Over the past few weeks, a few friends have asked for tips on transitioning back to work after maternity leave. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this (that’s a comical idea, actually), but having gone through it so recently I figured I could share what I’ve learned.
Truthfully, I dreaded going back to work before Lila was even born. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go back; I did. I love my career. But all the unknowns scared the pants off of me.
Don’t get me wrong–there were plenty of days where sitting in meetings seemed like a luxurious alternative to enduring the screams of a colicky baby–but it’s really tough to part with this precious extension of yourself that’s so tiny and vulnerable.
Around three months was when I finally got into a bit of a routine and started getting some sleep (read: I could leave the house with the baby and neither of us wound up sobbing). My new normal centered around spending my days and my nights with an infant, and as the countdown kicked in, I doubted my ability to even have an adult conversation — let alone make business decisions.
All that being said, the transition has been a smooth one. Not a walk in the park, but it’s been good. Really. There’s this societal expectation that all women secretly hate leaving their babies and only work out of necessity, and that just isn’t true.
I know that right now this is what I am supposed to be doing. I’m also open to whatever might feel right and make sense down the road.
There are days that I feel like crap for working and am jealous of her teachers, and I’ll question what I’m doing. But that’s ok, and it’s not the norm. Most days I genuinely value the opportunity to be a role model for her and show her what women can achieve. I’m thankful for a job that lets me grow and learn, surrounded by good people, and for the ways my income supports our family. I appreciate that she’s gaining early socialization, a toughened immune system and loving attention and activities I would never attempt at home (hats off to the brave souls who supervise infant painting).
I don’t have all the answers and I’m convinced there’s no perfect solution to being a working mom, at least not until America decides to get with the times and give moms appropriate support. So don’t strive for perfection, because it’s only an illusion. Just work on figuring out whatever solution is perfect for YOU. Whether you work in a cubicle, on the road or from your kitchen table, there will always be struggles and questioning, this I can promise you, but it can be great. And if you choose not to work outside of the labors of motherhood, which is a 24/7+ gig in itself, that’s wonderful too. Your babies are blessed to have you full time. But never go into a situation expecting to be miserable. Always give yourself a chance to adjust and to like the way things are.
Here are a few tips, mostly courtesy of sweet friends who walked this road before I did:
1. Choose childcare you LOVE. Not one that you like, or that is a better price, but one you think is the damn cat’s meow. Our daycare is pretty amazing and I credit this as the single biggest factor in having a pleasant transition back to work. Considering these folks see my child more than I do and charge us a second mortgage payment, I knew I had to love it there. They send photos all day, are flexible to each baby’s needs and schedule and genuinely love them. There’s crazy-intense security and amazing support for parents. Total win.
2. Don’t start daycare cold turkey. If you can, start taking your baby in for a few half days or every other day for a week or two before your official return to work. This lets you both adjust to spending time apart and makes the process so much less stressful. Also, see if your first day back at work can be a Wednesday or Thursday so you don’t spend a whole week apart at the get-go.
3. Divide and conquer baby tasks. Until Jim and I worked out who made bottles, who washed bottles, who packed diapers, who set aside clothes, etc., I tended to get resentful and overwhelmed. Once we figured out what tasks needed to be done each night and each morning, and what made the most sense for each of us to tackle, things were way easier. Pro tip: do as much the night before as possible, even just putting things in the car. I put my work laptop bag back in the car every night because it means one less trip in the morning when we’re inevitably running late.
4. Find working mom friends. Let me be specific here: wherever you work, find other moms who choose to work, and enjoy it. They will be an incredible support and give the best advice. They’ll get it when you have a bad day, feel mom-guilt or have to tend to a sick kiddo. They will let you vent about being t-i-r-e-d. I really value having working mom buds both in the office and all across the country via email to keep me sane and support me.
5. Give yourself grace. Please, just yes. Because no one is perfect and no situation is perfect, but you will do the best you can and it will be enough. You will be awesome and your baby will be great and it will all be ok, I PROMISE.
6. Accept that it sucks when your baby is sick. You will feel torn and guilty about not being everything to everyone and it’s normal. It also passes before you know it, so hang in there.
7. Learn to smile and discreetly zone out when people offer unsolicited advice. They mean well. I use these opportunities to nap with my eyes open.
8. Keep extra clothes in your car or office because you will, without a shadow of a doubt, end up with poop or puke on you.
9. Set clear expectations with your boss and team about your parenting priorities. Don’t let it distract from your role, but if you have to leave at 4:45 to get to daycare on time every day, then make that clear, don’t apologize and go on with your bad self. It’s like going to a new class at the gym…we’re so paranoid about what we look like in front of everyone, but everybody else is more focused on themselves than on your departure.
10. Make sure you like what you do. This is a biggie. I was told 100 times not to make “any big decisions” the first year after having a baby, but I sometimes struggle following instructions, so I promptly quit my job to take a new one when Lila was six months old. Here’s why: being a working mom is a-o-k, but it ups the ante on job satisfaction. If you don’t enjoy what you do, it’s a LOT harder to be away from your little one. So if you’re not digging the daily grind, make every effort to find something that’s a better fit.