Going back to work after having a baby is a big career (and life) switch. It isn’t exactly easy, balancing the needs of your child with likely way less sleep than you’re used to, while trying to be the same employee you were before you left. And having a baby changes the way you think about and prioritize your day, and can potentially make you question what you thought you wanted out of your career. It certainly did for me.
Navigating those first few weeks back takes patience, self-care, and boundary setting, both at home and in the office. As I’m transitioning back to work for a second time (I recently took almost six months off in between leaving a long-term role and launching my own company), I’m pulling from my first experience returning from maternity leave three years ago and the community of incredible moms I’ve been blessed to be a part of for advice on making the transition out of parental leave as seamless as possible.
1. Be Patient With Yourself
This is one of the best pieces of advice I got from my boss at the time. You don’t have to be perfect your first day back, your first week back, or really ever. This goes for parenting and your body, in addition to transitioning back to work. The advice is actually pretty universal.
Give yourself some breathing room to get back in the swing of things. Don’t schedule big presentations or client meetings or say yes to big projects right off the bat if you can help it. If you can’t avoid taking on something big, try to find ways to move other items off your plate so you can give that one project your main focus.
Do put blocks of time on your calendar to go through email and catch up on projects, reports, or anything else you missed while you were on leave. Note: You probably won’t get through all your emails in one sitting, and that’s OK. Try tackling the most important stuff first and get to the rest over the next few days.
And schedule individual meetings or coffee dates with your team to hear what they’ve been working on and in general how they’re doing (this will be a nice break from all the work-information overload!).
2. Build Trust in Your Childcare
If you have confidence that your little one is loved and cared for while you’re not there, you’re going to be a better, more relaxed person at work. So start looking for childcare early and take the time to get to know your caregiver(s) before you go back to the office.
If you’re going the nanny route, try to have the person start one to two weeks before you go back, on a reduced schedule if possible. Play and interact with the baby together and run some errands where you’re only gone a couple hours to get used to the idea of being away. And take your nanny to lunch—sans baby—to get to know them outside of their role.
If you’re doing a nanny share, schedule some family hangouts with both families before going back. And if you’re using a daycare, ask to shadow or observe, take advantage of the tour, and ask any and all questions. Again, have the baby start earlier than needed, potentially on a reduced schedule, so both you and baby can get used to the new setting.
3. Set Clear Boundaries With Your Team (and Yourself)
I came back from my maternity leave to a reduced schedule, so I made sure to meet with my team to explain my hours and come up with new normals in our day, including how we could work together in a way that made sense and benefited everyone. The first few weeks I was back, I also started checking in with my team every day an hour before my new “end of work day” to get us all used to the schedule. Even if you don’t have a new routine, make sure your team’s aware of when you are and aren’t available online.
It’s becoming more and more common for new parents to have flexible schedules in those first few weeks back to help ease the transition back to work. But in having more flexibility to work from home, I also had to navigate how to work from home. I experienced, and have heard from quite a few of my fellow parents, that it’s tough to be in both “parent” and “work” mode at the same time, so even at home I set boundaries with myself to try not to be both at once.
When I was commuting, I always checked my email and handled anything that needed immediate attention before walking into my apartment so I could be fully tuned into my family when I stepped through the door. My phone and computer go in another room so I’m not checking them in front of my child or trying to respond to a client while making dinner (and so words like “fart” don’t end up in work emails—yes, I learned that from personal experience). If you’re looking for more tips, here’s advice for working from home as a parent.
4. Advocate for Your Needs (and Your Child’s)
This advice, of course, transcends parenting and applies in all aspects of life, but it’s especially important after having a child. It’s simple: Ask for what you need and don’t assume people know what it is. You’d be surprised how much people will give you if you simply ask for it.
Do you need a meeting moved so you can make pickup time at daycare? Present an alternative solution in your ask, but ask nonetheless. Are you not as available for after-hour client events? Advocate for a colleague to take your place, or suggest other creative ways to get in front of clients that fit into your schedule. Who knows, there could be other working parents who will appreciate your ingenuity.
5. Manage Expectations
I don’t have to tell you that when you have a baby to get home to, you figure out quickly what’s actually important to get done—and that you need to set expectations in order to get those important items done on time.
So when someone asks you to step in on a project, don’t be afraid to ask: When do you need this by? Is this a priority? How much time do you expect this to take?
Then spell out exactly what you can and can’t do for them, clearly and directly: “I’d love to work on that, but since I have X to get done by the time I leave today and it’s not a huge priority, I won’t be able to get that to you until the end of the week. Does that timing work for you?”
While you may not be able to please everyone, by being direct you cover your bases and show you’re proactive and dedicated to doing your job well.
6. Schedule Time to Pump
If you need to pump breast milk at work, block off time on your calendar to do so, and add a 10-15 minute buffer to ensure you stick to your schedule. By slotting it into your day and really making it nonnegotiable (remember those boundaries we talked about earlier?), you can help keep it from being a point of stress. (And it’s not just about emotional distress: Skipping a pumping session can become physically painful, and you can end up wearing the consequences down your shirt.)
If possible, get a second pump to leave at work to minimize lugging the gear back and forth, and make sure you have a comfortable space to pump in your office. If one’s not apparent in your workplace, explicitly ask HR or an office manager about a “lactation room.”
Federal law states that an employer must provide both break time and “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public” for nursing employees. Specifics can differ from state to state and based on office size, which is why it’s important to first determine what your office has in place before advocating for what you need.
7. Find Your Support Team
Working parent guilt is real, and it comes in all shapes and sizes—guilt for being away from the baby, guilt for not feeling guilty for not being with the baby, guilt for saying “no” to a colleague so you can leave early to get back to the baby…the list goes on.
When these thoughts start to creep in, repeat this to yourself: You are enough.
And, find your community (whether inside or outside the office). Talk to other parents who have been through it and create a safe space to talk about how you’re feeling. A quick Google search of local parenting and mom groups will at the very least hook you up with Facebook groups where you can start connecting. (These groups can also be a good source for nanny shares.) Also, some hospitals put together parenting groups based on when your baby was born. Take advantage of “Baby and Me” classes in your neighborhood or town, too, from swimming lessons to local library reading sessions to group walks.
I randomly ended up at a “mommy and me yoga” class, and after that class I went to lunch with three incredible women with babies the same age as mine. To this day (three years later) I still text with them weekly to talk about all things parenting, working, and babies.
8. Make Time for You—Just You
While it may seem impossible to carve more time out of your day outside of family and work, you can’t be the parent or employee (or really insert anything here) you want to be if you don’t take care of yourself. When I take time for myself, I’m more present in every aspect of my life. I’ve learned that a present moment (even a short one) is worth a million hurried moments.
Here’s how you can realistically make time for yourself during the week:
- Actually put lunch on your calendar—and step away from your desk (or turn off your computer) to eat.
- Keep up with that once a week yoga (or Pilates, or barre, or whatever) class—you’ll be grateful you did.
- Wake up an hour before you actually need to (and an hour before the baby) so you can do something just for you. It’s not for everyone (if you’re not a morning person please sleep in), but for me this way I can take my time drinking my coffee and curl up reading a good book.
Above all remember: There are countless parents out there right now who’ve felt exactly how you feel and may still be trying to figure out how to do what’s best for them and their families. It’s a big deal going back to work after a baby, so hopefully it helps to know that you’re not alone, everything you’re feeling is valid, and it’s okay to be patient with yourself.