As your parental leave comes to an end, one thing is almost certainly true: life has changed. Your “new normal” probably looks far different than it did just a few weeks ago, let alone a few months ago before your leave started. Whether you gave birth or your partner did, returning to work after parental leave is often a major adjustment.
Think back to life before this journey started. The arrival of your little one likely felt so far away when you first found out you were expecting. For many families, pregnancy feels like a 40-week slog. Then, you welcome your little one into the world, and life suddenly becomes a blur of feeds, diaper changes, and broken sleep as you navigate the first weeks of parenthood. New parents almost universally experience sleep deprivation, a series of near-constant transitions, and a home invasion of baby products, many of which are far larger than the tiny human they’re intended for.
Parental leave is a critical time for bonding with your new baby and adjusting to your new role (and identity) as a parent. As you move out of the intensity of the newborn phase and prepare to return to work, it’s normal to feel like you’re still adjusting. After all, many parents find that it takes about 5 months to settle into parenthood.
If you’re returning to work around this time, that adjustment period can last even longer as you navigate the transition from “new parent” to “working parent.” The job is (likely) the same as it was before your parental leave. Yet, somehow you are now the same person and a completely different one, too. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone!
Keep reading for insights and tips to help you prepare for your return and set yourself up for success as you navigate the transition back to work:
The return to work can stir up all kinds of emotions. Perhaps you’ve been missing work since day one and you can’t wait to be back. On the eve of your return, you’re suddenly overcome with guilt. Not because you’re leaving the baby at daycare but because you don’t feel bad about it. “What in the world is wrong with me?” you think. (Nothing!) You wonder, “What kind of parent am I that I don’t mind leaving my own baby behind?” (You’re a wonderful parent who knows all their fulfillment doesn’t have to come from their child!)
Or, maybe you’re gutted at the idea of leaving your sweet babe in someone else’s care. It may be anxiety-provoking. (This is normal!) Perhaps you mourn the lack of economic freedom that’s forcing you back to work in the first place. Maybe you’re irritated because you just found your bearings with this kid, and now it’s time for another routine change. (Every single one of those thoughts and the thousand more you might be experiencing is entirely valid!).
None of us really knows how we’ll respond to becoming a parent. When the time comes, our realities can throw us for a loop. Regardless of how your return to work is coming to pass, allow yourself to have your honest feelings about it. Find someone–a trusted friend, therapist, another parent, etc.–that you can talk to about how this transition is feeling for you. Consider who might be able to provide a safe space for you. Who can you be vulnerable with at work as you shift back from leave? Proactively identifying that lifeline makes it easier to weather those moments when your reality feels particularly challenging.
If you’re in the United States, I can confidently say (with very few exceptions) your parental leave was unfairly brief, even without knowing the details of your circumstances. If no one else in your life has said it (or, worse, if they’ve said you should just be grateful that you even got “x” weeks or that it was “x% paid”) please hear me say you deserve so much more. Your transition into parenthood with your new child is precious. I’m sorry if you haven’t been able to sit exclusively in that role as long as you wanted before going back to work.
Most people benefit from having some time to unwind and decompress after work. Having the right environment and headspace to switch off your work brain is important. The transition from work to home is especially important when you have to go home to work the “second shift” as a parent.
In an ideal world, every parent would get some a small bubble of transition time between working and parenting. The cruel reality, though? It can be exponentially more challenging to give your brain a break and find time for yourself when there’s a new baby in the picture.
As you return to work, think creatively about how you can create a small bubble for yourself. It doesn’t have to be at the end of the day either. Find some point in your day to take a mental break and decompress. Here are some ideas to help you make that space:
For some families, right after work may not be the best option. Early morning, lunch, or just before bed might be a better time. The most important thing here isn’t precisely how or when you take the break, it’s that you get a chance to intentionally decompress from your day, one way or another.
Keep in mind, creating space for decompression can be challenging for some relationships. We recommend sharing your decompression strategy with your partner, especially if you plan to create your bubble at home. Be sure to communicate your intention with this approach as well. If they know and understand what you’re trying to accomplish they can help protect your physical space during this transition back home.
While You can even take it one step further and offer this suggestion to your partner as well. Having time to transition back into the home after work is important for both parents!
Becoming a parent sometimes ushers you into an era of unfortunate combinations. “Expect the unexpected,” meet Murphy’s Law. You cannot plan for all contingencies, nor should you try to. However, expecting disruptions to your schedule and routine along with having a general idea of how to deal with them can alleviate a lot of stress at the moment when these disruptions inevitably occur.
Here’s a single framework that can be useful for thinking through lots of unexpected scenarios:
When disruptions are in play, some balls will have to drop. When you aren’t in a crisis, it can be much easier to creatively solve a problem. Start by making yourself a list of questions/scenarios to help you find a solution when the next disruption hits. Here are some things to consider:
Additionally, there are two caregiving conversations that are helpful to have in advance one with your partner and one with your boss.
The truth is, you’ll learn a lot about how to navigate these scenarios by going through them. All the best-laid plans in the world are no substitute for the knowledge that comes from lived experience. You’ll make mistake. You’ll plan strategies that just don’t pan out as well as you thought. And you’ll also know so much more after a few months of being a working parent and feeling more firmly rooted in your new role. And yet, we can’t stress enough how important it is to have these conversations in advance. Trust us, the disruptions are inevitable, and you’ll be glad to have a plan b (and c) for your baby’s care.
There’s no doubt the transition back to work after parental leave can be daunting and full of curveballs. There’s no instructional guide for it because it’s different for everyone (but if there ever was a pretty-darn-good-almost-instructional-guide, it’d be The Parental Leave Playbook). Find what works for you and your family within the reality and needs of your own situation. Be patient with yourself, and give it time. Every day you’re back at work, you’ll keep getting more and more experienced at navigating the challenges and joys of working parenthood. This is hard! You can do hard things.
Helping parents navigate this transition back to work is our jam. If you’re wanting some extra help coming up with a plan or you need some extra space to share and vent, we’re here for you. Click here to learn more and book a call with one of our coaches.
For more tips to help you prepare for your return to work, read part 1 by coach Christina Klein:
Emily is a birth and postpartum doula and perinatal educator in Bloomington, Indiana. In 2019, she started The Matrescence Project, a cohort-based new parent group, grounded in adult learning theory. Outside of birth work and coaching, Emily works within corporate Human Resources and Leadership Development. She is a dynamic presenter, an engaging educator/trainer, and a collaborative strategist with over 10 years of experience in the field. As a lifelong perfectionist with a deeply Virgo commitment to order and control, becoming a mother cracked Emily’s world wide open, in the best and hardest ways. Things that have helped Emily through her own parenting journey include: prioritizing time with friends (especially without children present), journaling, choosing silliness, and setting the bar low for joy. Outside work, she enjoys swimming, gardening, and is an active member of her local Unitarian Universalist church.
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