Two things happened the moment I left for maternity leave: My colleagues began counting down the days until I returned to work, anxiously awaiting a few baby photos and the possibility of a visit to the office with my new bundle of joy, and I began feeling the weight of every single one of those precious days, knowing that my time at home was finite.
The person who walked (okay wobbled…) out of that office hours before her baby was born was very different than the one who came back.
Leaving my baby to come back to work was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Luckily, I have amazing colleagues who made my transition back at work feel nearly seamless, and their efforts helped me realize that it's the small things that add up to make a big difference.
Here's what they did that helped me:
Let your colleague know she was missed. Leading up to my leave, I struggled with thinking I was replaceable, and that as soon as I left no one would even notice I was gone. While those worries lessened after my baby was born, it meant a lot to come back and be reminded that even though the wheels kept turning while I was out, the company still looked to me as the best person to do my job.
Give her space while she is on leave. While you do want to let your teammate know she is missed, don't obstruct her maternity leave by sharing unnecessary work information or office drama. Those weeks at home are sacred (and often unpaid), and while it can be nice to hear what is going on in the outside world, nothing can make a new mom feel more distracted than hearing about situations at work that may make her anxious to go back.
Make her first day back feel special. Whether it's texting a note of encouragement, leaving pictures of her baby on her desk, or coordinating a team breakfast, these little things make a mom feel special and supported. At the very least, make sure her desk is clean and the way she left it before she went on leave.
Be open to a flexible schedule. While not every job allows for a flexible schedule, many do, and one can really help a new mom make the transition back. If you are lucky enough to work for an organization that embraces flexibility, support your co-worker who needs to exercise that benefit for a season of life. She isn't any less committed to her job, and chances are she will be your biggest advocate when you need some flexibility too.
It's okay to ask about her baby. Take a minute or two to ask your colleague about her baby on a regular basis. While your co-worker's baby might be low on your totem pole, recognize that the new mom back at work likely can't think of anything else but her baby.
Respect her right to pump. Chances are your colleague is going to make regular trips to a private room so she can feed her baby. I was upfront about my need (and right) to pump with my colleagues and I let my team know that my calendar would be blocked twice a day for pumping sessions. While my team was respectful, that is not always the case for new moms. Many women sacrifice pumping sessions to make time for "urgent" meetings and last-minute requests. Even though occasionally moving a session is fine, doing so on a consistent basis will result in a drop of milk supply for that mama. So, if it is urgent, ask her if she doesn't mind taking a call from the pumping room. If it must be done in-person, apologize and don't make it a habit.
Empower her to be a mom first. One of the best things we can do as colleagues is support all parents as they put their families first. When mom needs to leave early to go to take her baby to an appointment, wish her well rather than asking her when she is going to be back online. A team member who feels content and fulfilled at home is going to bring so much more to the workplace than one who feels burdened with guilt.
Invite her to join team events. While recognizing her role as mom is her top priority, chances are she can use a break—and maybe a cocktail too. Even if your colleague declines the invitation to join after-work happy hours, continue inviting her along. Motherhood is all about balance, and while most nights she is probably vying to get home and cuddle her baby before bedtime, I guarantee you she is looking forward to a happy hour with colleagues too.
These little things add up, and the more we are self-aware of how we treat new moms, the more likely we are to keep that mom in the workplace and make her feel validated in her role at home and at work. Many of these apply to dads too, and it is equally important for fathers and partners to feel supported and encouraged in their roles.
At the end of the day, nothing teaches you how to give grace more than motherhood, and returning to work will undoubtedly present you with opportunities to exercise that grace both with yourself and with your well-intentioned colleagues.
I remind myself often that we don't know what we don't know, so don't be afraid to be vulnerable with your colleagues and let them know how they can best support you during your transition back to work.