9 Secrets for a Successful Return to Work After Maternity Leave
Two weeks before my first day back to work after maternity leave for my second child, I met a friend for afternoon tea. We chatted for an hour, each of us bobbing our babies in our laps to keep them content.
For the first time in weeks, I had to carry on a conversation with another adult that extended past the territory of “How old is your baby?” and “Do you want your receipt?”
But my alone switch kept flipping to the ON position several times during the mommy date. Suddenly, I would hear myself saying—in a regular voice for everyone around me to hear—the things I say to my baby when no one else is around. Like “You need to sleep, you little turkey lurkey” and “Did you make a popo?”
Plus, my eyes kept drifting down to the baby, anxious to make sure I hadn’t accidentally let her head loll forward and smack into the table, and also just to see her sweet little face because I missed it.
Then I’d catch myself. Oh wait, grown-ups are supposed to make eye contact.
So I’d pull my eyes back up to my friend’s face, a little sheepish for having looked away. And probably also for saying “popo.”
Clearly, I wasn’t quite ready for my return to work after maternity leave.
Going Back to Work After Baby Isn’t Easy
Everyone knows you need to figure out childcare before going back to work after maternity leave, but after being in “mom mode” 24-7 for weeks (or months), many new moms have a hard time getting back into a groove at work.
When I was a first-time mom headed back to work after maternity leave, nobody told me my old work clothes might not fit. I had no idea the extent of the exhaustion that would settle into my bones. I didn’t yet know how it would feel to be pulled in two diametrically opposed directions—your baby and your career.
But by the time my second maternity leave rolled around, I thought I was a pro at going back to work after baby. I’ve done this before! I know how it works! And yet, that second transition back to work still threw me for a loop.
So I set out to put together a back-to-work checklist for moms who are returning to work after maternity leave. A checklist that goes beyond the “duh” advice to figure out childcare or the tips you’ll find written by bosses, not by moms.
9 Tips for Returning to Work After Maternity Leave
The list below includes tips that worked well for me when returning to work after maternity leave the second time and advice I wish I’d had the first go-round. I also asked friends, co-workers, and more than 100,000 members of this community to share their own advice for a successful transition back to work after maternity leave and included the best tips from them.
1. Stock Up
A few things you might want to pick up before the big day:
- A breast pump. If you haven’t picked up a pump yet, I’ve used both Medela and Ameda pumps, and they were fine. But I LOVE my new Spectra pump†. It’s more comfortable to use than other brands, and it seems to get more milk out than those competing pumps.
- A decent bag to carry your pump. Aim for a professional look and maybe less of a “I attach this thing to my boobs to suck them dry” vibe.
- Extra nursing pads. Keep them in your desk at work. Meetings will run over, and people will stop by your desk for unplanned visits. They won’t know that your breasts are about to burst, so be prepared in case you get delayed on pumping. (More on that in #7.) Here’s my favorite brand of disposable nursing pads. I loved that they absorbed well, and they weren’t visible through my shirt.
- A framed photo of your baby. Some moms find that it eases being away from their babies to have a picture on their desk. Then again, others find it a little upsetting to be reminded of being away from their babies. Bring one just in case, and if you end up not liking the constant reminder you can always take the photo home.
- Healthy snacks. When you get back into the daily grind, it’s easy to forget to eat regular, healthy snacks. But what you don’t want is to be starving and turn to the vending machine out of desperation. That won’t help you feel good about yourself, and it’s not the best fuel for your body if you’re nursing. Get some good snacks to keep in your desk so you’re not tempted by those mini powdered donuts.
- Dinners. You think you were low on time for cooking after baby was born? Now you’ll be away from the house all day and your normal dinner prep time will be eaten up by sitting in rush-hour traffic. Bake a couple meals and freeze them before you go back to work so you have a quick dinner option if you need it.
If you plan to keep breastfeeding after you go back to work, check out 6 Secrets to Success for Breastfeeding at Work for more essentials you’ll need.
2. Look Good—And Feel Good
Don’t go trying to stuff yourself into your pre-pregnancy clothes.
Because they probably won’t fit. Then you’ll feel like crap because it’s been WEEKS since that tot popped out of you, and you still aren’t back to “normal.”
But here’s the deal: It took 9 months (no, 10!) for your body to get to where it is, so be patient while it finds its way back—and it may settle in a different spot than where it started. Some doctors estimate it takes 6-10 weeks just for your uterus to get back to pre-pregnancy size, let alone the rest of your bits and pieces.
Check out these tips for the best postpartum clothes, and treat yourself to a few new pieces. And after the last couple months you’ve had, you most definitely deserve a haircut and a mani/pedi, too.
3. Buck the System
If you choke up every time you think about leaving your baby in daycare, spend some time brainstorming some creative childcare solutions so baby doesn’t have to be in daycare 50+ hours a week.
Thinking outside the status quo box could save you some serious money AND give you more time with your sweet babe. Here are 5 childcare ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
4. Ease In
If possible, schedule your return date for the middle of the week. A full-time schedule of 40+ hours away from your baby is going to be a shock to your system—and your baby’s. See if your childcare provider will let your baby ease in as well.
One example scenario: Go back to work the Thursday before your leave is officially over, and work half-days. Your baby will get a couple half-days with the new caregiver under his onesie belt, and you’ll get some practice with your routine. Then use those couple half-days you worked to cut down on your hours a bit the next week. For example, you could work 6.5-hour days for the next week, then the week after that bump up to 40 hours.
5. Practice Saying No
After Abby was born and I returned to work, I let myself drown in obligations to other people.
Every time I stayed up til 1:00 am catching up on work email because I had too much work to do during the workday, then woke up at 6:00 am to get us ready for the day—I wasn’t on my A game for Abby. My patience was razor thin, and my temper bubbled right at the surface, ready to spill over.
Every night I was stressed about all the things I had to get done that evening after she went to bed—which was pretty much every night—I rushed through story time at bedtime, skipping sentences and sometimes entire pages when I thought I could get away with it.
I wasn’t in the moment, and my mental health was suffering.
So I started saying no at work. Here are a few tricks that have worked for me to set boundaries at work. Read through these tips to arm yourself BEFORE you get a bazillion people dumping work on you during your first week back in the office.
6. Meet With Your Boss
Schedule a quick meeting with your supervisor, outside the office if you can. That will lighten the mood, and you won’t run into people who assume you’re back and start emailing you about all the stuff they want you to do.
Ground you might want to cover:
- Have there been any changes you need to be aware of while you were out? Reorgs, changes in leadership, a shift in priorities for the department?
- What are your boss’s top priorities for you when you get back? This will help you focus and hit the ground running on what’s most important, instead of getting bogged down in unimportant tasks.
- Is your boss willing to let you try out some flexible work arrangements? Maybe you want to work a half day from home every week, switch to a part-time schedule, or use a co-working facility. The answer may be “no,” but if you don’t ask? You’ll have a 0% chance of hearing “yes.”
7. Give Your Baby a Gift
If you’re nursing, the best thing you can do for your baby when you return to work is to make sure you’ll be successful with pumping.
Call your HR department before you go back and ask if lactation rooms are available. If not, ask if they have ideas for how to accommodate your needs. You just need a clean, private room with a power outlet. That could mean getting the key to an empty storage room or having a lock installed on your office door. If they tell you to use the bathroom, tell them to take a hike. According to U.S. law, most workplaces have to provide accommodations for you. Brush up on federal and state laws here.
Side note: If your childcare provider is near your workplace, consider leaving during your lunch break to feed your baby. It’ll save you a pump session and give you time to bond with your baby. Be sure to discuss the logistics with your provider ahead of time.
For more tips on breastfeeding after you return to work, check out 6 Secrets to Success for Breastfeeding at Work.
8. Do a Dry Run
Pick a day near the end of your leave to test out your new schedule. If you’ll need to be in the office by 8:00 am, set the alarm for when you’ll need to get up. Run through your new routine and work out the kinks.
Maybe you’ll find that you need 20 minutes, not 10, to feed your baby. Or you could discover that getting to the daycare in rush-hour traffic takes twice as long as you thought. If you need to shave some time from your getting-ready routine, try setting out your outfit the night before. Try it on to make sure it fits you well. Iron it and check for spit-up stains. Time saved in the morning is more sleep for you.
Having a practice day will help remove some stress on that first day back in the office. And a little less stress is something every mama needs.
9. Change Your Purse
More specifically: Change where you PUT your purse or wallet in the car. Keep it in the backseat with baby.
Why? Nobody thinks they’ll be the ones to forget the baby in the backseat, but when you factor in sleep deprivation and feeling frantic with a more complicated routine getting yourself to work—it’s sadly not outside the realm of possibility. I’ve made some bonehead moves, like showing up to the grocery store, going to get my baby out of the carseat, and realizing I never buckled her up.
The danger is that you get on auto-pilot, baby falls asleep and doesn’t make a peep, and you drive from home to work without stopping at daycare first.
“Given the right scenario, I would say this can happen to anyone,” says [memory expert Dr. David Diamond]. “It has nothing to do with how much parents love their kids. It is, to me, a tragic way of learning how the brain works.”
Each of us has dueling memory systems, Diamond explains. The first – in the primitive, “reptilian” part of the brain – directs our habits. It’s the system that lets you drive home from work without thinking consciously about every turn. The second system – located in more advanced brain regions – is responsible for short-term plans, such as “Buy milk on the way home.” And as anyone who has ever forgotten that milk knows, the primitive “habit system” is much more powerful. “It’s very difficult to keep in your mind that you want to override your habit system,” Diamond says. “And it can take over almost immediately.”
Best insurance policy: Train yourself to keep your purse or wallet in the backseat.
If you’re nursing, check out 6 Secrets to Success for Breastfeeding at Work.
Also, you’ll find more tips in these books:
- Happy at Work, Happy at Home: The Girl’s Guide to Being a Working Mom
- The Milk Memos: How Real Moms Learned to Mix Business with Babies – and How You Can, Too
- What Happy Working Mothers Know: How New Findings in Positive Psychology Can Lead to a Healthy and Happy Work/Life Balance
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
What’s your advice for returning to work after maternity leave? Share your tips in a comment below!
Social media photo by Kris Kesiak.
Note: All information on this site is for educational purposes only. Happy You, Happy Family does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician.
great article, kelly! wishing you best on this next leg of your journey!
Thank you, Lori! :-)
Awesome post! Going back after maternity leave is TOUGH but survivable! Anything you can do to make pumping easier is worth doing. Good luck when you start back!
Kelly, thank you for sharing your thoughts! I don’t know why, but I just HATE pumping. Stressing out about whether I’ll have enough milk for the next day, cleaning all the little nooks and crannies of the pump parts, etc, etc.
And thank you for the well wishes! I can’t believe it’s coming up so soon…whew!
Great tips:) I couldn’t agree with #4 more. Another way to ease in is to go back during a holiday week if possible:) More on that, and a link to your tips above, here: http://hintmama.com/2014/05/15/todays-hint-when-to-return-to-work-after-maternity-or-paternity-leave/
Jen, thank you so much for featuring my post in your daily hint! That’s a great idea to come back during a holiday week. A much easier transition that way, for sure.
I just followed you on Twitter – looking forward to connecting there too!
Thanks for the awesome post! I go back to work next Thursday, going to do a couple dry runs first. Cheers!
I recently heard that you should put your shoe in the backseat next to baby instead of your purse because even a purse can be forgotten but you’re likely not going far without both shoes!
I wish I had read this 3 weeks ago. This is great and really helpful including the article on saying no.
Hi there I’m a first time mum with a 5 month old baby boy. Tomorrow is my first day back at work. I will be working 4 days a week. My son will be in childcare 2 days and home with his daddy 2 days . I have pretty much cried every day for the past 2 weeks because I don’t want to leave him. I get scared he will forget who I am. Is that totally silly? I know he will be totally fine but it’s so hard to relax about it and not get anxiety or emotional. Do any of you feel like this?
Great Post. A breast pump is a blessing for working moms like us. I like to add a bonus tip to this. When you going to buy a breast pump try to get the double electric pump. It will cut half of your sucking session.