Returning to work after maternity leave is a huge stressor for many first time moms, not only because of the logistical hoops you have to jump through to re-arrange your work life around your new baby, but it can also fill women with self-doubt about their roles as career woman and mom.
It also seems to come way too quickly. Some experts believe that women need about four months of maternity leave before they’re ready to come back, but many women only get six to eight weeks. Here’s how to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Performing at Work
• Ease the transition. Experts recommend starting in the middle of the week, so your first work week is short. It is also becoming more common for women to arrange to work one or two days the first week or so, or come in for a shorter day for the first two or three days to help ease the transition.
The smoother your transition, the more productive you’ll be at work, says Chris Essex, director of the Center for Work and Family in Rockville, Md.
• Tone down the baby talk—or not! A lot of women fear if they talk about their babies at work, people will assume they wish they were home instead of working.
“Yet talking about your baby can build connections to people in the workplace,” says Jamie Ladge, assistant professor in management at Northeastern University in Boston. “People talk about their personal lives all the time at work, so it’s natural to talk about your kids."
But use your judgment. If you intuit that your co-workers won’t be receptive or can’t relate, then keep the cute baby stories to a minimum.
• Give yourself time to adjust. Don’t think you need to reconsider your options if your first few weeks back are rocky.
“When women come back to work, they’re in a lot of flux, trying to integrate how they are as a professional with their new role as a mother,” Ladge says. It may take some time to adjust to your new identity and learn how to juggle work and home responsibilities.
• Ask for flex time. More and more women and men are negotiating schedules that are less rigid and can ease the stresses with working 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“You may fear that people will think less of you if you ask, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get,” Ladge says. Talk to other employees who may have been down the same road to see what type of arrangements they have.
• Ignore the comments. People can say overtly or covertly stereotypical things, which can fill you with self doubt. A seasoned mother might say, “I cried and cried when I came back to work,” making you question what kind of mom you are since you didn’t shed a tear. A boss might say, “I hope you’re not one of those women who aren’t 100 percent committed now that you have a baby.” Just laugh it off. And don’t work twice as hard to prove them wrong.
• Be clear with your supervisors. Be communicative about what you want from your job and what your ambitions are so that you don’t get sidelined for promotions because of inaccurate assumptions about you now that you’re a mom.
• You’ll be exhausted. If there’s a time you could use the support of your parents or some extra paid help, it is when you’re transitioning back to work. If you can get some help with cleaning and cooking during this time, it can help you feel less frazzled.
• Plan the morning routine. One of the most critical issues is the division of labor between you and your spouse. Who will take showers when, who will watch the baby, feed the baby, and get the baby to child care. Ditto for dinnertime and pickup.
“You and your spouse need to work it out in advance because it’s hard to negotiate when you’re tired or in the middle of a hectic schedule,” Essex says.
• Alternate nighttime feedings. If you handle all the middle-of-the night feedings, you’ll be exhausted in the morning. Try to alternate nights with your husband.
• Don’t try to be super-mom. Understand that you may not be able to do everything like you used to. Some things may fall by the wayside, like a perfectly clean house, or home-cooked dinners every night.
Missing Your Baby
• Get acclimated to child care. Test drive your child care for at least three days before going back to work to give you and your baby time to adjust. That can lower your anxiety level about your child’s transition.
“Having good child care that makes you feel confident is key and reminding yourself that your baby is safe and loved will really help,” says Murphy Daley, author of The Pregnant Professional.
• Do a dress rehearsal. Prior to the first day back, get all the stuff ready, have the feeding and napping things packed and ready to go,” Daley says. “Take baby to childcare and then go get your personal grooming done while you practice being away."
• Check in with your child care once a day. For some people, checking in may make it harder, so tailor the advice to what works for you. Some women like to have pictures of the baby at work, while for others, it may make the transition more difficult.
• Don’t be surprised to miss your baby. Try not to assume that something is wrong with your work ethic for wanting to be home with your baby rather than working. Women often feel pulled in both directions, so it’s more about getting used to wanting to be in both places at once.
• Think about a breastfeeding plan. If you are breastfeeding, you should start pumping and freezing milk about a month before you go back to work. Make sure you have a private place to pump at work.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.