Back to Work After Baby: 5 Strategies for a Successful Return from Maternity Leave
Oh, baby! A little cherub can turn a woman’s life upside down, can’t it? Yes, the world may be turned around in all the best – and most desired – ways by your little one. And yet, that transition from “working professional” to “working mom” is a full-fledged personal and professional identity transition.
From one working mum to another, I can share that I definitely lost my footing for many months after my first son was born. Then, when my second son arrived two years later, the wheels came off in our household.
Here are 5 things I wish someone had told me when I was preparing for my own return to work after maternity leave:
1. The Return to Work is a Process, Not an Event. I’m not quite sure why I thought I’d head back to work after my maternity leave and everything would be back to “normal” within a few days. Perhaps it was my colleagues who preferred to pretend nothing had changed. Perhaps I was being unnecessarily hard on myself. In either case, I wish I’d viewed my transition back to work as a year-long evolution. It’s okay if it takes you – and your baby – a while to feel like you’re starting to get the hang of a new schedule and a new routine. Self-compassion during this time of big change is a must.
2. If and When Guilt Comes, Experiment with These Reframes. Ah, the big “g” word. Mom guilt is relatively ubiquitous, it seems. We are often expected to work as though we don’t have a family, and parent as though we don’t work. What to do when these guilty feelings creep in? Here are a few reminders and mantras I use when I start getting that guilty feeling:
Anthropological research tells us that “alloparents” have been caring for children for nearly all of human history. Yes, mothers used to leave their babies “back at camp” while others cared for them. It’s normal for mothers to work. It’s normal for villages to care for our children.
Acknowledge the guilt, welcome it in, and sit with it. Know that it’s just like any other emotion. Sometimes it shows up, and it will pass. It doesn’t imply anything about your commitment to work or parenthood. It’s just a thought your brain offered you.
Instead of saying “I feel guilty, because…”, reframe your sentence to “I made this choice because…” Saying this helps you to ground yourself in your own values.
Repeat after me: “I am enough.” This mantra saved me on so many days of early parenthood.
We are often expected to work as though we don’t have a family, and parent as though we don’t work.
3. Phase Back In, If Possible. Can you start your childcare arrangement before your actual return? Consider having the first time you drop baby off at nursery or with a nanny not coincide with the first day you go back to work. Use that time to work through some of those separation emotions, see a friend, get a haircut, or shop for some new work clothes! Similarly, if you can phase back into work, for example on a reduced schedule for the first few days or weeks, take that opportunity to ease yourself back in.
4. Remind Yourself That Parenthood Helps Us Grow Amazing Skills. I know we often get told a cultural narrative that motherhood makes us somehow less committed to or excellent at our jobs…but I don’t buy that story. As you prepare to transition back, write down all of the skills parenthood is giving you that make you better at your work, and even better of a leader. Need some help getting that list started? A few of mine include: prioritization; empathy; patience; and an ability to meet the needs of demanding customers who can’t articulate their needs very clearly!
5. Find Your Working Parent Posse. In early parenthood, I sat crying alone on the kitchen floor more times than I’d care to count. Somehow I felt like I was the only one struggling in the ways I was struggling. Which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Finding other working parents and sharing that sense of “oh my gosh, me too!” truly saved my sanity. Whether it’s by finding other working parents in your own workplace, or in your neighborhood, or an online working parent group, it’s so important to connect with others who share your values and can truly understand, on a deep level, what you are going through.
In short, offer yourself as much compassion as you can muster during this time, mama. You *will* get through this, and there’s a whole world of working mums out there who have your back and are cheering you on.
Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, believes in empowering working parents. She is the founder and CEO of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and co-host of the Parents at Work Podcast. She is mama to two wonderful red-headed boys (ages 9 and 11) and is a health care lawyer in private practice. Her thought leadership has been featured in publications including Forbes, The Washington Post, New York Times Parenting, Thrive Global, and The Huffington Post. Get a copy of Mindful Return’s free guide, “99 Questions to Ask Yourself Before, During, and After Maternity Leave,” here, and learn more about our UK Chapter here!