Returning to work from maternity leave is exciting and bittersweet, no matter how many times you do it. I know because I just returned from maternity leave for the third time.
When you take maternity leave with your first child, you’re making things up as you go along. No matter how well you prepare, you have no idea what to expect. The experience of being a mother is unlike anything you’ve encountered, and you can’t fully predict how that will change you.
Some women expect to luxuriate in the time off but find they’re eager to return to work. Others decide to take more time off because they’re not ready to go back to the office even months after their children are born. The challenges of balancing motherhood and career are widely known, but every woman experiences them in her own way. Until you go through it, you can’t know how you’ll respond.
But by the third time, you have a better idea of what you’re getting into. When I began my leave with my third child, I was able to be more thoughtful about how I structured my transition back into work. I also found myself reflecting on what I’ve learned about taking maternity leave, and I believe those lessons may resonate with other working mothers, too.
“The challenges of balancing motherhood and career are widely known, but every woman experiences them in her own way.”
If you’re struggling with the return to work, or just looking for a few helpful pointers on how to prepare, here are some tips for coping with your dual roles as a mother and a professional.
1. Beware of Mom Guilt
Every mother experiences mom guilt at some point — probably more often than we realize. Mom guilt showed up for me a lot as I prepared to go back to work after having my third child. I took longer maternity leaves with my first two kids than I did with the third because the labor market wasn’t as strong as it is now and work wasn’t as busy. But now the market has changed, and I felt a responsibility to be back at work sooner this time around.
During my first few days back at the office, I felt guilty for not being with my baby and guilty for not spending more time at work. There was no scenario in which I was the perfect mom or the perfect recruiter.
But then I reminded myself there’s no such thing as perfect. As mothers, we put so much pressure on ourselves to “get it right.” However, we often create unrealistic expectations that we can never meet. I can’t be at home with my child and at work simultaneously. But I love my work, and as my children grow, I want to set a good example for them of what it looks like to pursue your passion, commit to something you love, and work hard. Going back to work allows me to do that.
Whether you choose to go back to work early or not at all, your self-perception matters. Yes, our children need us to be there for them. But they also need us to maintain our own interests and identities so they can learn from our examples. So when mom guilt sets in, remind yourself that you’re doing your best and that really is enough.
2. Know When to Say No
When you have children, the bandwidth you have for social activities, volunteer commitments, and even work projects shrinks considerably. And you must be deliberate about how you parcel it out.
I realized early on that if I tried to please everyone, I would never sleep. Many people compete for my time every day, so I had to learn how to say no. This lesson hit home after I returned from my first maternity leave. Colleagues, friends, relatives — everyone wanted more from me than I could reasonably give. So I began to view every invitation and request through this lens: “Is this a good decision for me and my family?”
This question is incredibly clarifying across all spectrums of your life. It forces you to choose only the projects that move your professional goals forward, to commit only to the social events you really enjoy, and to sign your kids up only for the activities that benefit them most.
During my most recent maternity leave, my husband and I also scaled back on our older kids’ sports commitments to create a less hectic schedule for our family. Of course we want them to stay active, but they don’t need to sign up for every team to get exercise and spend time with their friends. Cutting a few commitments allows us to have more relaxed weekends we can spend recharging together.
3. Establish Boundaries
If possible, ask your employer if you can do a gradual return to work. Instead of going back to a full schedule, start by working from home for a few weeks or coming into the office for three days instead of five. Gradually transitioning back will ease the process for both you and your family. It will also help you identify areas where you need to cut back or allocate more resources.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve worked from home on Fridays since my first child was born. That flexibility has kept me sane, and it’s allowed me to be involved in my children’s lives without sacrificing my professional performance.
Not all companies offer flexible work policies, and if you’re relatively new to the organization, working from home will be a tougher sell. But if you’ve proven that you’re dedicated and trustworthy, ask your employer about remote work options. Flexibility is a growing priority across companies, so there’s no harm in asking for what you want. If working from home one day a week is a non-starter, your boss might be willing to go for a twice-a-month arrangement and evaluate your progress from there.
“Gradually transitioning back will ease the process for both you and your family. It will also help you identify areas where you need to cut back or allocate more resources.”
Women in finance and accounting positions may need to negotiate flexibility based on the time of the year. Many companies will allow work-from-home arrangements as long as it’s not their busy seasons or they’re not inundated with quarterly deadlines. Be willing to work with them so everyone’s needs are met.
As long as you continue to deliver, there’s a good chance your employer will allow for increased flexibility. My Fridays are crucial to my sanity, because that’s when I get to exercise and run errands, since I don’t have to make my morning commute. I can knock a few items off my to-do list so my weekend isn’t filled with miscellaneous errands. Sometimes I even get to volunteer in my kids’ classrooms, which alleviates some of the guilt I feel about not being available for those activities on a regular basis.
But this arrangement only works because it hasn’t affected my productivity. If anything, motherhood has forced me to become more efficient. I’m more productive in fewer hours because I am hyper-focused on what needs to get done. My team knows that I’ll make good on all of my responsibilities, so they’re happy for me to work on my own terms.
4. Schedule Everything
If there’s one habit that helps stave off mom guilt, it’s scheduling absolutely everything. I keep strict office hours and leave work at the same time to see my kids before they go to bed each night. If I’m slammed with tasks, I’ll log on after I’ve tucked them in and finish up whatever I didn’t get to at the office. By keeping track of everything I need to get done in a day, I stay ahead of all my responsibilities without sacrificing my family or my career.
Again, this works for me because my team trusts that I will log back on and finish whatever needs to be finished. Before taking maternity leave, talk with your boss and set boundaries. Explain that you need to leave the office by 5 p.m. most days but you’re willing to work after the kids go to bed so nothing falls through the cracks. If you communicate early and often, you can set your own precedent for work-life balance going forward.
Once you’ve worked out the broad strokes of your schedule, get every task, appointment, meeting, and event on the calendar. I live and die by my calendar. When you’re juggling kids and work priorities, you must stay organized if you don’t want to overcommit or forget about important dates. Each night before I go to bed, I review my calendar for the next day so I have a clear sense of what my day will look like. Then I make a plan for how to tackle everything.
I strongly recommend developing good scheduling habits because it helps you become more realistic about how you structure your time. If I need to take one of my kids to the doctor at 8 a.m., I know I can’t schedule a meeting any earlier than 9. If I’ve promised to be at my son’s baseball game at 6, I won’t book an appointment too late in the afternoon. Recognizing your limitations is essential to avoiding burnout and an even heavier dose of mom guilt.
5. Accept That It Takes a Village
Mothers are notorious for feeling like we need to be superheroes. Unless we are active in the PTA, maintain a Pinterest-perfect home, and excel in our careers, we’re convinced that we’re failures. To add in another layer of stress, we feel we have to do it all on our own.
But raising a family and having a career really does take a village and we need to get comfortable admitting that we need support. Hiring a nanny saved my marriage, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. My husband and I treat our nanny as part of our family, and we rely on her to assist with the kids and keep us all functioning. Having a third adult in the house gave us the breathing room we needed to be good partners to one another and good parents to our kids.
“Raising a family and having a career really does take a village and we need to get comfortable admitting that we need support.”
Initially, I resisted hiring help because I wanted to do everything myself. I still see this attitude among friends who can afford help but feel too guilty outsourcing any of their responsibilities. But eventually, I realized I don’t have time for that kind of self-sabotage. I was condemning myself to exhaustion and anxiety, and for what?
Of course, asking for and accepting help is easier said than done. Even after we hired our nanny, I still spent all of my non-working hours with the kids. It was her, the kids, and me at all times. Then I realized I was passing up a valuable opportunity to take a few hours to myself or to attend to things I couldn’t do when the kids were around.
I know people who send their nannies home early because they feel so guilty asking them to help out. I understand, because I used to share that mindset. But now I tell myself that I’m paying for those hours, so I should make the most of them. Sometimes I do want to spend a little extra time with the kids. Other days, I’m all too happy to head to a yoga class or out to lunch by myself. Taking a couple of hours off makes me happier and more energized, and it allows me to better serve my company and my family.
Childcare is costly, and not everyone can afford to hire a caretaker or housekeeper. However, if you have the means, don’t be afraid to hire someone to help manage the workload. If you live near family or trusted friends, take them up on their offers to cook dinner, help with the laundry, or watch the kids for a few hours.
Even Superheroes Need Rest
As moms, we hold such high expectations for ourselves that we’re almost guaranteed to fail. When we’re realistic about what we can get done in a day and we’re honest about needing help, we can achieve so much more than if we always try to go it alone. Whether at work or at home, sometimes we need to put our capes away and let someone else save the world for a while.