Maternity leave was the first and only time that I’ve missed more than 10 days of work. I won’t lie and tell you that the thought of that extended time away with my son filled me with anything other than joy—because, let’s face it, doing just about anything at 40 weeks is exhausting, even if it is sitting at a desk. But I also wanted to make passing my baton as seamless as possible for my co-workers. Thankfully, my 12-week-long baby sabbatical came with even longer advance notice. I had nine months to plan for my departure and get things in order.
If you don’t know what kind of maternity leave your company offers—and not all are required to (see the “Lay down the law” sidebar to familiarize yourself with basic maternity leave rights), you’ll want to read up on employee benefits. Ask human resources about anything you don’t understand or that isn’t explicitly written in the policy. If you’d like to take more time than your company allots for maternity leave, talk to HR about how you can best use your vacation and sick days to cobble together a longer stretch with your newbie.
Before you get too far along in your pregnancy, you’ll want to sit down with your supervisor. Let her know that you are formulating a plan for maternity leave and would like to get her input and approval. (Determine if you’re going to try to negotiate a longer maternity leave or more pay before you meet.) Together you can decide what will happen while you’re out, whether that involves you working ahead, having others pitch in and cover for you, bringing on a temporary hire or, more than likely, some combination of the above. This way you’ll know exactly what you need to do to stay on track.
Some moms-to-be type up a formal maternity leave plan that outlines everything they’ve agreed upon with their boss, including start and end dates. Have your manager sign off on it to confirm that you’re all on the same page. You’ll also need to complete any relevant forms for HR if you’re using vacation days or filing for short-term disability or time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Tip: Go ahead and find out how to add baby to your health care plan while you’re at it.
Around week 38 I started keeping a running list of what was left to do and where to find things or contacts if someone else needed to pick up where I left off because I was certain my little one was coming early. (He ended up being two weeks late, but my penchant for lists meant I didn’t have to worry about anything falling through the cracks.)
Now, I’m not saying this is what everyone needs to do. Depending on your job’s responsibilities—or just your personality, you might be fine flying without a master list. But what I am saying is this: Do what puts your mind at ease. Introduce clients and customers to your temporary replacement. Have your email auto-reply message ready to turn on with the push of a button. DropBox anything you might need access to from home, including copies of relevant HR forms and contact information for your health insurance representative. Tidy up your workspace. Know whom at work you’ll be emailing when baby is on the way. These might seem like miniscule to-do’s at the moment, but you won’t have the brainpower to deal with them after birthing a baby.
Despite what others might think, maternity leave is far from a long-term vacation. Becoming a mom is a transformative process that continues long after you leave the delivery room. You are physically and emotionally changed, and your body is recovering from the spectacular feat of nurturing and birthing a baby. On top of needing a pillow to sit on or a squirt bottle to pee, you’ll be at the constant beck and call of a very needy—sometimes demanding—tiny human.
Your goal for the next few weeks is simple: Take care of your baby, and take care of yourself. That’s it. If you can put a check by those two things at the end of the day, then you absolutely rocked it. Because, believe it or not, there will be times that even accomplishing those basic tasks seems daunting.
I remember one day telling my husband that the only thing I accomplished (aside from feeding, diapering and rocking our son) was refilling the soap dispenser in the hall bathroom. We both laughed because that was a perfect snapshot of life with a newbie. Caring for a baby is practically all-consuming, so anything else you do on top of that is gravy. Shake off any pressure to stay on top of the laundry, cook a homemade meal or even change into real clothes.
It might take time for you to find your groove, and that is completely normal. Cut yourself all kinds of slack as you learn the ropes and get to know your babe. Soon you’ll figure out that he loves to be perched up on your shoulder where he can see the world or that he tends to have a blowout after long feedings (so be prepared and maybe don’t buckle him in the car seat straight away). As your bond grows, so will your confidence as a mama.
When you feel ready, add one small thing to your day. It could be a walk around the neighborhood, a trip to the park or an afternoon treat at the bakery down the street. Take it slow, and keep expectations at a minimum. Maybe you’ll sail through it and be ready to tackle a solo grocery run tomorrow. Or maybe your bub’s wailing will have you ordering your muffin to-go and dashing for the nearest exit. Either way, you did it! Cue the applause. And you’ll do it again and again until it becomes second nature to schlep the diaper bag, car seat, stroller, etc. around town with your mini sidekick. (Side note: Newbie cries are a lot less bothersome than you think. I was genuinely surprised when I would apologize to people at the next table, and they would tell me that they didn’t even notice the noise.)
As your maternity leave draws to a close, you’ll want to start thinking about the return to work and what that will look like for your family. Will you be enrolling your wee one in day care? Will you be switching to a different work schedule or shifting your hours to accommodate drop-off and pick-up times? Will you be welcoming a nanny or regular babysitter into your home? Whatever lies ahead for your brood, a little preparation could make for a smoother transition.
In the last three or four weeks you have at home, breastfeeding mamas will want to focus on food. Break out the pump, if you haven’t already, so you can sanitize the parts and get familiar with how it works. Those hoping to build up a milk store in the freezer (it’s amazing what peace of mind having some extra ounces will give you) can start adding a pumping session or two to their days to start saving. Now is also the time to introduce a bottle. Some babes will take to it right away, while others may need some convincing. Either way, stick with giving your kiddo one a day; baby can easily fall out of practice when he’s young.
When you’re down to your final couple weeks, touch base with your boss about your return. You can also practice running through your routine—think of it as a dress rehearsal for the big day. Wake up and get ready just as you would if you were heading to the office. You might even be inclined to make the drive to your child care provider, be it grandma’s house or a day care center. All of this will give you a feel for what to expect and help you adjust accordingly when you realize morning traffic on your new commute is heavier than anticipated.
If you’re anxious about your baby being cared for by someone else, consider trying a half-day while you’re still at home. It’s a great way to ease both mama and mini into what will be your new normal. Plus, you won’t have to worry about getting emotional about drop-off on your first day back on the job.
Last but not least, as you approach the end of maternity leave, be sure to take time to savor it. The days are hard work, but they’re also ones you’ll cherish forever—when it was just you and your baby, and nothing else mattered. So, luxuriate in it. Soak up all the snuggles you can. Take lots of videos and pictures. Heck, print a couple for your desk. Squeeze in a few playdates or lunch dates or middle-of-the-day trips to Target when you can get a parking spot up front and the aisles are practically empty. And don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back (and maybe a large latte) for all that you’ve done in the past few weeks—and I don’t mean refilling the soap dispenser.