Coming back from maternity leave is challenging for every mom. Trying to juggle all the things you feel you need to do with work and life at home with a new little one (or two) can make you feel like you have no idea where to start. This list of Top 10 Things To Do When Returning From Maternity Leave will help as you navigate these waters.
Returning from maternity leave can be challenging for all of us. You might be wrestling with a lot of different emotions as you figure out the best way to approach returning to work for yourself and your family.
The first time I returned to work after maternity leave was after the birth of our first child in 2018… and it was a nightmare. I was working for an organization who had given my responsibilities to an unqualified staff member, including all of the fundraising during that time for our largest event of the year.
I ended up returning to work much earlier than planned when I found out she hadn’t raised anywhere close to the funds she was responsible for handling while I was on maternity leave. It was stressful and made a big chunk of my time at home with our new baby stressful.
The second time I returned to work was in 2019. I was working for a different organization and it was a completely different (and incredibly positive) experience.
Our guest blogger today, Nicole, is a fantastic resource for the challenges that come with returning to work after maternity leave.
In addition to being a parent of three, Nicole also has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology (which is psychology applied in the workplace) and has worked in Human Resources for 13+ years! She’s sharing with us today her list of Top 10 Things to Do When Returning for Maternity Leave.
10 Things to Do When Returning From Maternity Leave
The first time I returned to work from maternity leave it was pretty typical. I had a baby then went back to work. The second time I had twins and then COVID-19 hit, so I came back to a completely different world. My office was shut down, everyone was teleworking, and our anticipated childcare arrangement of sending all three kids to daycare was blown to smithereens.
Coming back from maternity leave is challenging, but trying to juggle all the things you feel you need to do with work and life at home with a new little one (or two), and with the current situation of virtual learning, kids at home with their working parents, and not having extended support in many cases due to social distancing, this is now a completely different beast.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t have a section on caveats for what I’m sharing with you. The suggestions I’m providing are tailored to others in a similar situation to myself for the most part – so working at home during COVID (when childcare is more challenging) and working in a job that allows for some flexibility and autonomy.
Certain jobs, like essential jobs that require you to be in person for specific shifts, or customer service work where you are required to be on the phone for a set time, may not benefit from much of the below. I think a few of the suggestions, such as talking to your partner and support system are still relevant, but you may have to pick and choose what is relevant to you.
Talk to others about how they can support you.
Before heading back to work, you should discuss first with your partner how they can help support you. You may want to consider if your partner is eligible to take parental leave as part of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows up to 12 weeks of time off that is job-protected (Note: that not all companies need to follow it, and usually this ends up being unpaid).
With my first child, my husband did take FMLA so it was an easier transition for me to go back to work since I knew he was at home with our daughter. You can also consider having your spouse work a reduced workload taking FMLA time if his or her organization would support that.
The ability of your partner to take additional time to help with your re-entry aside, you should also be having a conversation now about how to handle nighttime feedings – if you, like me, were handling all nighttime feedings while your partner was working, this may be time for a new change!
Also, consider who is helping in the morning to get everyone ready for the day, and how you will both handle childcare at home while working (if applicable), and how you will both manage dinner and meals! One of my coworkers said that at the beginning of each week, he and his spouse sit down with their work calendars and plan out in 30 minute increments who is responsible for the kids, as they both try to figure out how to prioritize each of their meetings. It’s a tough time if you have kids at home, and talking about logistics now will help make a transition easier.
Do you have other people you can rely on? This may be the ideal time to request a meal train from friends and family, so you don’t need to worry about making dinner each night. Or if you have parents or in-laws who are excited to spend time with their new grandchild, this may be an ideal time to talk about them coming over regularly to help.
In our situation, my mother-in-law comes over every morning around 8:30 am and then just before lunch, takes our toddler back to her house to have lunch and a nap there, then she drops her off around dinner time. This is incredibly helpful! And even if you don’t have someone to commit to a regular schedule, would they be willing to come over when you have important meetings or a critical deadline? You won’t know if you don’t ask (or beg).
Before you go back to work, do a practice run of your new routine.
Don’t have your first day at work be the first day your new nanny comes to your house, or that you drop off your baby at a new daycare! See if you can ease into it.
For our first child, a few days before I went back to work, we did half-days at daycare (which also gave me a much-needed break!). If you are having other help come into your home, it’s great to have them come over before you go back to work to learn your routine and let them ask you questions about where things are or expectations you may have of them.
Figure out your dinner and evening routine in advance.
Nothing frustrates me more than finishing up a day at work (in my basement now), to head upstairs and be asked by my spouse, “What’s for dinner?” (This is a hypothetical….)
If during your leave you were primarily responsible for planning and making dinner, you need to talk to your partner about what that looks like in the future. Now, if you are the better cook and it’s something you enjoy, maybe you want to continue, but you may need to discuss ensuring your spouse quits work or is home by a certain time to make it easier for you to cook.
Things I do to help make dinner easier while working includes prepping dinner over my lunch break, using a slow cooker so I can start something in the morning. It’s also a good idea to try to make larger meals on the weekend so you can re-use them later in the week.
On challenging weeks, I’ve also just asked others for help with dinner. We had one week where my husband was sick, and it took us six days to get his COVID test back (negative thankfully) but the entire time he was isolating and sleeping in his office. So that week was so incredibly hard. Given his potential diagnosis, we didn’t want my mother-in-law coming over to help. So I asked her if she’d be willing to help with dinners instead so I didn’t have to worry about cooking. She said yes and then we had an amazing week of delicious meals.
You may also want to solidify your evening routine, especially if you have multiple kids. At my house, I know we ideally need to eat at 6 pm. This lets us then put the twins to bed first, and then my toddler, ideally with everyone asleep by 9 pm.
When I was on maternity leave, our schedules were out of sync, with my toddler sleeping in until 9 am, and staying up until 10 or sometimes 11 pm (yikes!). It was so hard to get up to go to work after dealing with such an extended bedtime for her. So ideally, get your bedtime routine until control before going back.
Talk to your boss about your return to work in advance.
While you may want to wait to deal with work once your maternity leave is over, I’d suggest scheduling time with your boss a few weeks before your return to talk through logistics and expectations.
When I went on leave, everyone was going into our local office, and while I was gone, everyone transitioned to work from home. You’ll want to ensure you know expectations around where you’ll be expected to work, and also what the organization may have put into place to support flexible work at this time.
In my discussion with my boss, I proposed that I may not be able to work 9-5 like I was previously and that I may need to take more breaks during the day or schedule time to be able to take my daughter to a park, or just get out of the house. (This was wishful thinking; I’ve only taken my daughter to a park once since going back to work two months ago).
I proposed that I could work additional hours on weekends when my husband was off work if needed to be able to catch up. My boss was supportive of this, and I feel that if I get my work done, it doesn’t matter when I’m doing it. Your boss may have different expectations, and it may be a good idea to figure out what these are before going back to work so you can plan accordingly.
Review job expectations and re-contract if needed.
Ideally, in any job, you have a good idea of what you are accountable for, and how your performance will be judged. Now, that’s easier said than done, and not all organizations are good at helping employees define their roles.
When you are coming back from maternity leave, I do think it makes sense to meet with your manager or other leaders/peers you work with closely to ask what, if anything, may have changed while you were out. In my field of Human Resources, we did have quite a bit of change with Covid-19, and some of the things I thought we’d be focused on when I returned, now didn’t seem quite as important as they did before.
You should discuss with your boss, or other key stakeholders, to confirm or clarify what you should be focused on and ask if any priorities have changed.
Schedule time to say hello to your coworkers.
If you are stuck working at home like I am, consider scheduling some video calls with your work friends or colleagues to say hello. I figure if I would have been in the office, I would have naturally caught up with people over time and chatted about what was going on. Since this wasn’t the case, I purposefully scheduled 30 min meet and greet style meetings to say hello to the people I work most closely with. I did spread them out over the first month, so it wasn’t all at once.
In these calls, ask about what happened while you were out, and ask what people are working on now. If you were out for a few months (or more) a lot could have changed while you were out, and this is a great way to try to avoid any future surprises.
Negotiate added responsibilities.
Evaluate what is being asked of you and consider if it is realistic. If you are being given new work to do or additional responsibilities you didn’t have before, ask if you can transition back to your other projects over time, or have others finish up projects vs. handing them back to you immediately upon your arrival.
Now, if you should do this, may depend on your relationship with your boss, and how supportive they are. If you feel like too much is being asked of you, I’d recommend that you go in with some suggestions on how to ensure the work is still done.
As an example, in my case, I was given a new project upon returning from maternity leave. We had the person who was covering from me while I was on leave, continue to cover for me on another project until I had the new one under my belt. This resulted in a substantially smoother (and less nerve-wracking) transition.
If you think you may need help to manage any additional work on top of your old work, tell your boss this! Or if you feel it’s not realistic, you can use phrases like, “Can you help me prioritize this new request against what I’m already doing? I’m worried that if I take it on, my other work may fall behind.”
Think about your career and share your thoughts with your boss.
Have you heard the term benevolent sexism? Let’s say you return to work and your boss says, “Hey, I asked Marshall to take the lead on sales for our new client in Japan. With a new baby, I don’t want to ask you to have to travel internationally.” So, maybe this works for you. Maybe you appreciate that your boss is looking out for you by making your life easier. Or on the flip side, maybe you are resentful that Marshall will now be more likely to get a promotion in the future and will have a bonus twice as big as yours.
Benevolent sexism is when decisions based on gender or gender roles appear positive but may have damaging effects more broadly. Yes, your boss is likely trying to do something nice for you, but they also may be inadvertently holding you back from opportunities that would support your career in the long run.
I think it’s up to you to determine how you want your career to look after coming back from leave. Are you interested in the status quo? Or are you looking for more opportunities to expand your scope and influence in the hopes of career advancement? I think either is fine, but the important thing is that you share your thoughts on your career with your boss proactively, ideally before they make any future decisions that could inadvertently hold you back in your career.
Give yourself time to adjust.
While I was writing this, I did some crowdsourcing of my coworkers who recently also came back from maternity leave and one great suggestion was to give yourself time to get back in the swing of things. Specifically, one of my friends said, “Be realistic about what is working and how you’re feeling. It’s normal not to feel like the same person that you were when you left work months ago but give yourself grace and time to get your brain moving like it used to. Returning to work is a process and it is not going to feel perfect overnight.”
It took me a while to feel like I knew what was going on. It was also just a transition to get used to working full-time. In the beginning, I took more breaks and checked in more with my kids. Now, a few months in, I’m a bit busier and back in the grove, but I’m glad I didn’t stress too much about it initially.
Enjoy going back and using your skills again!
Both times when I returned to work after maternity leave, there was a point where after I had figured out something complicated, or pulled off something difficult, I felt like “Oh, I’m really back now.” It was a great feeling. Taking care of my babies was important, but to be honest, my brain felt a bit mushy after the routine of feed, burp, diaper, tummy time, nap, repeat.
Being back at work feels amazing most of the time, to be honest – I love my job and it’s so nice to be able to feel I’m contributing in a way that uses my skills. It’s also nice to have some adult interaction – even if it is just over zoom calls.
It’s easy to feel guilty when going back but take some time to savor it as well. I hope this list of the Top Things to Do When Returning From Maternity Leave is helpful as you navigate this time, too.
Nicole lives in Falls Church, Virginia, and has two primary jobs – one as a Senior Director in Human Resources, and another as a mom to her 3-year-old Anais, and her 5-month-old twins, Gisele and Vivienne. In addition to her HR background, she also has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Penn State. She started the blog https://www.3-under-three.com earlier this year as a way to make new connections during this challenging time. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram!