Just when you’re starting to get the hang of this whole newborn thing (mastering onesie snaps at 3 a.m., nap time routines, and maneuvering the stroller through any coffee shop door), it’s time to go back to work. Some new moms are eager to swap their sweats for a suit, while others are devastated to leave their tiny babies. Many of us feel a mix of both. Handling the logistics of a day job with bouts of separation anxiety that can hit like a truck, on top of the huge responsibilities of caring for an infant, is not easy.
My mantra for returning to work is “manage expectations.” You need to manage your colleagues’ expectations of your capacity, and even more, you have to manage your own. But, knowing these five things will help make your return-to-work transition smoother:
1. You’ll have approximately three daily, very important, can’t-miss meetings with your breast pump and hands-free bra (which is a pumping game changer, trust me). Pro tip: Before heading back to work, block out half an hour every morning, midday, and afternoon in your calendar. That way, you’ll be less likely to return to the office with back-to-back meetings on your schedule and no time to pump. (You’ll also live in perpetual fear that no matter how many times you checked that the mother’s lounge door is locked, a clueless co-worker will swing it open while you’re shirtless, attached to flanges, and answering emails. If you’re at all worried about that, keep a nursing cover in your pump bag for a tiny bit of modesty.)
2. When your co-workers ask how you’re doing upon your return, you’ll probably smile and say, “It’s great to be back!” while willing yourself not to cry and grappling with gut-wrenching separation from your baby. Don’t worry—it gets easier! But you’ll also feel excited to have a cup of coffee while it’s still hot, talk to grown-ups, and contribute the great ideas that came to you during last night’s 3 a.m. feeding. Sometimes sleepless nights can work in your favor.
3. You will be more productive and efficient than you’ve ever been in your life. A mom who needs to leave on time for day care pickup or to relieve the nanny has an uncanny ability to prioritize and simply get stuff done. Be sure to check out this this essay from Fortune by Katharine Zaleski, founder of PowerToFly. She wrote, “I wish I had known five years ago, as a young, childless manager, that mothers are the people you need on your team. There’s a saying that says, ‘If you want something done, then ask a busy person to do it.’ That’s exactly why I like working with mothers now.”
4. Having reliable, responsible child care is the foundation of your professional success. If you spend the day worrying about whether or not your baby is getting enough tummy time, if you’re regularly late for work because your babysitter is always late, or if you’re missing important meetings because your baby has a fever and can’t go to day care, you will not be your best at work. It sounds obvious, and it is, but even the best-laid plans can throw you for a loop.
I had a fantastic, experienced nanny lined up six weeks before I was scheduled to return to work. But a couple of days prior to my first day back, she told me she was having trouble with her asthma, and she thought it might be our cats (cue record scratch sound). I was a wreck. Long story short, Zyrtec saved the day and my childcare arrangement, but it was a wake-up call that even the most stable, perfect scenario can shift in an instant. “It’s always going to be a work in progress,” one woman told me. “Just when you think everything is great, you’ll have to change something.”
5. Getting ready in the morning is kind of a shitshow. In between feeding, changing, and playing with the baby, you’re frantically trying to get dressed and probably turning the house upside down looking for your computer’s power cord. But a few simple things can make it easier. Use tech hacks to remember what clothes look good together. Snap photos of outfits you like in order to make getting dressed extra easy.
Keep a bouncy seat in your bathroom so you can blow-dry your hair. There’s a reason entire chains of blow-dry salons have popped up across the country: Women feel more confident when their hair looks like someone spent some time and energy on it. No one has to know there’s a little spit-up in it, right? Buy a salon cape (what up, Supermom!) just like the one you wear during a haircut. Wear it over your work clothes in the morning and take it off just before you walk out the door. How you look on the surface (and how you feel underneath) also impacts how others perceive you. As one woman told me, “I don’t want to be the frazzled new mom. I want to be the woman who has her shit together.”
No matter how organized you are or unfrazzled you look, every day will have its ups and downs. From reliable child care to your superhero cape, having your safety nets in place will make for a smoother transition.
Looking for more like this? Order a copy of Allyson’s book! It’s chock-full of the tried-and-true wisdom of working mothers in the trenches, from how to talk about maternity leave with your co-workers to how forthright to be if you need to miss a meeting.