It costs a lot of money to have a baby. Which means that many working mothers are faced with very little choice when it comes to going back to work; they simply can’t afford to be a stay-at-home mom. However, there are plenty of mothers who choose to go back to work for other reasons: they love their jobs, they love their coworkers, and they love contributing to their family finances.
Most mothers have a whirlwind of emotions when they return to work after having a baby. Some are sad, even depressed. Others are excited and relieved. Some are anxious, while others are resentful. You might be feeling some or all of these emotions. That’s normal.
Returning to work after having a baby is a huge transition, and many mothers underestimate how difficult it can be. Here are some tips and strategies you can use to make your return to the workforce a bit easier.
Maternity Leave in the United States
When it comes to family leave in the United States, working parents have it rough. That’s especially true for mothers, who have almost no protection under federal law.
According to The Washington Post, the United States is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t require employers to give working mothers paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), eligible employees can have up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to have a baby or adopt a child and still have a job when they return. However, the keywords here are “eligible employees,” which means the FMLA doesn’t protect everyone.
For example, companies that employ less than 50 people don’t have to abide by FMLA laws. Also, you must have worked for your employer for 12 months, and clocked in 1,250 hours of work time, to be covered by the FMLA. Another crazy caveat? Your company has to have at least 50 employees centered in one location; if your coworkers are spread farther than 75 miles from the main work site, the company doesn’t have to follow FMLA laws.
Another shameful aspect of the FMLA is that it’s unpaid leave. Few businesses — including large corporations — offer working mothers paid leave. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, only 6% of companies offer full pay during maternity leave. As a result, USA Today reports, one out four mothers returns to work just 10 days after giving birth.
The birth of a child puts working mothers in a tight financial bind. The Washington Post reports that women are now working closer and closer to their due dates, and returning to work much sooner after giving birth, in large part because they can’t afford to take more time off.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it now costs more than $233,000 to raise a child to adulthood. Working parents see a huge rise in expenses just as they’re hit with a significant drop in income due to maternity leave. The Urban Institute reports that the typical family — defined as two working parents — sees an income drop of at least 10% when they have a baby. Single mothers experience an income drop of 42%.
Your options for returning to work after giving birth depend on your financial situation, your family situation, and how much flexibility your employer offers. You can go back to work full-time from the get-go, or you can return part-time and gradually work your way up to full-time employment. However you do it, here’s how to make the transition as smooth as possible.
How to Successfully Return to Work After Having a Baby
Having a newborn is exhausting. They require constant care during the day, and then you’re up much of the night for feedings and diaper changes. Add in errands, dinner prep, and household chores, and it’s easy to see why all new parents look like zombies.
Now imagine how much harder all this will be when you go back to work. You have to get up at 5am or 6am after a sleepless night, get yourself and your baby ready and out the door, drop them off at day care, and then actually be productive for 8 hours before rushing to pick up said baby from day care and heading home for dinner prep and, hopefully, some quality family time before you collapse into bed completely exhausted.
It’s not easy, and it’s no wonder so many mothers have serious reservations about returning to work after a baby. But there are some strategies you can use to make this transition a little less stressful.
1. Practice, Practice, Practice
Don’t wait until your first day back to work to determine if you can actually get yourself and your baby ready and out the door on time. Practice your new routine a week or two before you return to work.
To do this, try to arrange your child care to start early, perhaps on a half-day basis the week before you return to work. Set your alarm to wake you up just like a normal workday, and go through your morning routine.
Practicing your morning like this will help you work out any unexpected hiccups without the stress of having to be at the office on time. It will also help you get used to being away from your baby, which many mothers find very difficult at first.
2. Learn How to Say No
Whether you’re excited or sad about going back to work, one thing is certain: You’re going to be shocked at how much work there is to do. Not only is your workload going to feel overwhelming, but it’s going to come right at a time when you absolutely need to be out the door at 4:30pm to pick up your baby from child care on time.
This is why you need to learn how to say no to your boss and colleagues. You need to spend your time at work focusing on high-priority projects, which means mindless busy work and help requests from colleagues might have to fall by the wayside for a while.
Saying no isn’t easy, especially when you’re newly back from maternity leave and feeling pressured to prove your productivity and commitment. It can help to research some diplomatic ways to handle requests before your first day back. This article from Harvard Business Review has some useful strategies for saying no at work, as does this article from CNBC.
3. Ask If You Can Telecommute
Many jobs can be adjusted for telecommuting, even if it’s just for one day per week. If you think yours could be, ask your boss if you could work from home one or more days per week. However, before you approach them with this request, think it through. Develop a plan for how you’ll make it work, and lay out the specific tasks or projects that would work best for the days you telecommute.
You’ll also need to communicate how telecommuting will benefit everyone else. How will your team, your boss, and the company benefit from you working at home one or more days per week?
Identify the concerns your boss is likely to have. For example, they’re likely to be concerned about interruptions if your child will be with you at home. How can you prove that you’ll be productive? Who will watch your child while you’re working?
It can also help to set a date when the two of you can reassess the situation to make sure it’s working out. Your boss might feel more comfortable saying yes if they know it’s temporary. If you’re still demonstrating great productivity by this date, they might decide to make the arrangement permanent.
Finally, chances are other professionals in your organization telecommute at least part-time. Find out who these people are, and talk to them about how they convinced their boss to approve their request. They might be able to give you some valuable advice; at the least, you’ll be able to use their example to strengthen your case.
4. Work Out a Breastfeeding Arrangement
If you’re nursing, you’re going to have to pump while you’re at work. It can add yet another layer of complexity for working mothers, especially when you already have too much to do. However, breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do for your baby, so it’s important to keep it going as long as you’re able.
The good news is that under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), employers are required to give nursing mothers time off to pump breast milk. They’re also required to provide a place, other than a bathroom, that’s shielded from view and free from intrusions from coworkers and the public, for mothers to do this.
If you plan to continue breastfeeding once you return to work, call your company’s HR department the week before you go back and find out if there’s a lactation room available. If not, work with them to find a suitable space, even if it means installing a lock on your office door. Remember, they have to provide you with somewhere that isn’t the bathroom to pump. If they balk, remind them it’s the law. You can read more about the federal law that protects nursing mothers at the U.S. Department of Labor.
In addition, the following tips can make pumping at work a bit easier.
Check Out Your Space
Before your first day back, go to the office and check out the room HR has designated as your “lactation space.” Is it clean? Does it have a locking door? Does it have a sink? If not, where is the nearest bathroom? Is there a comfortable chair to sit in? A table for your breast pump?
If something is lacking, bring up your concerns to HR so they have time to fix it before your first day back.
Bring Extra Parts
Always pack a full set of extra parts with your breast pump, from tubes to bottles to suction cups. You never know when you’ll need them, but you will from time to time.
Pack Extra Nursing Pads
Nursing mothers know that they need to pump or breastfeed at predictable times. When you miss one of those times, your breasts will quickly feel like they’re going to explode.
At home, it’s relatively easy to stick to a feeding schedule. But at work, you’ve got chatty colleagues and meetings that run late, and no one is thinking about the fact that you’re about to leak all over your shirt. So always keep plenty of extra nursing pads in your desk for times when you can’t pump right when you need to.
Nursing mothers need plenty of extra fluids to stay hydrated; parenting website Ask Dr. Sears recommends that nursing mothers drink 8 ounces of water every time they feed or pump, plus a couple more each day. So take a water bottle with you everywhere and make sure you’re staying hydrated while you’re at work.
Look at Pictures
Pumping can feel cold and impersonal after breastfeeding your baby. Some mothers find that it’s difficult or impossible for their milk to flow while they’re at work, especially when they’re pressed for time.
If this happens to you, try looking at pictures or videos of your baby on your phone right after you turn the pump on. It can help you relax and remind your body who you’re doing this for.
Give Yourself a Break
With all this said, breastfeeding is hard under normal circumstances, and it’s even harder when you go back to work. If you can make breastfeeding work when you’re back at your job, good for you. If it’s too much time and stress, then that’s OK too. Your baby will be fine either way, and there’s no right or wrong choice here. Do what works for you, and leave it at that.
5. Consider Alternative Child Care Options
If the thought of dropping your child off at day care every day makes your blood run cold, it might be time to consider some other options.
For example, some working parents pool their resources and create a type of “babysitting co-op.” This means that you hire a full-time nanny (Look into Care.com or Sittercity) to care for all of your children together. You’ll pay more to have the nanny watch several children at once, but it’s often cheaper than what you’d pay someone to watch only your children.
If you and your partner’s schedules are a bit flexible, consider alternating work schedules with them so that you can both work and both watch the children. For example, perhaps your partner could work from 6am to 12pm while you take care of the children, and then you could work from 12pm to 5pm while they take the children.
My husband and I alternate our schedules like this, and it works out well for us. He’ll work a full day while I take the boys, and then he takes them the next day while I work a full day. We also homeschool, and this arrangement gives us both the opportunity to be the teacher, spend time with the boys, and continue earning an income. It’s also saving us $7,680 per year on child care, which is what we were spending on preschool — part-time — before we adopted this schedule.
6. Look for a Family-Friendly Employer
If you quit your job before having a baby and you’re looking to reenter the workforce, or if your current employer isn’t as family-friendly as you’d like, then consider using Après to find a great new job.
Après is a recruitment site that focuses exclusively on working mothers — those looking to reenter the workforce after maternity leave or those who are currently working but looking for a more family-friendly employer. The company’s founders, two working mothers themselves, know that many employers want to hire more women, and they’re willing to offer the flexibility and paid time off that working mothers need. So they scout out the companies offering these “mom-friendly” jobs and post them on the site.
It costs $99 per year to use the site, but the fee is worth it if you end up landing the job of your dreams.
7. Pay for Help With Daily Tasks
Your transition back to work is a great time to invest in help if you can swing it financially. For example, consider using a meal delivery service like Home Chef for the first week or two back at work. It can help ease stress to not have to worry about planning and shopping for meals. If you can’t afford a meal service, research some slow cooker recipes so you have a hot meal waiting for you when you get home.
Many mothers hire a cleaning service for their first month back to work — or longer if they can afford it. Look at a company like Handy.com. Everything can be taken care of online – including scheduling and rescheduling. Putting someone else in charge of cleaning can be a huge time-saver and give you more time to bond with your baby.
8. Give Yourself Time to Adjust
Every working mother will tell you the same thing: It takes time to adjust to going back to work after you have a baby. At first, you’ll probably feel completely overwhelmed, and you might be tempted — again and again — to just quit. You’ll worry about leaving your baby in the hands of someone else, you’ll worry you aren’t working up to your potential because you’re so sleep-deprived, and you’ll worry you’re not being a good mother, no matter what you’re doing.
Go easy on yourself. It can take months to adjust to going back to work, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Just don’t give up. In time, it will get easier.
I’m a working mother myself. As a self-employed freelancer, I don’t get paid maternity leave — or any paid time off, for that matter. I took eight weeks off for the birth of my first child and 24 weeks for the birth of my second, and it was definitely a hit for us financially.
When I returned to work, I wrote with my newborn strapped to my chest in a baby sling while my other child other slept in my lap. I breastfed during conference calls with clients. It was hard, but like many new parents, I had to make it work. There were plenty of stressful days, and plenty of wonderful ones, and in the end, it worked out just fine.
How are you feeling about returning to work after your maternity leave? If you’re already back in the workforce, what do you do to make it work?