lauren Smith Brody is the former executive editor of Glamour magazine. She is the founder of The Fifth Trimester, and the author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby (Doubleday, April 2017)