Here’s the thing about maternity leave: It’s finite. You may have several months or just a few weeks of 1-on-1 time with your new baby, but eventually, you’ll return to your workplace, and that new transition isn’t always easy. There are so many questions: Where and when will you pump if you’re breast-feeding? Do your professional outfits still fit? With each question that hits you, heading back to work feels more intimidating. Since countless other working moms have dealt with these same concerns, we spoke to some of them, as well as human resources professionals and psychologists, to find the best strategies for your return to work.
“New moms may feel a range of feelings when returning to work,” says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch. Those feelings can include everything from guilt to sadness to excitement. Read on to see how you can cope.
Step One: Securing Child Care
Don’t delay when it comes to sorting out child care. Day care spots fill up early, and interviewing potential nannies will take longer than you think.
“Secure child care early in the pregnancy,” recommends Angel Montfort, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the Center for Maternal Mental Health in Florida. Or at least put child care on the top of your transitional to-do list, and consider these factors as you evaluate your options.
Location matters. “If you are looking for a day care for your child, remember the most important factor is location, location, location!” says Eirene Heidelberger, certified parent coach and founder of GIT Mom (Get It Together, Mom!). Your time will be precious, she points out—don’t waste it adding an extra leg to your commute. Plus, you’ll appreciate a location near home (or your office), especially if you have to pick up a sick little one in the middle of your workday.
Caregiver rapport is important. The best way to feel comfortable about your baby being away from you is to be able to visualize how each day is spent. “I encourage moms to spend time with caregivers prior to returning to work,” Dr. Dorfman says. That might mean shadowing a nanny or sitter for a few days or long visits to the day care. (If the day care you’re considering seems to frown on “surprise” visits as opposed to scheduled tours, keep looking!)
Schedule this time a few weeks before you head back to work—that way, if need be, you will have time to find an alternative. “Ideally, this time together will enhance mom’s connection and trust with a caregiver,” Dr. Dorfman says.
Open communication is key. Moms should feel comfortable speaking with caregivers about their family’s needs. “It’s advisable to have regular check-ins to discuss concerns and mitigate potential conflicts,” Dr. Dorfman says. It can be as casual as chatting with the day care staff at drop-off or as formal as a weekly meeting with your nanny.
A backup plan is a must. Babies get sick. Nannies do too. And sometimes, day care is closed when your workplace is open. Along with your partner, think through how you’ll handle these moments—maybe you have family or a trusted friend who can help out, or perhaps you and your partner can alternate caretaking.
Step Two: Plan Your Return to the Office
Although you began strategizing before you went on leave (setting up a return date, etc.), be open to the possibility that your notion of what makes sense for you and your family may shift during maternity leave, Dr. Montfort urges.
“As much as we try to plan ahead, it’s important to be adaptable and work together to find a plan that makes sense for everyone,” says Marshall Stanton, human resources director at Aeroflow Healthcare.
The following expert tips can help you navigate this process:
Prepare for a mix of emotions. “It’s normal to feel excited, scared, anxious, sad, or anything else…as your first day back approaches,” Stanton says.
And don’t discount the possibility that you’ll welcome going back, Dr. Dorfman adds. “Often, work can be a welcome reprieve from all-consuming child care,” she says, noting that it’s a return to interacting with adults and reconnecting with your pre-motherhood identity.
Know your rights. Legally, your employer needs to provide a private space and reasonable break time for you to pump, Stanton says. If the space is bedraggled—say, an old supply closet with a rickety folding chair—schedule a time to meet with your manager about it. “I think most people will find their companies really want to support them but often just don’t fully understand what a new mom needs,” he adds.
Do a trial run. Your morning routine likely looks quite different these days. Before your first day back at work, try a test run. Wake up, do your routine with baby, put on a work outfit, and commute to the office. This might reveal aspects that need adjustment—such as waking up earlier so you have time to change your shirt after it’s covered in spit-up.
Skip Monday your first week back. A short week will make the transition easier on you. In addition, some moms at Stanton’s company work a modified schedule for the first few weeks back in the office. If that’s financially feasible, you may want to check if a flexible work schedule is an option at your workplace.
Make a schedule. If you are pumping at work, try to schedule your day around it, Stanton suggests. If you need a firm exit time in place to avoid late fees from your caregiver, make sure to put that on your calendar so you don’t get pulled into a surprise 5pm meeting.
Ask for what you need. “A mom must advocate for herself because no one else will,” Heidelberger says. Seek to negotiate expectations in a way that’s mutually beneficial, she advises. For example, a work-from-home day may help you get more work done, while also being able to accommodate your nanny’s schedule.
Find peers in and out of the office. It’s hard to overestimate the value of an in-office support system. These people really get it—and can often help you navigate new HR situations. “Finding a few fellow parents in the office who understand…what you’re going through is one of the best ways to help moms transition back smoothly,” Stanton says.
Moms particularly benefit from other moms’ support, Dr. Dorfman says. “Those who are in the same phase of working motherhood can commiserate and deeply understand the way a mom feels,” she adds.
In addition, find like-minded friends to add to your social circle. “Build your village so you can have a reality-check when you need it,” Heidelberger recommends.
Turn to professionals. “Seek therapy if you need help navigating the emotional transition of returning to work,” Dr. Montfort says. A therapist provides a safe space to explore your feelings, and allows you to think through your new identity, she says.
Ask for help—and accept it too! If the people in your life offer help with this transition or to care for your little one, take them up on it, Dr. Montfort says. After all, it really does take a village.
Prioritize yourself. Experts agree: Mom guilt is hard for any mom to avoid, frankly. But “just because a mom may feel guilt, it doesn’t mean that it’s warranted,” Dr. Dorfman points out. Caring for yourself may help alleviate some of that guilt—and keep you sane. So take the time to figure out what you need for yourself. Maybe it’s an hour to attend a weekly yoga class, watching your favorite TV show, or a coffee date with a friend. “These restorative moments help moms to be more present with baby and more productive at work,” Dr. Dorfman observes. “They do wonders for the psyche and soul.”