It’s 3:30. Your baby just woke up 20 minutes after you put her down—for the third time this evening (er, morning?). You’re exhausted and emotional, and tomorrow (wait, today!) is the first day you’re going back to work after maternity leave. The truth is, you’ve been looking forward to immersing yourself in the creative world after being away during your postpartum bonding, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have anxieties about diving back in.
As you stare at your sleeping baby (can someone please tell me why they sleep so peacefully in your arms but not the crib?), you can’t imagine how you’re going to leave her to go back to work in the morning. Will she miss me? You wonder. Even if you’re working from home, with easier access to her, you know that things are going to change. There’s no delaying the inevitable. Your bank account is rapidly dwindling, and you can tell your clients are getting anxious about your return. But are you ready?
Going back to work after maternity leave doesn’t need to be a stressful, unhappy event. Here are five ways to ease back into the working lifestyle, whether you are a freelance writer or more traditionally employed.
Please tell me you perfected your time-management skills before the baby was born. No? Well, don’t be too nervous. I was in the same boat. Heck, even with the best planning, it can be difficult to know what to expect when a baby gets here. (Those little rascals are loose cannons!) Here’s the good news: becoming a parent instantly makes you a master of time management (at least for your child’s needs). Before going back to work after maternity leave, analyze your normal tasks and see how you can alter your approach to get as much done in as little time as possible.
“To combat the inevitable distraction, try out the Pomodoro technique,” recommends Lori Mihalich-Levin, founder of Mindful Return and author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave. “Named after an Italian tomato and the tomato-shaped kitchen timer, the idea is to commit to working in a focused way on one project for 25 minutes, with three- to five-minute breaks between 25-minute sessions. I’ve never been so efficient and productive—or gotten such a charge out of being focused—as I have when I’ve used this technique for getting things done at work,” says Mihalich-Levin.
Batching similar processes is another way to accomplish a lot in a little amount of time. Can you do all your social media scheduling in one time frame? Set aside another block of time to network with potential customers or work on advertising. If you have childcare for a large lump of time, use that period to work on content creation, interviewing, or heavy research that’s easy to get lost in.
Do you want to feel confident or anxious on your first day back to work? If the answer is confident, then you need to give your new routine a few run-throughs before the big day. If you’ll be going into an office, practice the commute. How long will the drive take? What time do you need to leave your house to make your desired train? If you’re breastfeeding, pack up all your pump parts (there are a lot of them!). If possible, keep a set at home, a set in the office, and a manual pump in your car. If you’re bringing your baby somewhere for childcare, write detailed communications and instructions on feeding, as well as any peculiarities you want them to be aware of. Do not save this step for the night before your return. If someone is coming into your home for childcare, have them start the week before you’re officially due to begin working. This gives them a chance to get acclimated to your home and child, and witnessing their style of caregiving will help you feel confident in your decision. But remember (and this is tough): don’t hover. Trust them to do their job so you can do yours.
I returned to work on a Monday morning. When I came home that evening—just in time to help put my child to sleep—I was exhausted and stressed, worrying that I wouldn’t be able to be a superhero in both work and my home lives. Rinse and repeat for the next four days. Don’t make the same mistake. Schedule your return on a Wednesday or Thursday—enough time to get your feet wet, but close enough to the weekend that you know you’ll be able to wind down soon.
Remember, you can transition back to work slowly. You don’t need to go from working zero hours to working 40+. When you informed your clients you that were expecting, your maternity leave plan included a return date. How about starting a week earlier at only two hours a day? You don’t even need to renegotiate the date with clients. Use this time to network, research, or do any smaller tasks that will get your brain thinking about work, but with little of the stress.
Chances are, if you are self-employed, you’ve already been working lightly during your maternity leave. Allie Bjerk, business coach and owner of Fulton Digital Marketing says, “I had blog posts scheduled to be published in advance of my leave, but I was already answering sales calls less than a week after my third child was born. People sometimes look at me like I’m nuts, but in my opinion, a few hours of work here and there while they are tiny and sleeping beats the alternative of binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy for 12 weeks straight like I did with my first child.” Instead of letting email build up, schedule one hour a week during your leave to address any minor business needs that might help your transition back into full-time hours be less stressful.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a freelance writer who works alone or a marketing professional working in a traditional nine-to-five job, you’ll need a community to help you through the transitions—from professional to parent and, finally, to working parent. If you’re heading back into an office environment, ask for extra support from your coworkers and a detailed debriefing from your boss. “Consider setting up a lunch with another working parent colleague at your office for your first day back,” recommends Mihalich-Levin. “Your colleague has been there, done that, and can offer you reassurance that you will survive these early days of working parenthood.” And, by all means, ask for help. You have nothing to prove as a working parent. Let your guard down and allow others in to assist you.
If you work from home, rely on your friends, family, and childcare providers. This may mean creating a list of who has baby duty so that you can dedicate some time to work, or even scheduling digital working dates with other freelancers to ensure you get some writing done. If you work at home, find like-minded individuals to act as your “coworkers.”
Bjerk says, “Who needs coworkers? I developed an online community of peers I met in Facebook groups or at work conferences who I can now bounce business ideas off. I also recommend teaming up with an accountability partner and scheduling coffee chats with other entrepreneurs. Creating a community benefits you personally and professionally after becoming a parent. If you need a little extra support, hire a business coach who can guide you through this transition in a way to better your business.”
Finally, keep your clients abreast of your life changes. This isn’t to say you need to update them every time you’re feeling extra tired, but if you find that you need to scale down a bit, tell them. If you don’t, you risk being seen as an underperformer. Remember, they already know your baseline skill level, so either meet that or be kind to yourself and make adjustments. From my experience, being a parent doesn’t make you a distracted or overwhelmed employee or freelancer in any way. If anything, parenting has taught me to work smarter (not harder!), be more communicative, and to set better boundaries. By developing strong working relationships, I don’t fear the turnover or famine cycles as much as I would if I didn’t take the time to create connections with my clients.
When I started freelancing full time, I thought I’d be able to watch my baby while working from home. I mean, she couldn’t even roll over—so how hard could it be? (If you’re a parent, please take as long as you need to laugh at my naiveté.) Needless to say, it took some adjusting, but I was finally able to schedule out my day in a way that worked for me.
If you’ve developed a schedule for going back to work from maternity leave, great. Now, immediately enforce backup plans. You may think you’ll be able to get a certain amount of work done while your baby is napping, but if there is one thing I’m sure of in life, it’s that you cannot—in any way—rely on sleeping babies. When you most need time to work, they’ll stay awake. When you get used to a schedule, they’ll drop a nap. When you’re smack-dab in the middle of your almost-due assignment, the UPS driver will surprise you with his double-bell ring; your mojo and the baby’s rest time will end immediately.
This isn’t to say you can’t work mainly during your baby’s naps. I did and I still do. You simply have to find other times dedicated to your work. Me? I write after bedtime and often long into the night, when everyone else is sleeping. For you, it might mean creating a shared digital calendar with your partner, with time blocked off for you to leave the house and work from the local library. Maybe you’ll hire a nanny for two days a week, so you can work in one area of the house and still have time to play with or feed the baby during your breaks. It’s fine to ask for suggestions from friends who’s been through it, but you have to figure out what scheduling solution works best for your family—and this, my friend, might take some time.
And don’t forget to prepare for when your little one is sick or your childcare provider is unavailable. “My husband and I sit down every weekend and plan out who is on call on a given day of the upcoming week if one of our children were to get sick,” says Mihalich-Levin. “We take into account each other’s non-negotiable commitments and priorities. And sometimes, if one of our kids is home sick, we both stay home and juggle our work phone calls and childcare. These days can be frustrating and exhausting, but advanced planning makes them more productive.”
In the meantime, be patient with yourself and rejoice in the little moments. Don’t be hard on yourself. If you make a mistake, own up to it, hustle harder, and you’ll eventually have a solid foundation for your freelancing or traditional career as a parent.
Have you returned to work after maternity leave? What suggestions would you share with someone who is currently approaching the end of their leave time?