Preparing for maternity leave takes a lot of planning. You have to communicate your plans to your employer, learn about the leave options available to you, and, if necessary, save money and/or time to maximize the amount of leave time you'll have.
You'll likely also fret over the timing of your leave--should you work right up until giving birth, writing memos and wrapping up last minute details while timing contractions--or should you stop working a few days or weeks ahead of your due date, taking a momentary breather before the marathon of motherhood begins?
And that doesn't even begin to touch on the unexpected complications that can arise, which may change your carefully made plans altogether.
Still, with all the work that goes into planning maternity leave, new moms are often less prepared with a plan for their inevitable return to work. Many times, particularly in the United States where robust parental leave is sorely lacking, the leave period passes in the blink of an eye, the days quickly melting like snow in a winter thaw.
And whether you're eager to return to work or dreading it like the plague, if you know with absolute certainty that you will be returning, there are some steps you can take to make the transition a little smoother, and frankly, less traumatic. Here are five of them.
1. Talk to Other Moms Who Have Been There
When I was pregnant with my son, I reached out to many successful working moms I knew to find out just how they managed to make the transition from brand new mom to working parent. During my maternity leave, I kept in touch with these women, meeting for lunch or shooting a quick text or email when I needed a pep talk.
I relied on the help and advice of others a lot because, while I loved my job and my career, it really was a struggle for me to imagine leaving my baby in the care of someone else (even if that someone was grandma), and I was extremely daunted by the thought of balancing work and motherhood. Hearing from these other moms and actually seeing them do the things I was afraid to do made it possible for me to believe that maybe I could "do it all" afterall.
2. Invest in a Transition Wardrobe
This might sound like it should be low on the priority list, but when I was planning my return back to work--particularly during my last month of leave--investing in a transition wardrobe helped me feel like I was being proactive in my return.
Unless you have a particularly long leave, or particularly awesome genetics, you'll likely need a transition wardrobe anyway during the months following your pregnancy. At some point, the maternity clothes get too big, and the pre-baby duds a little too tight or ill-fitting--even if you've managed to quickly get back to your pre-baby size.
Either way, investing in a transition wardrobe is a meaningful way to commemorate the fact that you are beginning a new chapter as a working parent. And after weeks or months of essentially living as a spit-up rag with arms, slipping on a cute new top or dress will feel downright decadent.
3. Take Charge of Childcare
Leaving your new baby in the care of someone else can feel tremendously daunting for a new parent. For a new mom on maternity leave, the thought can be agonizing. It was for me, even though I knew my son would be in great hands with his grandmother. Still, leaving my son in another's care and not being the one there for him every second of every day as I had been was my greatest worry as I prepared to return to work.
At some point, I knew I had to face the fear head-on, and personally, I found actively preparing for this transition made me feel more at ease with it. Other moms I've talked to have shared the same.
For me, taking charge of childcare meant writing down for our caregiver all the little things I learned about my son during the four months we had together one-on-one. I did this more than once as the first list was beyond excessive and honestly completely unncessary, but incredibly theraputic.
Taking charge also meant buying the diapers, extra clothes, and baby gear he'd need every day. Again, this was actually somewhat unnecessary for us since grandma was more than happy to fill the house with baby goods herself, but it helped me feel like I was a part of the transition that was happening, and I needed that.
For moms whose kids go to daycare following their leave, stocking up on the childcare essentials is necessary, but can have the same calming effect: you are planning, taking charge, and providing the things your baby will need.
4. Plan Your Return for Later in the Week
Another way to make the transition to work a little smoother is to return to work later in the week. If possible, try to return to work on a Wednesday or Thursday. Not only will you avoid having the Mondayest Monday ever, but returning later in the week allows you a few extra days to prepare mentally during the week of your return. It also gives you a shorter work week and thus a shorter time away from your baby during your first days away.
If your employer allows, working from home a day or two each week following your leave can also be a great way to ease back in.
5. Do a Dress Rehearsal
Finally, in the days and weeks before you return from leave, you may find it helpful to practice your new routine. Plan what your new morning will look like, at least in theory, and give it a few practice runs. Set an alarm, have breakfast, and try to get everyone dressed by a certain time.
If your caregiver allows you to do so, take your baby to visit a few times to get them acclimated to the new environment. If you're comfortable doing so, and if your caregiver permits it, drop baby off for a couple of hours to help you both prepare for the changes ahead.
If you haven't been to the office since you were nine months pregnant, drop by and say hello or have lunch with a trusted colleague. This can take the edge off of the fear you may have about returning.
Of course, if it makes you more comfortable not to do any of this, then do what works for you. I didn't set foot in the office until my first day back, and my return was still on my terms.
In the end, having a smooth transition back to work is personal, and only you will know exactly what you need.