Last year, I became a mom. My guiding word for the year was “Wonder” - as in, I wonder how becoming a parent will change me. I lived in the discomfort of uncertainty as I prepared to welcome my little one, and I was especially curious (anxious) about how becoming a mom might change how I viewed my career. I’ve always been ambitious, driven, and connected to my work - but there’s just no knowing in advance how a huge change like becoming a parent might turn things upside down.
My maternity leave was wonder-full, in the full sense of the word: it involved awe, joy, fear, curiosity, and not knowing. In many ways, my life felt broken apart, and I had to slowly, patiently put it back together in a new order.
The most challenging piece of this for me was returning to the office. If I could go back and give myself some advice for easing the transition back to work, this is what I would say:
1. Go back on a Thursday.
I like to think in nice, round numbers, so my last day before maternity leave was a Friday and I planned to come back on a Monday. When I was making my plans, it didn’t event occur to me what a BIG week that first week back would be as I transitioned from being full-time at home to full-time at the office. Just getting dressed, out the door, and to the office took all the energy I had for the day. Be kind to yourself by going back midweek. Allow yourself the time to adjust to being outside of the home and ease back into your work responsibilities with a short stretch to start.
2. Take comfort in the little things.
When I returned to work, my coworkers set up a space for me to pump milk for my baby. My boss stocked it with snacks, a beautiful water bottle, and a real, fancy water glass. (Can you tell I work with awesome ladies?) It’s silly and small, but that water glass made me feel cared for and human. When you’re sleep deprived and consumed by change, little comforts go a long way. Stock your office fridge with nice seltzer. Buy some beautiful trail mix with dark chocolate chunks for your desk drawer. Bring a beautiful, colorful tea cup and nice tea, and soak up every small moment of comfort that it brings to your day.
3. Take advantage of your lunch breaks.
During my maternity leave, I felt especially starved for one on one lady time with my friends. A big bonus of returning to work was being able to catch up over lunches and have meaningful conversations in which I could really focus rather than divide my attention to attend to a fussy babe. These lunches fed me - I drew so much energy and nourishment from making the space for adult conversations. Put some lunches on the calendar and look forward to fueling up with your best gals.
4. Put value on your time.
As I transitioned back to work, I felt like I was working ALL the time. At any given moment, I was either desperately trying to live up to my responsibilities as a leader in the office or as a mom at home. There was no time to sit and relax. Even when I tried, I’d look at the pile of bottles in the sink that needed to be cleaned and sanitized, or the carpet that needed to be vacuumed so my little girl could crawl around. I needed more support at home. It took me a few months to finally give myself permission to hire a cleaning service, and I’ve never looked back. I hired a fellow Lady Project member (bonus!) to come once a month for a deep clean, and it is SO worth it. My time is more precious and valuable than ever before. By investing in this service, I get not only a clean home - I get to release my worry and anxiety about when it will get done. Figure out the thing that gives you anxiety - mowing the lawn, scrubbing the shower, doing the laundry - and outsource to buy back your own time.
5. Relish your commute.
My ride on the bus to and from work became the only time that I was “alone” - not a mother, wife, or worker, just me. That time was an essential part of the day for me to recharge by listening to podcasts that fed my creativity and made me laugh. Whether you’re alone in the car for 5 minutes or on a crowded bus for a half hour, make the most of this time in whatever way is meaningful to you: sing along to some top 40 radio, listen to a calming guided meditation, or just enjoy the silence.
6. Take a day off - from everything.
One of the best things I did for myself - and everyone around me - was plan a day off from being a worker AND being a mom. I took a vacation day and still sent my little one to daycare, giving myself quiet time alone in the house (a rarity), a lunch out by myself (real food, two hands), and a shopping trip to Home Goods (heaven). It sounds so simple, but it was a big deal to give myself permission to do it. I had time to recharge, and everyone around me reaped the benefits. Put at least a day on the calendar and give yourself permission to do whatever you need to show yourself the same care that you’re giving to everyone else in your life.
As a new mom, the expectations coming at me from all sides were persistent and, at times, crushing. I constantly needed reminders to be gentle with myself and show myself compassion for all that I was trying to carry, and to be patient as I lived through the uncertainty and change to find a new way of being in the world.
A year and a half in, I’m happy to report that the pieces that felt broken apart have come back into a new of order that feels true to who I am. The most important thing to remember as you face the challenge of transitioning back to work is to be gentle with yourself and practice self-compassion, in big ways and small.
Carole Ann is a life purpose coach, arts & culture administrator, quilter, and blogger based in Providence, Rhode Island. She works with women to uncover, articulate, and activate their life purpose so that they can craft an intentional life that embraces what matters to them most. When she is not coaching, she can be found blogging at www.caroleannpenney.com, or designing modern quilts in her studio.