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Mama’s First Day: Returning to Work After Maternity Leave

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Everyone has advice to give about returning to work after maternity leave, but here’s mine: You won’t know how it’ll feel, so just be prepared for anything.

With my first, I couldn’t wait to start working again. I had felt a little isolated at home, in a new neighborhood without many friends and no family nearby. My baby never slept. I rarely got a break from caregiving. I couldn’t wait to go to work and have some time to myself! After my second, I cried the night before my first day back to work, the morning of, during lunch, and when I got home. I missed my “crew of two,” getting together with friends at the park, and the more easygoing pace of life that goes with a flexible, stay-at-home schedule. So be prepared for anything, and plan for these three details.

First, if you’re breastfeeding, let’s talk pumping logistics. About 3 weeks before you transition back to the world of commuting and work, meet with your supervisor to discuss your return. If you want to pump breastmilk, make a plan for doing so privately. Is there an empty office or conference room you might use? Can door windows be covered by paper? Be sure to pack markers and tape so you can label your bottles or bags. Can you use the office fridge for milk storage? It also helps to store a few extra shirts at work. Leaks happen.

The hardest part about the transition back to work, for me was missing my baby. I found myself daydreaming about what she was doing at that very moment: Was she happy? Sleeping? Fussing? Did her caregivers understand her cues? That’s why choosing great care—a place you trust, with caregivers who seem to truly love your baby—is so important. Take some time to get to know your child’s caregivers during your visits to the program. Share some of your baby’s favorite songs, stories, and activities. Explain a little bit about your baby’s schedule, personality, and cues. I still remember my daughter’s infant teacher calling me at work to say that she thought Ella might have an ear infection because she was pulling on her ears. I laughed and suggested putting her down for a nap; Ella pulled on her earlobes when she was tired.

If your family uses a home language that is different from those of her caregivers, provide a “cheat sheet” that lists the words you’ve been using for bottle, diaper, naptime, etc. Pack any other supports your baby uses (such as pacifiers) in multiples, and label everything. Dress baby so that she’s ready to play, and bring at least two back-up outfits. Blowouts happen.

If possible, phase in your baby’s schedule the week before you begin work. Start with dropping him off for an hour, then a half day, then through the afternoon nap, and then a whole day. This helps your baby adjust to a new place with new caregivers, and helps you feel comfortable that staff members understand your little one’s needs. And know that it’s okay, expected, and totally normal to call your child care provider just to check on how your baby is doing. I did this a few times during the first week back at work, and it made me feel more comfortable and connected to know my baby was doing just fine. Many child care programs have an “open door” policy that means parents can drop in to check on their baby at any time. This can be a great option if you are unable to phase in your baby’s schedule or want to see how your baby is adjusting to new caregivers.

The most important thing to remember is that this transition is one of the biggest in your life. If this was happening to a friend, what would you say? Probably something like, “Be good to yourself. This is tough. You’re doing the right thing. Your baby will be okay. You’ll be okay. How about some chocolate?” As you plan your own transition back to work, my advice is to show yourself just as much compassion as you’d show a friend. Be good to yourself. You’re doing the right thing. How about some chocolate?


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