When my (Family and Medical Leave Act unpaid twelve-week) maternity leave ended sixteen weeks ago (but who’s counting?!?), I looked everywhere for advice on how to cope with this major transition. I culled books, blogs (a great one is Nicola’s Life After Maternity Leave site) friends, and doctors (the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington offers a fantastic free “Back to Work” class for those in this area) for ideas, but mainly received “it gets easier with time” assurances (which, as explained in my last post, I have not necessarily found to be the case). Much of the more useful suggestions about how to cope with leaving a new baby to work outside the home came from colleagues who had recently made the transition themselves (hence, tip #1!).
Advice on returning to work following maternity leave falls into two general categories. The first addresses work/life balance, dealing with guilt, and delegating to a caregiver. The second category pertains only to moms who intend to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. I have compiled the tips and tricks I have found most helpful below, but I would welcome any further contributions.
Best General “Back to Work” Advice:
- Find an ally at work who has gone through this process and turn to her for advice and encouragement (before, during, and after maternity leave). This need not be a new mom – my biggest supporter is now a grandma, but she still remembers how difficult it was to come back to the office after each of her children was born.
- AND stay connected with your new mom friends. Whether you’ve known them for years, or met them in a mother-child yoga class, leaning on each other during this tough transition will bring you closer. I have several girlfriends who I email with regularly and I always feel better after taking a five-minute break from work to tell them about what my son did that morning or find out about their first flight with a baby.
- During maternity leave, visit your place of work with your baby, so your colleagues have a better understanding of why you need to leave right at 5pm, or why you are painfully sleep-deprived. This visit (or visits – I stopped by every two or three weeks) might also remind you how much you enjoy your work, colleagues, and/or a baby-less environment.
- Also, if possible, check your work email and check in with your supervisor at some point towards the end of your maternity leave to get updates on key projects or developments at your workplace so that you can hit the ground running when you return. You may want to set up meetings with co-workers or clients so that you can get right back into the swing of things and demonstrate that you are the same professional, hard-working lady you were before you became a mom (even if, like me, you feel like a completely different person on the inside).
- Spend (at least) one day with your child and whoever will be watching him/her while you are at work to assure yourself that your baby is in good hands. You will probably find that your child loves the attention of a new adult and all the new toys!
- Similarly, try a few trial runs away from your baby. Go to lunch with a friend, hit the gym, etc. so that you will be more emotionally prepared for that first day back at work.
- Have a plan for who will care for your child in the event that s/he or your regular caregiver falls ill. In a pinch, you can use your own sick leave to stay home with a sick baby.
- Make a list (written or mental) of things you like about your job. The list can include both “big picture” stuff like a sense of productivity or purpose, your paycheck and benefits, or your coworkers, as well as more “frivolous” aspects such as your stylish business attire, the bonsai in your office, the cafeteria’s frozen yogurt bar, or listening to the radio during your commute. Refer to your list when you question your choice to return to work, or feel resentful that you did not have a choice.
- Start mid-week. This is awesome advice. Rather than return to work on a Monday, when you have five long baby-less days stretching ahead of you, go back on a Wednesday or Thursday so that you have the weekend with your baby to look forward to. Ask your supervisor if you can ease back into work – you may be able to return part-time at first, or to telework some days.
- AND, try not to plan too many social engagements for your first week and weekend back at work. That way, you can spend your free time focused on your baby to ease the transition for both of you.
- Get organized! If you have never been a list person, now may be the time to start. Leave a list of things you will need to bring to work by the door at home (ID, keys, lunch, papers, breastpump & bottles, etc.) and at work, keep a running list of things you need to do, as well as a detailed calendar that includes work and family events. Juggling work and family commitments, especially on insufficient sleep, can become overwhelming and items are likely to slip through the cracks (on several occasions I have forgotten bottles to pump into, or had to move meetings at the last minute so I could attend my son’s doctor’s appointments).
- Figure out a way to make the most of your (limited) time with your baby during the week. One of my favorite parts of being a mom is watching my son discover new things. So we have a rule in our house that any first-time food, new toy, or experiment with a novel activity must wait until I get home. That way, I can look forward to seeing my baby’s face the first time he tries watermelon or goes in a swimming pool. My son is obsessed with water, so we also have regular after-work bath dates, which we both love.
- Give yourself a break! There is no need to be a “super-mommy” or a martyr. If you cry those first few days back (I did), be kind to yourself and move on. If you feel guilty because you don’t feel guilty about leaving your baby, that’s normal too!
If You Are Breastfeeding:
- Begin pumping and freezing milk a few weeks before returning to work. That way, you will be familiar with your pump and have an emergency stash in case your supply drops (which is common upon returning to work), your baby has a growth spurt, etc.
- Start giving your baby a bottle well in advance and make sure your baby will take a bottle from his or her caregiver. It may help to provide something that smells like mom (a shirt, stuffed animal, etc.).
- Figure out how much milk you will need to provide your caregiver each day and how/when you are going to express at work. Talk to your supervisor about where and when you are going to pump (Kristen offers great advice for this conversation at workandpump.com). You’ll need 15-20 minute breaks two to three times a day in a private location.
- Develop a system for letting your coworkers know you are pumping so that you will not be bothered (or worse, be criticized for being unavailable – stay tuned for a future post on this subject). I have an unambiguous “Please Do Not Disturb” sign that I put on my door, with instructions to call, email, or come back in fifteen minutes.
- Guard your pumping time zealously. Try to schedule meetings around your pump times so that you do not become uncomfortable. This may be easier said than done (it’s been tough for me), but it is very important. As you know, missing even one pumping session can reduce your milk supply the next day.
- Make a plan for how you will wash your pump and store expressed milk at work. There are a wide array of products available for these purposes. You can use microwavable sterilizing bags, single-use wipes, or special soaps and sprays for your pump, and get cooler bags for your bottles.
- Either during maternity leave or soon after returning to work, try to nurse your baby in your office at least once or twice to associate your work space with nursing. This may make it easier to trigger the let-down reflux and express at work.
- Know your rights! Federal law requires employers to provide a private lactation space as well as “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.” (fact sheet and FAQs) State laws (find yours here) also protect the rights of women who choose to express breastmilk at work. If you encounter any resistance, there are a wide range of resources available, including those from the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, La Leche League, A Better Balance, etc.