Earlier this week, a friend posted a snuggly selfie with her 9-week-old daughter to Facebook and lamented her return to work after maternity leave (all too soon, since the U.S. trails the rest of the developing world in family leave). Many crying-face emoji ensued, along with an outpouring of emotional support and practical advice from other mothers for making the transition back to work a little easier.
The comments were both heartwarming and empowering, like the modern equivalent of Rosie the Riveter’s “We Can Do It.” I was reminded of my induction into the code of women returning to work after maternity leave—an at-once magical, emotional, sleepless, and difficult time—when tricks of the trade, mantras, and genius life hacks were passed along, like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants for adults. Going back to work as your mind, heart, and body are still adjusting to a new normal can feel overwhelming and stressful. (How will you do your job and take care of your child, too?) But if the following advice from dozens of mothers is any indication, you can do it. Here’s how.
1. Be kind to yourself.
I read this nugget online before returning from my own maternity leave. I now value it so much, it’s the only tattoo I’d ever consider. Try not to beat yourself up at home or at work. Instead, “at the end of each day, I tell myself how great it is that I was able to get two children up, fed, and clothed; drop one off at school; work a full day; and get them both fed, bathed, and back to bed,” one mom attorney told me. “I take a Jack Handey-on-SNL ‘I’m good enough, smart enough’ approach to parenting.”
2. Have lunch or coffee with your boss a few weeks before your return.
Catching up on what’s going on at work and what projects await you will cut down on pre-first-day anxiety. (Periodic remote work-email-checking optional, especially if you’re an inbox-zero type.)
3. Remember that the first few weeks or months back are the hardest.
Set expectations accordingly. Don’t be ashamed to start out with a smaller assignment at work or swap out grocery shopping for Munchery. There’s no shame in saving your sanity.
4. Go back to work on a Wednesday or a week with a holiday.
“Don’t think about the fact that you’re going back ‘forever,’ ” one successful working mom said. “Just take it one day at a time and try to think about making it through until the weekend.”
Copious amounts of coffee.
6. Take care of yourself.
“Drink water, breathe, find a way to exercise at least a couple of times per week. Don’t try to work 10-plus-hour days,” one mom and professional advised. “Go home early if you need to. Cry if you need to.”
7. If you’re breast-feeding, buy a second set of pumping parts to leave at work.
Buy a cute insulated freezer bag to carry your pumped supply back and forth. (The chic breast-milk tote: It’s perfectly possible.)
8. Set a departure time in your head, talk it over with your boss, and stick to it.
You’ll get more done during the day if you know when you’re leaving. Your time is precious, so cut back on office gossip sessions and schedule meetings around coffee or lunch for maximum efficiency.
9. Do a dry run of your new morning routine before your first day back to work.
Walk through getting ready and the timing of how you and your partner, if you have one, will handle the morning routine. Consider having supplies packed and clothes set out—both yours and the baby’s—the night before.
10. Dress well, do well.
Shed your maternity-leave sweats and treat yourself to a haircut and a few new work pieces and shoes to boost your confidence. “I tried to look like I owned the place,” another attorney and mom told me, “even if I felt internally conflicted and would have preferred to be sitting home watching a few more weeks of Bravo.”
11. Don’t feel guilty if you’re excited.
After 12 weeks of maternity leave, I cried the day before I returned to work. I was sad to leave my daughter and mourning the end of that new phase of our life together. I also missed the fulfillment of doing a job I loved. Those two feelings aren’t mutually exclusive.
12. If a relative offers to watch your baby for the first day or week, accept.
Leaving the baby in the hands of someone you know and love can make for a less jarring transition.
13. If and when you feel guilty, remember: Your baby will be proud of you someday.
And he or she may even be better off because of your career. Frame the Harvard Business School study that found that daughters of women who work outside the home grow up to earn more and be bosses, while sons grow up to be more involved in household chores and childcare.
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