You just made a human. The last 9 months and your time on leave were incredibly hard work, so before you read any further, stop and give yourself a round of applause — better yet, a standing ovation. You deserve it. Now that it’s time to head back to your other job — the one that actually offers a paycheck — you may find that getting back to the grind poses a whole new challenge for you after your absence, and with a baby at home. According to a survey by Modern Working Mothers Magazine, 37% of women felt unsupported and isolated when they returned to work after maternity leave — just 18% felt happy and confident about their jobs.
So, how can you be part of that elusive 18%? Although the transition back-to-paid-job is never without its problems, a little pre-planning can go a long way toward ensuring the transition goes smoothly and help you find a version of that elusive work/life balance that works for you. Here’s a look at five ways to do it while still maintaining your sanity (on what may be very little sleep).
1. Prepare a Plan for Work before Your Absence
Just as you prepared your baby’s nursery with care and attention, you’ll want to put some time into preparing a transition plan for your colleagues who’ll be taking over your duties. Turn your thoughts into action steps by drafting an in-depth document that leaves as little room for questions as possible, says career coach Allison Cheston. “The process of creating an actual document and sharing it with your boss adds an element of professionalism to something that can otherwise feel a little wild west,” Cheston says. Also, try to share with your boss any adjustments you’d like to make to your schedule when you return, for example, working from home a few days, leaving early, etc. “Consider the options based on your personal and family requirements, and create a business case for why this would be good for the organization — not just you,” Cheston says. “You basically want to take charge of the process, but you also want to show how invested you are in the success of the company in your absence,” she says.
2. Phase Back Into Work As Slowly As You’re Able
Although Mondays are usually when most of us think about getting “back to the grind,” after you’ve been on maternity leave, you should pick a midweek day for your return. “It’s just not pretty if it all happens on a Monday,” says Lori Mihalich-Levin author of Back to Work After Baby. If you choose a day later in the week, you may find a more calm office in which your colleagues actually have time to welcome you back, and sit with you to catch you up on what you might have missed. Your goal should be to phase back into this part of your life slowly — not get thrown into the deep end. With that in mind, you should proactively schedule meetings with key stakeholders for the first few weeks you’re back, and make sure you ask two questions: “What did I miss?” and “What can I do to help?” Mihalich-Levin says.
In a perfect world, new moms will be able to work with their companies to find a way to phase back in to their work commitments slowly, starting with a few days a week. A flexible schedule will also give your infant time to adjust to whatever new childcare arrangement you’ve established, Mihalich-Levin says. You also need to make sure you devote some time to yourself. “It may seem like you want to spend every last minute with your baby, but go have that cup of coffee with a friend who can be supportive, go get that haircut you’ve been putting off, get some clothes that fit, send your child to daycare, and have the big cry the week before,” Mihalich-Levin says. Then on your first day back at work, try to plan a lunch with a working parent in your office — someone who has been through just what you are going through, she says. Their encouragement and insight can prove invaluable.
3. Plan Your Pumping on a Calendar
If you decide to breastfeed your baby, then for your first few months at work, you’ll need to find a comfortable place to pump milk, on a schedule that works for you. Having a plan in place for how and where you’ll do this can go a long way towards reducing your stress, Cheston says. Before you head out on maternity leave, talk to your HR department about a location that might fit your needs — many offices now have a dedicated room for new mothers. Alternatively, if you have an office with a door, you could elect to just post a sign when you’re busy so that no one is tempted to enter, she says. You may also want to ask your HR department about having access to a dedicated mini-fridge that you could use for milk. (And if they say no, Amazon has some for under $100). Once you figure out what a good pumping schedule is for you, block out your times in advance on your calendar for at least a year, advises Mihalich-Levin. Yes, things may get shifted around, but you’ll still have the times reserved when you need them, and your colleagues will learn to work around them.
4. Build Your Tribe
No matter how ideal your childcare arrangement is, going back to work may be challenging for awhile. You will also likely feel pulled in at least two directions, and that you’re coming up short at both ends, which is all completely normal, assures Cheston. But be intentional about connecting with other moms. Even something as simple as a group text with other mommas can be great for getting support and feeling understood, Mihalich-Levin says. Also, know early on that you can’t do everything especially when the unexpected arises — that’s why asking for help is so important. This means putting people in place who you can count on when your kid is sick, or when the babysitter is sick, Cheston says. “Put together some auxiliary planning — maybe a grandparent or someone else, but just find the people you can count on as a backup plan when something unexpected occurs,” she explains. Having this network at your disposal can go a long way toward alleviating stress when something does come up.
5. Make Your To-Do List Wisely
We tend to be our own worst critics. “As moms, we tell ourselves things that we would never say to someone else,” says Victoria Hefty, author of The Insiders Guide to Maternity Leave. When you head back to work, it’s absolutely time to quit criticizing and give yourself some credit. At first, working moms may think they can fit an insurmountable number of tasks into a single day — and then they get discouraged when they realize accomplishing everything on the list is not possible, Hefty says. Instead of doing that, choose one thing every day that you’d like to accomplish, and write it down. “Prioritize and focus on what gives you joy, and what matters most in a week,” she says. If only one important task every day gets done, at the end of the week you should rejoice, because that means seven things were accomplished, Hefty says.
And while you’re making out your to-do list, don’t forget that you can get just as much mileage out of a simple daily gratitude list. Take time each evening to think about 3-4 things that you’re thankful for, or that went right in your day. This practice can help you take a much-needed pause, decompress, and even fall asleep faster, says Mihalich-Levin.
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