9 Secrets for a Successful Return to Work After Maternity Leave

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I met a friend for afternoon tea this week. It was the perfect way to honor the Royal Baby’s birth week, although we didn’t talk about the Royal Baby. But as an excuse to treat ourselves to a $5 tea-based drink and food with absolutely no nutritional value, I’ll take it.

We chatted for an hour and a half about life with a newborn plus an older kid, our plans for going back to work, and if we want more kids – each of us bobbing our babies in our laps to keep them content. She ordered a slice of chocolate caramel cake, I got almond peach cake. (Hers was better.)

For the first time in weeks, I had to carry on a conversation with another adult that extended past the territory of “How old is your baby?” and “Do you want your receipt?”

And do you know what I learned?

I’m a little rusty.

My alone switch kept flipping to the ON position several times during the mommy date. Suddenly, I would hear myself saying – in a regular voice for everyone around me to hear – the things I say to my baby when no one else is around. Like “You need to sleep, you little turkey lurkey” and “Did you make a popo?”

My eyes would drift down to the baby, anxious to make sure I hadn’t accidentally let her head loll forward and smack into the table, and also just to see her sweet little face because I missed it.

Then I’d catch myself.

Oh wait, grown-ups are supposed to make eye contact.

I’d pull my eyes back up to my friend’s face, a little sheepish for having looked away. And probably also for saying “popo.”

Granted, I am a little on the socially awkward side to start with, but clearly I need to clean up my act before I go back to work in just a couple weeks.

leavePhoto by Kris Kesiak

9 Tips for Going Back to Work After Maternity Leave

Assuming you’ve already got childcare squared away and started pumping, here are some less obvious details to consider for your back-to-work checklist. The list is a mix of things that worked well for me AND things I wish I’d done the first go-round.

1. Stock Up

A few things you might want to pick up before the big day:

  • A breast pump. If you haven’t picked up a pump yet, I’ve used both Medela and Ameda pumps, and they were fine. But I LOVE my new Spectra pump. It’s more comfortable to use than other brands, and it seems to get more milk out than those competing pumps.
  • A decent bag to carry your pump. Aim for a professional look and maybe less of a “I attach this thing to my boobs to suck them dry” vibe.
  • Extra nursing pads. Keep them in your desk at work. Meetings will run over, and people will stop by your desk for unplanned visits. They won’t know that your breasts are about to burst, so be prepared in case you get delayed on pumping. (More on that in #7.) Here’s my favorite brand of disposable nursing pads. I loved that they absorbed well, and they weren’t visible through my shirt.
  • A framed photo of your baby. Some moms find that it eases being away from their babies to have a picture on their desk. Then again, others find it a little upsetting to be reminded of being away from their babies. Bring one just in case, and if you end up not liking the constant reminder you can always take the photo home.
  • Healthy snacks. When you get back into the daily grind, it’s easy to forget to eat regular, healthy snacks. But what you don’t want is to be starving and turn to the vending machine out of desperation. That won’t help you feel good about yourself, and it’s not the best fuel for your body if you’re nursing. Get some good snacks to keep in your desk so you’re not tempted by those mini powdered donuts.
  • Dinners. You think you were low on time for cooking after baby was born? Now you’ll be away from the house all day and your normal dinner prep time will be eaten up by sitting in rush-hour traffic. Bake a couple meals and freeze them before you go back to work so you have a quick dinner option if you need it.

If you plan to keep breastfeeding after you go back to work, check out 6 Secrets to Success for Breastfeeding at Work for more essentials you’ll need.

2. Look Good – And Feel Good

7 Fashion Tips for the Postpartum Mama

Don’t go trying to stuff yourself into your pre-pregnancy clothes.

Because they probably won’t fit. Then you’ll feel like crap because it’s been WEEKS since that tot popped out of you, and you still aren’t back to “normal.”

But here’s the deal: It took 9 months (no, 10!) for your body to get to where it is, so be patient while it finds its way back – and it may settle in a different spot than where it started. Some doctors estimate it takes 6-10 weeks just for your uterus to get back to pre-pregnancy size, let alone the rest of your bits and pieces.

Check out these tips for the best postpartum clothes, and treat yourself to a few new pieces. And after the last couple months you’ve had, you most definitely deserve a haircut and a mani/pedi, too.

3. Buck the System

If you choke up every time you think about leaving your baby in daycare, spend some time brainstorming some creative childcare solutions so baby doesn’t have to be in daycare 50+ hours a week.

Thinking outside the status quo box could save you some serious money AND give you more time with your sweet babe. Here are 5 childcare ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

4. Ease In

If possible, schedule your return date for the middle of the week. A full week of 40+ hours away from your baby is going to be a shock to your system – and your baby’s. See if your childcare provider will let your baby ease in as well.

One example scenario: Go back to work the Thursday before your leave is officially over, and work half-days. Your baby will get a couple half-days with the childcare provider under his onesie belt, and you’ll get some practice with your routine. Then use those couple half-days you worked to cut down on your hours a bit the next week. For example, you could work 6.5-hour days for the next week, then the week after that bump up to 40 hours.

5. Practice Saying No

After Abby was born and I returned to work, I let myself drown in obligations to other people.

Every time I stayed up til 1:00 am catching up on work email because I had too much work to do during the workday, then woke up at 6:00 am to get us ready for the day – I wasn’t on my A game for Abby. My patience was razor thin, and my temper bubbled right at the surface, ready to spill over.

Every night I was stressed about all the things I had to get done that evening after she went to bed – which was pretty much every night – I rushed through story time at bedtime, skipping sentences and sometimes entire pages when I thought I could get away with it.

I wasn’t in the moment.

So I started saying no at work. Here are a few tricks that have worked for me. Read through these tips to arm yourself BEFORE you get a bazillion people dumping work on you during your first week back in the office.

6. Meet With Your Boss

Schedule a quick meeting with your boss, outside the office if you can. That will lighten the mood, and you won’t run into people who assume you’re back and start emailing you about all the stuff they want you to do.

Ground you might want to cover:

  • Have there been any changes you need to be aware of while you were out? Reorgs, changes in leadership, a shift in priorities for the department?
  • What are your boss’s top priorities for you when you get back? This will help you focus and hit the ground running on what’s most important, instead of getting bogged down in unimportant tasks.
  • Is your boss willing to let you try out some flexible work arrangements? Maybe you want to work a half day from home every week, switch to a part-time schedule, or use a co-working facility. The answer may be “no,” but if you don’t ask? You’ll have a 0% chance of hearing “yes.”

7. Give Your Baby a Gift

Baby on the way
Photo by Lindsey Bell

If you’re nursing, the best thing you can do for your baby when you return to work is to make sure you’ll be successful with pumping.

Call your HR department before you go back and ask if lactation rooms are available. If not, ask if they have ideas for how to accommodate your needs. You just need a clean, private room with a power outlet. That could mean getting the key to an empty storage room or having a lock installed on your office door. If they tell you to use the bathroom, tell them to take a hike. According to U.S. law, most workplaces have to provide accommodations for you. Brush up on federal and state laws here.

Side note: If your childcare provider is near your workplace, consider leaving during your lunch break to feed your baby. It’ll save you a pump session and give you time to bond with your baby. Be sure to discuss the logistics with your provider ahead of time.

For more tips on breastfeeding after you return to work, check out 6 Secrets to Success for Breastfeeding at Work.

8. Do a Dry Run

Photo by Evan.

Pick a day near the end of your leave to test out your new schedule. If you’ll need to be in the office by 8:00 am, set the alarm for when you’ll need to get up. Run through your new routine and work out the kinks.

Maybe you’ll find that you need 20 minutes, not 10, to feed your baby. Or you could discover that getting to the daycare in rush-hour traffic takes twice as long as you thought. If you need to shave some time from your getting-ready routine, try setting out your outfit the night before. Try it on to make sure it fits you well. Iron it and check for spit-up stains. Time saved in the morning is more sleep for you.

Having a practice day will help remove some stress on that first day back in the office. And a little less stress is something every mama needs.

9. Change Your Purse

More specifically: Change where you PUT your purse or wallet in the car. Keep it in the backseat with baby.

Why? Nobody thinks they’ll be the ones to forget the baby in the backseat, but when you factor in sleep deprivation and feeling frantic with a more complicated routine getting yourself to work – it’s sadly not outside the realm of possibility. I’ve made some bonehead moves, like showing up to the grocery store, going to get my baby out of the carseat, and realizing I never buckled her up.

The danger is that you get on auto-pilot, baby falls asleep and doesn’t make a peep, and you drive from home to work without stopping at daycare first.

“Given the right scenario, I would say this can happen to anyone,” says [memory expert Dr. David Diamond]. “It has nothing to do with how much parents love their kids. It is, to me, a tragic way of learning how the brain works.”

Each of us has dueling memory systems, Diamond explains. The first – in the primitive, “reptilian” part of the brain – directs our habits. It’s the system that lets you drive home from work without thinking consciously about every turn. The second system – located in more advanced brain regions – is responsible for short-term plans, such as “Buy milk on the way home.” And as anyone who has ever forgotten that milk knows, the primitive “habit system” is much more powerful. “It’s very difficult to keep in your mind that you want to override your habit system,” Diamond says. “And it can take over almost immediately.”

Best insurance policy: Train yourself to keep your purse or wallet in the backseat.

(Special thanks to my friend Stephanie for sharing this tip with me when I was a brand new mama. Check out her awesome family dinner ideas here.)

Want More?

The Milk Memos

If you’re nursing, check out 6 Secrets to Success for Breastfeeding at Work.

For more tips and tricks on life with a baby, follow my Pinterest board Bundle of Joy.

Also, you’ll find more tips in these books:


Your Turn

What’s your advice for a mama going back to work? Share your tips in a comment below!