I like to prepare. It helps me when I'm feeling overwhelmed or anxious about something to be able to at least know, loosely, how I'm going to get through it. That's exactly how I felt going back to work after my first maternity leave. With so much unknown, I wanted to put together the steps that would help me get to the office, make it through the day, and transition back home without missing or forgetting anything.
The only problem was, I didn't know what I didn't know.
So I did things to prepare like pack my work bag, lay out all my pumping essentials and I even did a practice run with our sitter to make sure my son got a chance to "test the waters" and I got a chance to make sure I was sending all the right supplies with him for a day away from home.
While those things were all important, but there were a few other things that I learned from my first go-round that made my second return much easier.
Heading back to work can be stressful, emotional and overwhelming but having a plan in place as you countdown those final days at home with your little one can help give you a sense of control.
Here are eight ways to help in your transition back to work from maternity leave:
1. Set expectations with your boss.
Be in communication with your boss in the weeks leading up to your return if you can and if it's comfortable. Check in to see how things are at the office and talk through your transition plan back into your normal groove. Will your job and responsibilities look the same? Should you anticipate any changes? Is there an opportunity to phase back into your normal workload, especially in that first week as you adjust to a new schedule with childcare drop-offs, pumping (if that's what you choose), etc.?
Having breakfast with my boss two weeks before returning to work put many of my fears to rest. We worked out a transition plan to ease me back into my normal workload and I openly shared with her the logistics behind my new schedule with childcare so that she would have realistic expectations. It made me feel a part of the team again and helped to know that we were on the same page from the minute I came back—no explanations necessary.
2. Prepare the night (or week) before.
Don't make the first morning back to work frantic by running around trying to find your keys, your work badge or your baby's favorite travel blanket. Make sure that your work bag is packed, that it includes everything you'll need for the entire day (including spares), that the coffee is set, your lunch/snacks are packed, the bottles are prepped and your outfit is laid out. You are going to be distracted enough with everything else that leaving your baby will entail. Don't add to the stress by not having the basics ready to go the night (or the week) before.
3. Do a dry run with the sitter or daycare.
4. Have pictures ready to go.
I always try to bring a baby picture to my desk and updated pictures of my kids in general when I head back to work. It gives me something to do when I first settle in at the office that makes me feel connected to my babies while still present at work. Whether that's a framed photo, a new digital wallpaper on your work computer, or a special coffee mug that you make with their photo on it, take a small reminder with you to the office. Just be cautious that you don't get too sucked into scrolling through pictures on your phone all day or checking in constantly with the sitter. This is a big day for both of you and you need to honor that and give yourselves both a little space to figure out how you're going to make it work.
5. Focus on work—but don't hide the fact that you just had a baby.
Finding that balance between acknowledging that you're in a major transition stage while not dwelling on it is tough. I remember swinging back and forth between wanting to push thoughts of my baby at a sitter's house from my mind completely, to only wanting to chat with coworkers about my maternity leave.
You have to find the right balance for you. For me, acknowledging the fact that I was just back from maternity leave was always appropriate. Saying a few words about that time or about my new baby, also appropriate. I find people do care and are genuinely interested. But at the end of the day you are back at work with a job to do and focusing on that is going to take some practice. Just be sure that you are showing up, doing the work and demonstrating your commitment to what you do as a professional, in addition to being a great mama.
6. Have responses prepared for colleagues who ask how you're doing.
7. Have a great outfit.
8. Fuel your body.
Unless you're one of the lucky ones who has a baby already sleeping through the night, chances are you're going to have to make it through your workday on much less sleep than you're used to. Now is the time to make sure you're eating fruits and veggies, drinking water, taking a walk or doing some stretches to give your body the extra energy it needs.
Your knee-jerk reaction will be to expect to return to everything as it was before your leave. But know that how you feel about your work may change. And that is okay. It's a period of transformation, new routines and new normals. You'll make it through, and my guess is you'll like who you are on the other side even better.