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How to Transition Back to Work After Maternity Leave (Without Losing Your Mind)

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First things first: you’re pretty lucky if you live in the U.S. and you even have a maternity leave to come back from.
Back to Work After Maternity Leave
Dakota Corbin/Unsplash

Only 14 percent of private-sector employees have paid leave in the U.S., according to Pew Research Center. The Family and Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave per 12 months for eligible workers who want to stay home to care for a new family member. But, not every worker is eligible — some work for employers who come in under the 50-employee limit, for example, while others haven’t put in enough time prior to welcoming their new baby — and not every worker who is eligible can afford to take leave. In fact, a quarter of new moms in the U.S. return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Two weeks!

But let’s assume for a moment that you’re one of the lucky ones who can afford to take leave. Your troubles aren’t over yet. Because once leave is up, you have to deal with the transition back to work. And that’s often a lot harder than you might anticipate, no matter how good you are at planning your finances, childcare and professional responsibilities.

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I’m a freelancer who recently transitioned back to work after maternity leave. I did a lot of research beforehand, hoping to minimize the impact on my professional and personal life. The internet had a lot of good advice for me, including setting realistic goals, blocking pumping time on my calendar and practicing saying no. But there were still things that took me by surprise about going back.

If you’re heading back to work from maternity leave, here are a few things I think you need to know:

1. It’s Going to Be Different Than You Think

Make plans galore — about childcare, about work schedules, about pumping/feeding prep — but waste zero hours and zero minutes worrying about how you’re going to feel. You just don’t know yet.

Six weeks into my leave, I thought I’d be bereft to leave my bean with her dad for the day and shut myself in my office. I didn’t exactly shout with joy the first time I blew the dust off my keyboard, but half an hour into my first assignment, I remembered how much I loved my work. And then when it was time to hang out with my baby again, I felt so grateful to get to see her.

On the other hand, I’ve had friends — moms and dads! — who thought they’d be eager to hand their baby off to a childcare provider, only to discover that they pined for their little ones and had to make some changes to their schedule or their job. You just never know until you’re there.

A quarter of new moms in the U.S. return to work within two weeks of giving birth.Click To Tweet

2. Communicate Early and Often

Here’s something I didn’t do that you absolutely should: get in touch with work well before you come back.

I hear you groaning. I’m not suggesting you check in once a week to talk shop. (In fact, if you can possibly avoid it, I recommend doing so. It’s hard enough to recover from a birth and/or bond with a new family member without half your brain occupied with work thoughts.) But a week or two before you come back, check in with your boss. Say hi, remind them about your return-to-work date and talk about what’s on deck for your first week back.

Then turn off your phone again and stare at your baby some more.

3. Make a Childcare Plan. And Then a Backup Plan. And Then a Backup-for-Your-Backup Plan.

OK, this one is on every list for working moms with new babies: make a childcare plan. But here’s the important part: have a backup. More than one, if you can figure it out.

Why? Well, you might need to work late, in which case you’ll need a sitter or a family member to pick your kid up at daycare or take over when the nanny goes home. Or your kid will get sick, and daycare will call and nicely request that you hie yourself over there tout suite to get your germ machine before she infects everyone else.

If you don’t have a plan in place, you’ll be stuck telling your boss that you can’t make that crucial meeting, because you have childcare responsibilities. That should be OK … but at many companies, it’s secretly not. You might not get fired, but if it happens enough, you also won’t get promoted. If only the Mommy Track had gone out with other late-20th century trends like landlines and wearing suits to creative jobs.

Childcare needs are just one of many reasons why women earn less than men on average – but if you can plan ahead, you might be able to mitigate it.

4. If There Are Two Parents, Involve Both

And while we’re talking about the gender pay gap, did you know that countries like Sweden where men do more childcare have smaller gender pay gaps than we do?

It’s not hard to figure out why: when women are the only ones who take care of kids, they’re the only ones who have to put work on the back burner when kids need something. The end result is fewer working hours, less opportunity for advancement and ultimately, lower pay.

As Sheryl Sandberg famously said, “Give us a world where half our homes are run by men, and half our institutions are run by women. I’m pretty sure that would be a better world.”

If you’re a woman who’s partnered with a man, don’t assume all of the childcare responsibilities automatically. If you do, your career will suffer … which will ultimately affect your family as well as your personal happiness.

5. You’ll Need a Good Corporate Culture

All the planning and hard work in the world won’t make a difference if your corporate culture stinks. Of course, there’s only so much you can do to change things if you’re not an executive or business owner, and you can’t always quit in the short term. But you can make an honest assessment of your culture, ideally before your leave, to figure out if you’re going to have trouble when you get back.

Remember the culture flows from the top. If your boss’s boss never takes time off and you’re not sure whether any of the bigwigs even have a family, you might be in trouble. On the other hand, if the CEO took parental leave and people are generally out the door by 6 to have dinner with their family and friends, you’re probably in the clear.

Whatever your situation, it’s best to be prepared. Then, if you eventually have to move on, you’ll at least know what’s important to you when you’re assessing potential employers.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you recently gone back to work after adopting or giving birth? We want to hear from you. Share your tips in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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