I like to prepare. To have a plan. It helps me when I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious about something to be able to at least know, loosely, how I’m going to get through it.
That’s exactly how I felt going back to work after my first maternity leave. With so much unknown, I wanted to put together the steps that would help me get to the office, make it through the day, and transition back home without missing or forgetting anything. The only problem was, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
So I did things like pack my work bag, lay out all my parts for pumping and I even did a practice run with our sitter to make sure my son got a chance to “test the waters” and I got a chance to make sure I was sending all the right supplies with him for a day away from home.
Those things were all important, and you’ll notice that they are still included in my list of tips because I did them again after returning from my second leave. But there were a few other things that I learned from my first go-round that made my second return even easier and so together, my hope is this is everything that you need to be successful.
And so I’ve included practical tips - some that are just plain obvious planning and others that are the things I hadn’t thought about or expected on that first return. I hope that this list will serve as an a la carte offering of preparation plans you should consider and then ultimately you pick the ones that are relevant for you, your childcare situation, and your work environment.
Heading back to work can be stressful and overwhelming, not to even mention emotional. But having a plan in place and being able to check some things off a list as you countdown those final days at home with your little one, can help give you a sense of control. Control can give you a boost of confidence, and that confidence can help you make it through if you’re having a tough time transitioning.
1. Set Expectations with Your Boss
If you can and if it’s comfortable, be in communication with your boss in the weeks leading up to your return. Check in to see how things are at the office, school, hospital or wherever it is you work. Talk through your transition plan back into your normal groove. Will your job and responsibilities look the same? Should you anticipate any changes? Is there an opportunity to phase back into your normal work-load, especially that first week as you adjust to a new schedule with childcare drop-offs, pumping (if that’s your thing), etc.?
Having breakfast with my boss 2 weeks before returning to work put all my fears to rest. We worked out a transition plan to ease me back into my normal workload and I openly shared with her the logistics behind my new schedule with childcare so that she would have realistic expectations. It made me feel a part of the team again and helped to know that we were on the same page from the minute I came back and that no explaining was necessary.
2. Have Everything Prepped the Night Before
Don’t ruin your first morning back to work by running around like a frantic person trying to find your keys, or your work badge or your baby’s favorite travel blanket. Make sure that your work bag is packed, that it includes everything you’ll need for the entire day (including spares), that the coffee is set, your lunch/snacks are packed, the bottles are prepped and your outfit is laid out. You are going to be distracted enough with everything else that leaving your baby will entail. Don’t add to the stress by not having the basics ready to go the night (or the week) before.
3. Do a Dry Run with the Sitter or Daycare
Speaking of laying things out and preparing in advance, I know many moms who do a couple of practice days with their childcare provider in the week leading up to returning to work. It gives you a chance to see what the baby needs you to send with him/her, it gives you a level of comfort with how things will work on that first morning, and it even gives you a couple of hours to run errands, pick up some new clothes that fit, or do the preparation stuff that you want to have ready when the real day arrives.
4. Bring Pictures - But Don't Be Too Plugged In
I always try to bring a baby picture to my desk and updated pictures of my kids in general when I head back to work. It gives me something to do when I first settle in at the office that makes me feel connected to my babies while still present at work. Whether that’s a framed photo, a new digital wallpaper on your work computer, or a special coffee mug that you make with their photo on it, take a small reminder with you to the office. Just be cautious that you don’t get too sucked into scrolling through pictures on your phone all day or checking in obsessively with the sitter. This is a big day for both of you and you need to honor that and give yourselves both a little space to figure out how you’re going to make it work.
5. Focus On Work, But Don't Hide the Fact That You Just Had a Baby
Finding that balance between acknowledging that you’re in a major transition stage while not dwelling on it is tough. I remember swinging back and forth between wanting to push thoughts of my baby at a sitter’s house from my mind completely for fear of tears running down my face, to that being all I wanted to talk about with coworkers who would ask a simple question about how my maternity leave was.
You have to find the right balance for you. I know that for me, acknowledging the fact that I was just back from maternity leave was always appropriate. Saying a few words about that time or about my new baby - also appropriate. I find people do care and are genuinely interested. But at the end of the day you are back at work with a job to do and focusing on that is going to take some practice. Just be sure that you are showing up, doing the work, and demonstrating your commitment to what you do as a professional, in addition now to being a great mom.
6. Have Responses Prepared for Colleagues Who Ask How You're Doing
To piggy-back off of tip #5, you may find it easier to have some responses prepared. What do you want to share? How honest do you want to be with colleagues or clients who ask how you’re doing transitioning back to work?
I remember fighting back tears, HARD, when asked that question returning after my first leave. I had had such a tough physical recovery, I had a colicky baby and I was not sleeping much at all. That simple question was like a landmine when asked. The next time I returned from leave, I made sure to think about the type of response I wanted to share and yes, I practiced it. I felt so much more in control when talking with colleagues that second time around, and that gave me confidence.
7. Have a Killer Outfit that FITS!
Nothing ruins your self-confidence like trying on an old work outfit only to find that your hips haven’t closed, your belly is still mushy and big or your bust size just isn’t the same. Be sure you’ve got something that fits, is functional (especially if you’re pumping), and makes you feel good. Pick it out ahead of time and don’t give it a second thought that first morning. I find having a new wardrobe uniform for those first few months is super helpful. For me, it was slacks or jeans (in a new, larger size) and button-up shirts that looked smart and polished but still gave flexibility for my changing mid-section and were easy for daily pumping at the office.
8. Fuel Your Body. Find Alternate Sources of Energy
Remember that article about what to do when you’re not getting enough sleep? Well, unless you’re one of the lucky ones who has a baby already sleeping through the night, chances are you’re going to have to make it through your workday on much less sleep than you’re used to. Now is the time to make sure you’re eating fruits and veggies, drinking water, taking a walk or doing some stretches, basically doing whatever will work for you to get you a little extra energy when sleep is just not an option.
You Are a Different Person and That Can Be Amazing Too!
Your knee-jerk reaction will be to expect to return to everything as it was before your leave. To the same old routines, to the same old you. But you know that certain things will change and how you feel about your work may also change. All of that is ok. It's a period of transformation, of new routines, and of new normals. You'll make it through, and my guess is you'll like who you are on the other side even better.