How to transition back to work from maternity leave

Five tips I learned from co-workers

Bethany Hills
Bethany Hills / Published March 9, 2020

I spent 14 glorious, albeit sleepless, weeks with my son after he was born. I had never been more in love, but I was ready—at least, I thought I was ready—to come back to work. Those first few weeks were nothing like I expected. It was a crash course in being a working parent and all of the stress, guilt, and coordination that goes with it.

I felt deeply about things I had never understood before. I never knew that my coworkers with kids had put in a full day before even showing up to work. I never knew they signed off at 5 p.m. to sprint through school pickup, dinner, errands, and bedtime. And then they woke up to do it all over again with grace and patience while continuing to perform well in their job.

I never knew the guilt for leaving my child could weigh so heavily on me. And I never expected to feel even heavier guilt over being excited to be back at work.

It's always going to be difficult to be a working parent, but those first few weeks were the toughest for me. So I crowdsourced a few tips and got some advice from my parent friends to help navigate this transition.

1. Don't count hours

One of the best pieces of advice I got was to focus on the quality of hours I spend with my son, not the quantity.

Counting hours is not productive. Instead, focus on being fully present and engaged during the hours you are together. For me, this means putting my computer and phone away, leaving the errands and housework for later, and simply spending time with my family.

It also means that I have to be efficient with my time and disciplined with my attention so I can truly leave when I sign off for the day. When my work day is done, my attention is on my family, not on work.

2. Feel your emotions

Motherhood is full of conflicting emotions. When I arrived home from the hospital, I was so in love with my new arrival and, at the same time, so full of anxiety and exhaustion. I wanted to spend all my time with my baby, but I was also so desperate for a break I could cry—and I often did.

The return to work is another one of these scenarios. So I gave myself permission to feel excited to come back to work and feel sad about not being with my child during the day.

Those emotions can exist together. You might feel sad when you think about your baby during the day. You might look at photos of them and grin from ear to ear. You might be excited to wear real pants and drink your coffee at a leisurely pace. It's not one or the other.

3. Make a plan

I was able to crowdsource a lot of great tips and pulled them into a daily checklist to help me through this transition. I felt overwhelmed by emotion a lot in those first few weeks, and this checklist helped me stay grounded and gave me purpose.

I'm the type of person who feels better when I'm active, so I made sure to prioritize working out or taking a walk every day. And I made sure to prioritize things that I needed to do as a breastfeeding mom: hydrating and pumping. I felt sad a lot in those first few weeks, so I explicitly gave myself the task of checking my son's daycare Instagram so I could follow along with his day.

I put my plan on a white board. It helps.

Decide what's important for you to do every day—not just for your job but also for your mental and emotional health. And then do those things. It helps, I promise.

4. Find your tribe at work

Friends who are parents are vital. So are coworkers who are parents.

When I was running late to a meeting due to a poopsplosion, it was really helpful to hear my coworker say, "No worries, I've been there!" and know they actually meant it. The first time my son caught a cold, I felt overcome by anxiety, even though the doctor said he'd be fine in a few days; it was reassuring to get advice from my manager who had conquered colds many times before.

At Zapier, we have a dedicated Slack channel for parents and another specifically for moms. I love seeing my coworkers' first-day-of-school photos and sharing my own. I love laughing at funny stories about homework and melting over cute drawings their kids make.

Good to know your co-workers have your back

It's an incredible community where we share the triumphs and the challenges of parenting, ask questions, and give each other support.

5. Give yourself a break

This is hard. Give yourself a break.

I wasn't prepared for how difficult the transition back to work would be. I second-guessed every decision, and I felt overwhelmed by the thought of the days ahead without my kid.

I made the decision to take it day by day. Soon enough, that turned into week by week. And eventually we found our balance: My son loves his daycare, I love my job, and we both love the time we get to spend together.

Trust that you've made the right choice for yourself and your baby. And give yourself some time to feel and adjust.

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