Ask Sally: How To Return To Work After Parental Leave

mother in pink sweater sitting on couch with a baby with pacifier

Returning to work after maternity/paternity leave is one of the most challenging transitions you will ever face. Sally Tannen, Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center, offers her advice to take some of the sting out.

Q: My partner and I agreed I would go back to work after my maternity leave—and I want to. But now that the reality is just a few weeks away, I’m freaking out. Help!

A: Of course, you’re freaking out—how could you not be?! You’ve spent the last weeks bonding with your new baby, learning who she is and what her needs are, working hard to establish routines, and more—how could anyone but you or your partner care for her? Whatever direction you have chosen for child care, be it day care, a caregiver or a grandparent/family member, leaving your baby in the care of someone else for the first time (and for long stretches of time) is enormously stressful. The anticipatory anxiety involved in both the logistics and your emotions can feel overwhelming. But be assured that you will get through it and that both you and your baby will be fine. Some advice to take some stress out of the transition:

  • If you don’t feel ready to be back at work with the same time commitment as before, try to negotiate an alternate plan with your employer. Go in with a proposal: For the first three months, you’d like to work four days a week. If that’s not possible, consider going back to work a week earlier than you need to, using the remaining days to take Fridays off for the first five weeks. Businesses and organizations are increasingly accommodating regarding parental leave, and many expect to be asked for a bit of flexibility. It’s in an employer’s interest to work with you to ensure that work is a place you want to be, and that you’re focused and productive when you’re there.
  • Give yourself permission to approach your work with a new attitude. Recognize that you’re bringing new skills to your job now. After caring for an infant, you know how to multitask, navigate time better and be more efficient. As a new parent, you are recognizing which parts of your life you can control—and which you can’t. You may find that you can work faster and make decisions more easily after returning to work.
  • If you’re breastfeeding and plan to continue, speak with your employer before your return about the where and how of pumping at work. The pumping issue is a major source of anxiety for women heading back to work. Make arrangements well ahead of your return date.
  • Bring your baby to work before you return. It’s helpful for colleagues to know your new reality, and why you’ll be leaving the office at 6pm, not 8pm.
  • Turn off the noise. Don’t be distracted by what colleagues may think about the nature of your re-entry and do it without apology. Everyone struggles when first going back to work.
  • Make a plan with your partner before you return about how daily household matters will be handled, so that the needs of both parents are considered. You’ll need to shift to a more equitable split than you had when one of you was home with the baby.
  • Practice being away from your baby as your back-to-work date approaches. And at least a week before you return to work, have your caregiver come on board, so you have time together with the baby, and allow short bits of time for the two of them to be together without you, so everyone can grow comfortable and gain trust.
  • Make a plan with your caregiver to ensure you get the feedback you want and in the way you want it. How are you going to learn what your baby’s day was like? Are you someone who wants 20 minutes of talk time when you get home from work and before your caregiver needs to leave for the day? Do you want things written down (feedings, diaper changes, etc.)? Consider what will make you feel less anxious and structure your situation accordingly.
  • If possible, plan to return to work on a Wednesday or Thursday, so the experience isn’t as overwhelming as working a full week when you’re just getting re-acclimated.
  • Lastly, take a breath knowing that you are not making a lifelong choice in going back to work (or not going back). The move feels so consequential, it brings layers of anxiety. You’re allowed to change your mind, and in either direction. You will figure out what’s best for you once you’ve had time to adjust to all that is new.

The Takeaway:

Going back to work after baby is a very stressful transition. For many parents it comes sooner than they’re ready and is more difficult than they imagined. Prepare yourself as much as possible, get the support you need, drop any hope of perfection in any area, be kind to yourself, and know that you will get through it and that you and your baby really will be fine.

Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center and new Grandparents Center, Sally Tannen has been supporting early childhood parents, building community, and creating and offering activities and classes for babies, kids, parents and grandparents for thousands of NYC families for more than 25 years. A mother of four and grandmother of three, Sally’s personal experience continues to enrich and inform her work. To learn more about the 92Y, visit 92y.org!