Returning to work after maternity leave can be a challenging transition at any time, but adding a pandemic into the mix takes things to a whole new level.
Study after study is showing that working parents, and working moms in particular, are some of the hardest hit in their stress levels and employment this year. Among those working moms, there are thousands of women who, like me, were pregnant before the pandemic and are finding themselves navigating a return to work in the time of COVID-19.
As a mom of two boys, I’ve been through two maternity leaves now, one in “normal times” and one “Rona Return." I work as a Technical Advisor for Women’s Economic Empowerment at a large NGO in international development. A few years ago, after seeing and experiencing the needs of working mothers, I became a certified professional coach and started a coaching business to support working moms in making working motherhood work for them, their families and their careers. From these experiences, here are my five biggest pieces of advice for anyone returning to work in a pandemic. These tips can also apply to parents who have taken adoptive leave or caregivers who have taken FMLA to care for a loved one.
This does a few things. It lets you have some conversations with your partner and/or caregivers about expectations, and it gives you space to mentally prepare for returning to work. In the time you would be working, you can take the time to yourself to be alone, go for some pampering, get your work wardrobe together, etc.
Don’t start on a Monday. If possible, return on a Wednesday or Thursday, so you can ease yourself back in with a shorter workweek. When you start work, give yourself time to catch up on the things that happened while you were away. Be intentional about putting time in your calendar to read emails, reports, relevant publications, colleagues’ LinkedIn updates, etc. Be intentional about reconnecting to coworkers and colleagues. This will allow you to feel more confident as you transition to work and “brush up” on areas that might have gotten a bit dusty while you were caring for your little one(s). This is especially critical in the pandemic if you are in a remote working space. Networking strengthens the quality of your work and also serves as a kind of safety net in a time when many companies are downsizing.
The pace at work can sometimes get so busy that you forget to eat or take breaks. Taking breaks is crucial for productivity, especially if you are pumping or breastfeeding. One of the top questions I see from women is how they will be able to meet their breastfeeding goals. I believe that “fed is best," but if breastfeeding is a goal of yours, then you have to allow yourself time to eat enough food, drink enough water, and pump/nurse as needed. I breastfed my older son for two years and am still nursing my infant — scheduling time was critical in meeting my goals.
If you find yourself working from home and managing virtual schooling schedules, be sure to add your child’s/children’s schedules into a master calendar, as well. Daycare and school pick-ups and drop-offs can be added here, too. If you have a spouse or partner, and they are also working from home, make time daily to briefly discuss what each day will look like and how the responsibilities will be managed.
It’s critical to ensure that you are spending your time on relevant priorities when you return. Due to the effects of COVID-19 on workplaces, these priorities may shift. Many women are in "maintenance mode" for now, with goals of trying to keep everyone healthy and staying in the workforce. Some are scaling back a bit to part-time. Others are taking on new positions, advancing in their careers. Again, I encourage you to do what seems right for you in this time. Working with a coach is helpful for clarifying personal priorities and getting strategies for crucial conversations.
I cannot stress this enough. Every person is different. Every baby is different. After giving birth, women’s bodies continue to recover and undergo various changes for months postpartum. Babies go through various stages of development. In addition, people’s reactions to being back at work vary. Some women are really thrilled to be back. Some are sad and wish for more time at home. Many feel a mix of both those feelings.
With the onset of COVID-19, conversations about systemic racism and police brutality, and a major election to boot, 2020 has brought no shortage of stress, worry and anxiety. It will take time to find a schedule that works for you, your workplace and your family. That’s OK! Give yourself time to find the schedule that works. As you identify needs, see how you can address them. We’re living in unprecedented times, so as you evaluate how things are going, be sure to celebrate the successes and look for opportunities for support where you can find them.
What do you think about these tips? Let me know in the comments!
Chloe Bass is a Certified Professional Coach and the Founder of Making Working Motherhood Work, a coaching and consulting organization dedicated to supporting women in making working motherhood work for them, their families, and their careers. She has over 15 years of experience working with nonprofit organizations and INGOs in the U.S. Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
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