It’s officially here, the end of your parental leave. The weeks or months of leave have turned into mere days and your first day back at work is waiting (or maybe looming) just around the corner. As you prepare to return to work, you might be feeling a range of emotions. Dread about leaving your little one. Curiosity about what’s changed while you’ve been on leave. Excitement for uninterrupted meals and adult conversations. Worry about how you will function with less sleep and postpartum brain fog (this does get better, I promise). You may be feeling all of these things and more, sometimes even all at the same time. If so, you aren’t alone. These common emotions are totally normal during this transition.
Preparing for your return to work helps to ease uncertainty and make the transition feel a little easier. Here are our tips to help you get ready:
Before your first day back at work, consider writing down a few positive affirmations, kind phrases, or uplifting reminders. Reference them when you need a little self-love and compassion while adjusting to life as a working parent.
Need some ideas? Check out this article from Motherly that contains 5 mantras for moms returning from leave. The mantra in the subject line—I’m still mama—is my absolute favorite. It’s such a beautiful reminder of the unique, irreplaceable role you fill as a parent.
You likely decided on your return date before you even started your parental leave. As you prepare to go back to work, it’s a good idea to sit down and consider whether that date still works for you and your family.
In her book The Parental Leave Playbook, Dr. Amy Beacom offers a helpful set of questions to get you thinking outside of the box when it comes to your return:
Even if you think the answer will be no, it’s worth asking if there is any flexibility around your return. It’s in your company’s best interest to help make this transition a smooth one. After all, it’s typically far easier (and cheaper) for a company to retain an existing employee than it is to replace you.
What’s my password again? If passwords, keycodes, and technology are a part of your job, plan to build in some time for troubleshooting and tech support on your first day back just in case. Similarly, if you have a set of work keys, any kind of badge, or other special equipment you need for work, we recommend you do a quick roundup a few days in advance. I remember practically erupting into tears (again!) because I couldn’t find my laptop charger the morning of my first day back.
We also recommend that you take some time to consider what you’d like those first few days of work to look like. Would you like to have any meetings upfront to get a download of updates and changes? Or, would you prefer some solo time to catch your breath and go through your inbox before meeting with others? Do you need any kind of retraining or a product refresh to help you confidently ease back in?
Last but not least, consider the logistics of your commute if you have one. What time do you need to leave your house so you have enough time for drop-off before you need to be at work? Allow some extra time for the hard or bittersweet emotions that are sure to come up. What time do you need to leave work to pick up your little one from daycare or relieve the nanny on time? Don’t forget to factor in the time to pack up and walk out to your car plus any commuter traffic.
If you can help it, we also recommend that you try not to overschedule yourself. During your first days and weeks back, give yourself some extra time in between meetings or appointments and at the end of the work day if possible.
If you are planning to pump at work, your pump schedule is another critical return logistic to plan for. Before your first day, we highly recommend planning ahead by writing out a pumping schedule. Take it a step further by blocking off time on your work calendar or sending your pumping schedule to your manager. That way, you don’t have to worry about losing track of time and the pain of engorged breasts while you’re adjusting back to using your “work brain.”
While you’re planning, you should also consider where you’ll pump, how and where you’ll clean your pump parts, and how you’ll store and transport your expressed milk. If you’re worried your workplace may not be supportive, look up the breastfeeding laws in your area. Being informed will help you feel more confident and ready to advocate for yourself. WIC also has a great article containing tips for talking with your employer about pumping at work.
During your parental leave, you probably spent most of your time in sweatpants, leggings, and PJs. Now, you have to wear “real” clothes again. Maybe that excites you…or maybe your skin is itching just thinking about it. Either way, plan to look through your closet and try on your work clothes well before your first day back.
Your body has changed, and even your shoes may fit differently these days. Did you know it’s very common for feet to change sizes during pregnancy and the postpartum period? Your once comfy, go-to ballet flats may now be too snug. The last thing you want to deal with on your first day back is blisters.
If you can, consider going the extra mile and treating yourself to a little retail therapy. Studies have shown your clothing really does affect your mood. So, buy a new top, shoes, or outfit that you feel good in for your return to work.
If you’ll be pumping at work, don’t forget to consider this when choosing your outfit! Pick something that’s easy to adjust and wear with your pump.
Ditch the idea of perfection, and plan to navigate some bumps in the road while you adjust to your new routines as a working parent. To help make sure day 1 goes as well as possible, do at least one dry run before the real deal. This could be as simple as practicing your morning routine by packing up and loading everyone in the car, or as thorough as dropping your baby off at daycare and practicing your commute during rush hour traffic.
Keep in mind, that first drop-off can be really hard! Practicing before your parental leave ends will give you the opportunity to see what it feels like to be separated from your little one. You can shed a few tears without the added pressure of performing at work. Instead, you’ll have a moment for some much-needed “me time.” You can relax, prep, and maybe treat yourself to that new outfit!
Pro Tip: Create a start and stop ritual to make those transitions from parent to employee a little easier on workdays. I love the “Transition from Work to Home meditation” by Take Care Coaching on InsightTimer.
Your mind will be busy processing all of your feelings the morning of your first day back at work. Do yourself a favor and prep the night before. Pack your bag and prep your baby’s things for the nanny or daycare. This will simplify your morning and limit the chance that you’ll forget something you really need (like your work badge or milk storage bags). We also recommend packing lots of yummy snacks and a water bottle so you can continue to nourish yourself throughout the day!
While you’re packing, you lay out your work outfit and set out your shoes for the next day like you may have once done for the first day of school. It doesn’t hurt to pack an extra top (or even a whole outfit) in case of any leaking milk, spills, or drop-off spit-ups. Your future self will thank you for it!
Remember, this transition can come with some major feelings. Excitement, dread, worry, and guilt are just a few of the very normal emotions you may experience. To help you process this, consider writing a letter to your baby. Express your feelings about the upcoming separation, reflect on all that you have been through together, and share your hopes for the future.
We also highly recommend that you share how you’re feeling with your partner and parenting village. Let them support you during this transition. When I went back to work, my incredible sister-in-law gifted me a series of letters that my village of mommas had written me. It was so nice to feel supported by other working moms who were able to validate my experience.
Although your job is likely not new, you are not the same person you were before your parental leave. In addition to having new responsibilities at home, you likely have some new priorities, different boundaries, and maybe even new values. As you navigate your return, talk to yourself as you would talk to a friend who is going back to work. Whatever you are feeling is okay. Give yourself time to settle back into work and find your groove as a working parent.
Christina is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private therapy practice in Marin County (San Francisco Bay Area). Christina specializes in maternal mental health and supporting individuals through their perinatal and parenting journey. As a mother of two young boys, Christina knows firsthand the joys and demands that parenthood brings. While Christina has held a long-standing interest and focus in reproductive and maternal mental health, it was through her own experience in becoming a mother that awakened a newfound dedication and calling for helping others in their parenting journey. When she isn’t in the office, you can find Christina chasing after her two active boys, spending time with her partner, reading, and watching reality TV (most notably Bravo).
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