I was discussing motherhood and returning to work with a friend who had a baby the same time I did. With a mixture of sadness and wonder she said, "I don’t know why I put this pressure on myself to hurry back to work."
Our country is woefully behind other advanced countries in supporting parents through parental leave both financially and emotionally. We have to get back to work because we need the money and, frankly, because we feel the social expectation to be everything – the kick-ass career woman who puts out fires at work and the kick-ass new mom who manages the needs of her home and family with ease and grace.
We feel the pressure to be that supermom image of the beautifully put together woman who’s typing with one hand and holding a sweet, sleeping baby with the other.
But, uh, that’s not exactly what the return to work looks like for most of us. I’ve had moms describe the work/parent life as barely "keeping your head above water".
Because we live in the real world, where having children and working is hard, here are some great tips and ideas for getting back to work from myself and other moms I know who do an amazing job of balancing work and family.
1. Figure out what you want
Figure out what you want and don’t let what you think you should want influence your decisions. Whether you can’t wait to get back to work or you are dreading it, you’re right. It’s okay to be delighted to get a break from changing diapers and to have non-baby related projects to focus on. It’s okay to want to focus on taking care of your kids and not want to return to your career.
2. Know your maternity leave rights
Know your state and federal rights regarding maternity leave. That way you are better equipped to confront the misinformation or pressure of your employer or coworkers to return to work before you’re ready or to perform duties for which you aren’t physically capable due to pregnancy or recovery.
3. Know your breastfeeding rights
Federal law mandates that your employer provide you with an adequate break and a private place to pump (with a door that locks) that is not a bathroom. You may very well have to make your employer aware of the law.
Also, know that your health insurance has to cover your breast pump and lactation support. In case of pumping emergency, splurge on the breast pump car adapter and an extra set of all the washable parts on Amazon to keep in your car and at work.
4. Consult with a lactation specialist
Work with a lactation specialist to develop a feeding plan that works best for you and your baby. Again, this can be covered by your health insurance. A lactation specialist can help you with a game plan for storing enough milk daily to leave for your baby and a pumping plan at work so you can keep up your supply. Or she can help you wean your baby to morning and night feedings if that’s a better plan for you and your babe.
5. Don’t apologize
You’ll have different boundaries than you did before you were a mom, but don’t apologize for it – to yourself or anyone else. If your work doesn’t understand why you can’t stay late or respond to emails after hours, don’t be sorry. Be honest. Your goal is to focus on work when you are at work and to focus on family when you are at home. Having a good work-life balance is a priority for you as it should be for all employees and employers.
As my friend Jessica says, "I work harder for my company because they care about my time as much as they care about their bottom line." If you’re in a career or company that doesn’t respect your family priorities, it might be time to rethink your options.
6. Accept that things out of your control will happen
Some days you will be late to work because your baby spit up all over your dress shirt or pooped all over the car seat. If you can’t control it, there’s no use worrying about it.
7. Have a Plan B (and a Plan C and D)
Many of us are planners by nature. We’d like to be able to know from the start how long we’ll be out of work, when we’ll return to work, who’s going to be taking care of our baby, etc. But you can’t possibly foresee how you are going to feel when your arrangements come time to implement.
What if you go back into that daycare now with a mother’s vision and something doesn’t feel right? What if you’ve completely lost your drive for the work you used to enjoy?
Don’t stick to a plan that’s not working for you just because it’s the plan.
8. Stay in the touch with your network
If you decide to take a year or more off to focus on your family, everything you need to stay relevant in the workforce is at your fingertips. Keep your skills current with online courses from sites like Kaplan, Lynda.com, and Coursera. Follow the latest trends in your field. Maintain business relationships through social networking sites like LinkedIn or quick emails to say hello. This will make the transition back to the workplace easier when you decide it’s time.
9. What works for others may not work for you
I have friends who arranged to work from home more often with their employers. Alternatively, I have friends who arranged to work in the office more often with their employers to stay out of their kids (and their nanny, stay-at-home parent, or sitter’s) way.
10. Prepare to work harder to communicate
Staying connected with your partner will take more work than it ever has before. Sometimes you are just checking things off the list to get through the day.
Get the baby ready. Check. Get yourself ready. Check. Drop the baby at daycare. Check. Get to work on time. Check. You feel like you’re going through the motions and your last priority is your romantic relationship.
As unromantic as it may sound, schedule talks with your partner. Write it in on the calendar. Make it a priority. Be honest. Say what you need. Listen. And then talk about things that have nothing to do with schedules or diapers.
You’ll also have to work harder to communicate with your colleagues and boss as well. So, head back into work with a communications strategy that will leverage your strong suits.
11. Think outside the box
If you are unhappy about returning to work, but it must be done, consider small solutions that may ease your transition. Can you go in an hour early or leave an hour early to maximize your family time or ease your commute? Instead of taking time off together, could your partner take leave as you are returning to work? Could you use vacation days to have a four day work week for the first month?
12. You now have three costs to consider in all decisions
How much time, how much stress, and how much money will something cost you?
Time and convenience are such valuable commodities in the parent/career balance that they sometimes rival money. The more expensive daycare on the way to work may very well be worth the thirty minutes you’d save dropping your child off elsewhere. Paying the sitter to come fifteen minutes earlier so you have both arms free to get ready for work could save you countless mornings of stress. Paying someone else to clean your house is priceless.
But, of course, the greatest consideration as we return to work is the emotional price we pay for trying to do it all, and be it all and have it all.
Life is too short, our time with our kids is too short, their childhood is too short for us to spend it just keeping our heads above water. Imagine what your shallow end looks like and move toward it.
Parenting is never going to be easy but we don’t have to drown in our ideas of becoming a supermom. You already are a supermom; you are raising a little human. Keep your focus on family when you’re at home, and work when you’re there. You’ll make it through, no matter what path you choose.