If you’re a first-time parent returning to the office after maternity or paternity leave, you should know that it is a lot like having a newborn: You may plan, but it’s something you’ll never be truly prepared for. Even with a hybrid work schedule or flexible hours, working caregivers will likely find their new normal an adjustment.
Since America is the only developed nation without paid family leave, the harsh reality is that even the most generous, family-friendly American corporations only offer so much compensated time off for the birth or adoption of a baby. As much as you may love your job and as excited as you may be to return to some semblance of your pre-baby routine, parental leave that ends before your little one is six months old is not enough time to bond with your baby, let alone for birthing parents to heal from childbirth physically.
Still, until some drastic policy changes are made, this is our situation, so chances are, if you live in the U.S. and are fortunate enough to have a job that offers parental leave and you’re planning to return to the workforce, you’ve been planning your maternity leave—and your eventual return to work—for almost as long as you’ve awaited your due date. Between all of the preparation you’ve already done for baby’s arrival, adjusting to postpartum life with your newborn, finding a childcare provider, and wrapping your head around the idea of returning to work, there are bound to be some things you haven’t considered.
Most of us here at Pregnancy & Newborn are working moms, and between us, we’ve taken–and returned to work from–several maternity leaves over the years. To help make things a little easier for you, we want to share the best advice we’ve received and some of the most important tips we’ve learned to make your transition back to the office and into your new routine as seamless as possible.
Have a Backup Childcare Plan
Whether you’ve hired in-home childcare such as a nanny or babysitter, you’re off the waiting list for the baby room at a daycare center, you’ve enlisted the help of Grandma and Grandpa, or Dad’s remote work schedule allows him to care for your babe while you’re at the office, we trust you’ve done your due diligence and have your childcare plan in place for your return.
You may not think about this until you have to, but— trust us—the day will come when you have no choice but to confront a lack of childcare on a workday, and there will be no time to devise a plan. Save yourself the last-minute scramble and discuss your backup childcare plan with your partner before you need to utilize it. What happens if the baby or nanny (or grandparent) is sick? Or, what if daycare closes due to bad weather? Will you call out of work, or will your partner? Can you work remotely when baby is home? Can a family member or another caregiver watch the baby? Does your employer offer additional sick days to care for sick family members, or is that included in your paid time off? Or do you have an emergency backup childcare benefit through your employer?
Talk to Your Manager
Before returning to work, discuss your schedule and flexibility options with your manager. Do you have the option to work from home? If not, can you work from home on a hybrid schedule–two or three days per week–even if it’s just for a transitional period? If it was your arrangement before you went on leave, you may assume that you will need to return to the office full-time, but sometimes all you need to do is ask and negotiate. If you have a job that you work remotely, convincing your manager to allow you to work off-site, at least part-time, may not be as difficult as you may think. In fact, studies have shown that remote workers are more productive than those who work in the office; remote work increases work-life balance (which is essential for any parent), prevents burnout, and can improve mental health, which can be vital for someone who has just had a baby—especially if you’re dealing with postpartum depression or other another postpartum mood disorder.
If working from home is off the table, request a more flexible work schedule to accommodate childcare drop-off and pickup times. If this schedule has been agreed on, set boundaries to ensure you’re able to sign off on time to make it to daycare pickup (before they start charging you a late fee by the minute), whether that means you block your calendar off at 4:00 p.m. each afternoon so you won’t be scheduled for a meeting that will run past your 4:45 out-the-door time, or that you make it clear to your colleagues that once you’re home with the baby, your workday is over and you won’t be checking email.
Maybe you’re not ready to return full-time at all. In this case, perhaps there is an option for a phased return, working part-time for the first few weeks before gradually getting back to your regular full-time schedule or working more flexible hours. If you’re struggling with the idea of returning to work so much that you’re considering putting in your notice, it may be to your benefit (and your employer’s) to ask whether or not cutting your hours back to part-time is possible.
If you’re able to determine your first day back, try not to start on a Monday. Transitioning from several weeks at home with a newborn to a 40-hour work week will feel like a huge shock and potentially cause some severe anxiety. If possible, return midweek and ease into your new routine—trust us, your first week will go much smoother this way.
Finally, before returning to work, speak with your manager or human resources department to set and manage expectations. Start by asking for what you think you need from them as your employer, then go from there.
Get Into a Routine
Preparing to return to work post-maternity leave is both physically and emotionally challenging. Not only will you have an entirely new morning routine that now involves getting a tiny human fed, packed, and ready to go before you can even get yourself fed, packed, and ready to go, but you’ll be doing it postpartum, sleep-deprived, and while possibly also dealing with the frustration of having a completely different body than you had before you were wearing maternity clothes.
At least a week before you return to an office setting, it may be a good idea to go through your work wardrobe to see what fits, what is still in season and in style, and what you’re comfortable wearing. Choose something you feel good wearing that is also practical for the office, gives you easy access for pumping (more on that later), and is comfortable enough for commuting. If you don’t have anything suitable and have the means, getting a new outfit for the occasion may help boost your confidence and motivate you to get dressed and out of the house. If your gig requires you to wear a uniform or scrubs, take inventory a few weeks before your anticipated return to ensure everything fits so you have time to order new, more comfortable gear if necessary.
If you’ll be responsible for morning drop-off with your childcare provider, it may help to do a dry run a few days before returning to the office to see how much time you may need in the morning. Set an alarm, get ready, and go through the motions as you would if you were leaving for work–baby and all. Set a stopwatch, pack up the car, drive to the daycare, drive to the train station or your job, and see how long it takes you to do your new routine before you actually need to do it. It will alleviate some of the stress you may have when it’s really go-time.
Prepare To Pump
If you’re breastfeeding and plan to continue when you return to work, you’ll be bringing your pump along with you, so get ready. First, you should know your rights when it comes to pumping on the job. The PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act, passed at the end of 2022, requires employers to provide employees with a private space to pump and to compensate them for the time they spend pumping. Figure out a pumping schedule based on your baby’s current feeding schedule, block off that time on your calendar, and inform your manager of your pumping plan. (Read more tips for pumping at work here.)
“The biggest thing you can do to prepare yourself to return to work is to familiarize yourself with the pump and your baby with the bottle while you are home and have the time and energy to learn how to make these parts of breastfeeding work,” says Jessica Anderson, MA, IBCLC, CLC, a lactation consultant in Maryland and wearable pump expert with Tommee Tippee.
Anderson recommends “a good pump bag with lots of pockets and a cooler or milk chiller to keep your breast milk cold while you are in transit.” You’ll also need some breastfeeding necessities like milk storage bags and extra pump parts.
Perhaps, most importantly, if you don’t have a wearable breast pump and plan on getting anything done aside from staring at the wall while you’re in the lactation room, invest in a hands-free pumping bra. Even if you plan to do nothing more than scroll through your phone or call daycare to check in on your little one’s day, you will need your hands.
“Finding the time to pump at work can be a challenge,” says Anderson, “but so many moms are finding a portable and discrete wearable pump option that allows them to multitask. Being able to pump and work, or stick to your preferred schedule despite work events, is a huge bonus!”
Even if you’re not planning on pumping when you return to work, your new routine will still require some new stuff to keep you organized, comfortable, and working efficiently. Our must-have products for your transition back to work have got you covered.
Expect Relationships With Coworkers To Shift
Upon your return, you may often hear “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you” from your colleagues (and even upper management). While some of these offers are certainly genuine, don’t expect your coworkers to understand unless they are also parents. I am not proud to admit that pre-children, I may have given some judgemental glares at the new moms who dropped everything and ran out of the office at 5:00 p.m. on the dot each night to relieve their babysitter or to get to daycare pickup while I stayed late at the office. Until I became a new parent, I had no idea how frantic that race out the door and into rush-hour traffic could be when you are up against the clock. Once you return to work as a new parent, you will quickly realize that with your new baby comes new priorities—and baby will always come first.
The most helpful advice I ever received when I returned from my most recent maternity leave came from a surprising source: My manager at the time. She watched as I got flustered going through my overflowing email inbox and said, “Just select all and put all those emails in another folder. If any are that important, they’ll know how to find you.” It was the most liberating advice anyone could have given me. And I never needed to refer back to those emails, after all.
As you ease back into the office, remember that, somehow, your employer got along without you for the duration of your leave. This is not to say that your work is unimportant or you were not missed, but if someone could cover for you in your absence, they can do it again if you need to call out or leave early for your babe. Your job may be your identity, independence, passion, or a way to pay the bills; whatever the reason you decide to return to work after baby’s arrival is a good one. Leaving your child in someone else’s care to return to work is not an easy transition, but it can be manageable.