If you’re anything like I was, you try not to think about the end of your maternity leave. At all. But, if you’re anything like me, you secretly wished you could think about your return to work in a peaceful, somewhat less terrified, healthy way. One that let you do the planning and growing you needed to, but without all the fear. Without all the worry.
“I don’t want to think about something terrifying like returning. I want to spend all my mental energy on my amazing new baby,” I thought. (And the funny thing is, I LIKED my job…) “I’ll think about it later,” I promised myself.
But when thoughts about the end of my maternity leave crept in - and they inevitably did - it was “Aagh! Don’t know how that’s going to work.” “I’m going to be a mess.” “Oh, to have a nice, quiet office with only adults around and no barf would be AWESOME right now…” “How can I possibly leave my baby?”
And of course crazy things like “Oh [bleep]. Baby is refusing to take a bottle. If I took him to daycare he’d die, so I’m never going to be able to leave his side and will never be able to go back to work!” Ah, the catastrophizing can get funny.
But “a moment can’t possibly radiate fully when you’re suffocating it in fear.” And you want this pregnancy….this time with your baby…these first few weeks back at work…to let your love for your new baby radiate. To let your new life as a new family radiate. To let the new you in your career radiate.
Here are 8 of my top pointers to help you make that transition back to work after leave in a way that is calm, empowered, and successful.
1. Think of Another “I Got This Moment”.
You’ve done big transitions in life before. You’ve had a lot on your plate before. And you made it through. Think about another time you really had a sense of “I got this,” even though it was a big new lesson to learn, or a big hurdle to overcome. Remind yourself of this success to help build your confidence that you can navigate this transition back. You will figure this out, mama.
2. Schedule Time with Your Key Stakeholders for Your First Few Weeks Back.
The first time I went out on leave, I put a lot of pressure on myself to “catch up” on every single thing I had missed while I was gone. This drove me a crazy and didn’t allow me to settle into my new life very well or to dig into new assignments as easily.
My second time around, I took a much more forward-thinking approach. Toward the end of my leave, I took the time to schedule 30-60 minute meetings with each of my key stakeholders at work (direct reports, supervisors, teammates) to take place the first few weeks I was back in the office. When we met, I asked them to highlight for me what key things happened while I was out and how I could help best moving forward. Then I put my leave behind me, and charged ahead.
3. Phase Back In If You Can.
I greatly benefitted from the ability to phase back into work (and to phase my baby into childcare) over the first few weeks. My first week back, I worked something like 10am-3pm Monday through Wednesday, the next week, I worked 10am-4pm Monday through Thursday, and then the third week back I was back to being full time (though with work-from-home Fridays.)
Even if you can’t phase in, starting on a day of the week other than a Monday can help.
4. Know that Baby First Only Count When YOU See Them.
A lot of new parents struggle emotionally with the idea that they will miss their baby’s “firsts” when they go back to work. I’m here to say, mama, that these firsts don’t exist until YOU see them. They could happen just as easily if you were in the next room, or when your baby is alone in the crib. This is a worry I lost sleep over that absolutely turned out to be a non-issue, given the extreme joy and delight I had in seeing those firsts for myself. You can also communicate with your caregiver if you want to request that they don’t tell you about the firsts.
5. Block Pumping Time on Your Calendar.
If you’re pumping, your Outlook calendar can be your best friend. While I was on leave, I blocked an entire year’s worth of pumping time, so that I could carve time out of my schedule that wouldn’t (as easily) get stolen by others. With my first baby, I needed to pump 3 times a day (once around 10/10:30am, once around lunch, and again around 3:30pm). With baby number 2, I had a much more ample supply of milk and only needed to pump twice a day. Having already blocked that lunch time pumping session felt like a win, though, because I got that “bonus” half hour back in my day.
6. Build a Meeting with Your Spouse into Your Weekly Schedule.
Implementing the concept of a “Saturday meeting” and a “Saturday basket” (outlined in more detail here) absolutely saved my sanity as a new working mom. Tossing all to-do’s into one basket to be dealt with at the end of the week can free up your brain during the workweek to focus on your work and your baby. And scheduling a time when you and your partner can talk about the upcoming week, who is on point each day if baby gets sick, etc., can help you cope with the inevitable unexpected events that happen in life with a little one.
7. Remember that Course Correction Is Possible.
A lot of the anxiety I hear from new moms around the transition back to work after maternity leave is about thinking that any arrangement they establish has to be permanent. Remind yourself that if your childcare situation isn’t working for you, you can change it. If the schedule you set for yourself isn’t working upon your return, you can discuss it with your supervisor. And if the joy you are returning to isn’t sustainable with baby in the long run, there are many jobs out there that are indeed family friendly. Change isn’t easy; but it is always possible.
8. Take Care of You, Mama.
I know, I know, you have no time for yourself. But giving yourself space on a daily basis to pause and take time for YOU (think “micro-self care!”) is essential to your own mental stability. Remember that saying: if mama ain’t happy…
You got this, mama. You got this baby thing. You got this work thing. You got this doing both thing. You may not know it yet. But you really do. You will get through this transition back to work, and you have a village of other mamas out there who are willing to help you through it.
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
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