How to make going back to work after maternity leave easy

The daily slog of a working parent can be a wearisome one. Jen shares some lessons she's learned (and lessons she wishes she would learn) to try to manage life after mat leave.
Portrait of the author as a coatrack

Full disclosure: The title of this post is a lie. I wish I could tell you there were a way to actually make going back to work easy, but in my experience (I’ve taken maternity leave twice), it’s just hard.

It can be good, too — returning to work allows you to exercise certain parts of your brain again and interact with other adults, which can be rewarding and fulfilling. (It turns out that a rinse-and-repeat cycle of feeding, changing diapers and trying to sleep more than two hours at a time may not totally fulfill your creative needs.)

But the constant juggle of work and home life is a challenge to say the least. Your new daily schedule could pack in a commute fraught with tantrums, a tense meeting with your boss (that, if you’re like me, you were probably late for after said commute), prepping for a presentation while trying to get your kid to clean up their toys, vowing to find time tomorrow to eat something besides cheese sticks, bathing your kid and occasionally yourself, and trying to squeeze in some cuddles after wasting an hour negotiating with them about eating two more bites of pasta.

The only time you have to yourself (or with your partner if you have one) is after your kid goes to bed, when you’re probably too exhausted to enjoy it anyway. The daily slog can be a wearisome one.

All that said, here are a few ways I found to make the return from maternity leave (and life as a working parent in general) more manageable:

1. Prep as much as you can the night before. I re-learn this lesson at least a couple times every week. But when you’re juggling a kid and a work schedule, mornings can be a clusterfuck. Everything takes longer than you think it will: prepping bottles, making lunches, not to mention getting yourself ready — do it all at night if you can. Minimize the obstacles between yourself and the front door, so that when you have to deal with a diaper emergency just as you’re about to leave, it becomes a minor annoyance instead of the final straw.

2. Sleep train your kiddo. Sleep training is the cruel/vital (depending on who you ask) method of getting your kid to sleep through the night without needing you to comfort them constantly. If you’re OK with said cruelty, here’s the method we used (per our pediatrician): Put your kid to bed and do not return until morning. Turn on a really loud fan to drown out their crying. Get very drunk to steel yourself against the heartache. Repeat for three to four nights. And voilà. A good sleeper is made.

Look, if this isn’t for you, I get that. But if you’ve been meaning to do it, or if you’re on the fence, then I recommend following through. Call me heartless if you must. I’d rather call myself a person whose kids sleep — and who therefore also gets to sleep. And sleep, friends, is a magical thing.

3. Get a flu shot. Daycares and preschools are like petri dishes, fostering the growth and spread of all kinds of illness. You can expect a pretty constant rollercoaster of sickness throughout your household during the early years as your child builds immunity. (But you’ll all emerge on the other side as pretty much superheros, with immune systems of steel — so at least there’s that.) Depending on where you live, your kid might be required to get a flu shot. Do yourself the favor of getting one, too. You and your family will still get sick a lot, but at least you’ll minimize your flu risk.

4. Set expectations about your availability. Not many of my coworkers have kids, so I used to assume they wouldn’t understand or would think it was a cop-out if I needed to sign off early or focus on kid stuff. I used to try to downplay my parental commitments; I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I wasn’t accessible all the time. As a result, I would struggle to answer work emails while at the pediatrician’s office, or feel guilty trying to continue working when I should have been reading my kids a bedtime story. I wanted to appear — and be — available around the clock, even though that wasn’t possible.

But what I’ve realized is that of course it’s OK to be unavailable at times. What can be problematic is failing to meet expectations. I now make sure to vocalize when a conflict pops up, or when I’m signing off for the day to pick up my kids from daycare. If my team knows when I’m inaccessible and doesn’t need to wonder why I’m being unresponsive, it’s better for everyone.

5. Forgive yourself. For me, this has been the most important thing. It will take time to adjust to your new reality as a working parent: You might have to miss an important meeting because your child is puking all over the place. Or you might be the last parent to pick up your kid from daycare after work. Like so many women, you might constantly struggle with thinking you’re not a good enough mom OR worker.

But these things do not a bad parent — or worker — make. Commit to forgiveness. You’re doing the best you can.

The transition from maternity leave to work can be really hard for a lot of reasons, but taking a few steps and being kind to yourself can help you get through it.

You’ve got this.

1 thought on “How to make going back to work after maternity leave easy

  1. Great article! I would also add, don’t do it alone. The world is full of new parents barely keeping it together. Also, its easy to forget that daycare and nannies work for you.

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