Of all the seasons in your life—and your career—becoming a parent is among the most challenging. A tiny human has a way of wreaking havoc in every corner of your world, while also overwhelming your heart with the kind of love you never imagined. After those initial first few weeks of adjusting to a lack of sleep, and navigating the complicated process of breastfeeding, many women in the U.S. are thrown back into the workforce faster than they’d like.
Or for some, not as early, as they’d prefer to save themselves from going stir-crazy. Regardless of how a female professional feels going into that first week post-maternity leave, those five days are often full of emotional surprises they didn’t expect. Luckily, these 13 successful executives and moms give you a sneak peek for the road ahead:
“It made me better at letting my guard down”
When the cofounder of Living DNA Hanna Morden had her first child, she worked up until the very last minute. Or as she put it, one minute she was having meetings, planning sessions, filling up her calendar, and the next, her legs were up in the air and she was being told to push. “I didn’t realize I was having contractions, so I was in meetings until my water broke,” she says.
After she welcomed her daughter, Claire, into the world, she didn’t quite comprehend how much rest one needs after giving birth, and when she did return to the office, she experienced a very different rhythm than before. In fact, she changed her communication approach. Instead of responding to emails, she was more proactive with face-to-face discussion in an effort to finish ASAP.
She found that at work, it became more about supporting and less about doing, which required her to let her guard down. Leaking breast milk at an awards ceremony helped her ease into herself more, too. “Nothing prepared me for being in a red dress and having my breasts leak milk at the table. And to top it off, our business won an award that night, so up I went to collect it, with two dark patches on my dress,” she explains. Now, at the end of her second pregnancy, she’s using these lessons to carry her into becoming a mom of two.
“It is okay not to feel guilt”
When Amber Olson Rourke, the cofounder and chief marketing officer for Nerium International, gave birth to her first child, Hattie, everyone warned her about the guilt she’d feel when it was time to come back to the office. To her surprise, she had the opposite response. “After my maternity leave, I was excited to go back to work. I am incredibly passionate about my job, and it is a huge part of who I am as a person,” she says.
After spending plenty of time cooped up taking care of a newborn, her professional life allowed her to reconnect to herself again, and become a role model for her daughter. “I want my daughter to see me as an example of a passionate, hard-working woman. When I am at work, I am 100% focused on my role there, and when I get home, I am 100% focused on my family.” It is this same mentality she’ll carry with her, as she’s due any minute to give birth to her second child.
“Let your partner step in”
While everyone will remind new moms of the extra hands (and arms and hugs) they’ll need once they welcome a baby into the world, Jodi Harouche, the president and chief creative officer of Multimedia Plus, stresses the importance of letting your partner step in—and up!—too. It might seem like a no-brainer, but she says since many executives are programmed to do it all and not show how difficult something can be, they often forget to let dad in on the work.
“Let your partner be a part of getting you back to work. Today’s dads really do want to participate in raising kids. So let them. Let them change diapers, give the kids a bath, or take a nighttime feeding,” she says. “We don’t have to do everything on our own.”
“It’s okay to trust what you need”
The weeks leading up to the end of your maternity leave, you might feel a plethora of feelings: from looking forward to putting on actual clothes again to desperately wishing you could take your baby with you to every single meeting and conference. When mom of two and owner of StarCycle Dionne Del Carlo returned to work, she experienced a roller-coaster of emotions, and struggled to figure out what she actually needed, instead of what everyone told her she needed.
“Absolutely everybody will have an opinion about what you should or should not be doing, but it’s important to take a step back from all of the chatter and let your body tell you what you instinctively need,” she shares. “If going back to work full-time from the get-go doesn’t feel right for you, explore options with your employer. You would be surprised to find how accommodating many companies can be for new parents who are easing their way back into the workforce—whether through a temporary part-time position, or remote opportunities. There is no right or wrong when it comes to the best way to return to work.”
“It’s a major identity shift”
Before Sophie Kahn, cofounder of AUrate, gave birth to her daughter May, she knew herself as, “Sophie, career workaholic.” But then, as she puts it, “Suddenly from one day to the next, I was a mom with an infant who needed her 24/7. To say it was a major identity shift is putting it lightly. Constant breastfeeding, diapers, burping, you name it—and my equilibrium felt entirely shaken,” she says. “With time, I realized I could be both, balance it, and even be good at both, but it was a big shock to the system. Having known about this beforehand would have definitely helped reduce my anxiety about it.”
Like other professionals, returning to work was actually a happy transition for Kahn, not one she felt immensely guilty about. (Well, only a little.) “On the third day back, I went out for a few hours to reply to emails and stay involved with AUrate. And then I continued to do this in between her naps and breastfeeding sessions. It made me feel ‘normal’ and like myself again,” she says. “Of course, this went coupled with feelings of guilt: ‘Why don’t I just want to stay at home in the baby bubble? Does this make me a bad mom?’ Having perspective now, it just shows me how much passion I have for my company. Back then, it could have helped reduce the guilt trap.”
“Everything in my life changed but work didn’t”
Unsurprisingly, after having a baby, everything in Stacy Ellison’s life changed. From how she felt and how her days evolved, this Studio 11 cofounder and principal was expecting to go back into the office and find everyone else recovering from the tornado of transformation. What she found was, well, the office was the same. Understanding and adapting her previous responsibilities and expectations took time, as she discovered what her “new normal” would actually look like.
“Part of this is realizing that you are not the same person that left that day on maternity leave, but the expectation is to pick up exactly where you left off. If only it was that simple,” she says. “You think differently, you work differently, your availability changes, your priorities are shifting—yet going to work is like you never left. It’s important that you let yourself find that new balance and keep telling yourself that you aren’t failing your home or workplace.”
“Nursing is incredibly challenging”
Rocking your newborn while they nurse and slowly drift off into a peaceful sleep is an image plenty of mothers-to-be visualize while they’re pregnant. Though those moments do come for many, the process of breastfeeding and eventually pumping isn’t so rosy, according to Rachel Blumenthal, the cofounder and CEO of Rockets of Awesome. As a mom of two, she’s navigated the tricky feeding process twice. “I was nursing three to four times a day at home and then pumping three to four times a day at the office.
“I had to have all my pump pieces clean and intact, my ice pack and cooler prepared, and the schlepping back and forth every day was a third job,” she shares. “I’m exhausted thinking about it, and I cringe every time I remember the sound of that pump!”
“Great childcare is essential”
Much like being brave enough to ask for help, being diligent enough to secure childcare that allows you to be (mostly) at ease is essential for working moms, according to Tara Foley, the founder and CEO of Follain. Thanks to unusual hours and a busy travel schedule, she needed to hire someone who was flexible that she could trust when she was not only out of town, but also out of the country. It wasn’t as seamless as she hoped, and a process she had to slowly transition to over time. “In order to do this, I started back earlier than I would have liked, but this transition helped me figure things out with my childcare—and my body—more efficiently,” she says.
“Worrying is the new normal”
For Sara Eisen, the co-anchor of CNBC’s Squawk on the Street and Power Lunch, part of returning to her on-air duties was accepting that she’d always have a pit in her stomach. With an eight-month-old at home, stressing about her baby became a new habit. Even though she never considered herself a worrywart, as a mom, her attitude has completely shifted. “Honestly, it’s mostly silly stuff: ‘Is he aware that I’m gone? Is he eating well? Did he burp enough? Is he late to crawl? Is he getting a cold? Is he going to bump his head in the crib? Does he need more playdates?’—you name it, I worry about it,” she says. “This is a big adjustment, and I’ve had to learn to trust others with childcare, accept that I can’t—and shouldn’t—control everything, and realize that some level of worry is part of what being a parent will always be, no matter how old your kids are.”
“Both mom and baby have to adjust”
Julia Wetherell LeClair, cofounder of Orchard Mile and mom of one, remembers her first day back at work perfectly. While pumping in the designated room, she opened her Nest app to check in on her daughter—and her heart sunk. She watched as her daughter screamed and cried, refusing the bottle from the nanny, and Wetherell quickly matched her child’s angst.
“Here I was sitting in a 3-by-3-foot windowless room attached to my pump, and I started to cry, thinking that if I was there, she would be cozy in my arms, and we would both have the biggest smiles on our faces,” she explains. After calling her mom in despair, she was reminded that returning to the office is a process for both the child and parent.
“By the third day, Chloe was completely settled, and I loved being back to work. It allowed me to use a different part of my brain during the day, and really appreciate every second of my time with my little baby. I now couldn’t wait for her to wake up at 3 a.m.!” she says.
“I’m proud of doing something, not everything”
Jessica Abo, author and CEO of JAbo TV, concisely describes the pressure of hard-working, go-getting female professionals: “We want to do it all, we want to do it all well, and we want to look good while doing it.” Though this mentality is a pre-children goal, once she became a mom, she’s figured out how to be proud of what she has done instead of focusing on what she has left to do. “I’ve come to accept that I won’t be able to do everything perfectly, and that sometimes, done is better than perfect. And I’ve laughed over how ‘looking good’ these days means I’m in workout clothes that could pass as an outfit, or pajamas that actually match,” she says.
“Work-life balance is a myth”
And a big one at that, according to Autumn Manning, cofounder and CEO of YouEarnedIt. When she became a first-time mother at 25 while also building her business, she quickly realized that one’s professional and personal lives not only intersect occasionally, but at every turn. “Traveling with a newborn, being part of pitch meetings and nursing—in between everything we had going on with the business—was really challenging. I had to learn to move, maneuver, and adapt, and still be present for the important parts of life,” she says. “Learning to lighten up and let anything extra go (without guilt) is an important skill, and one that takes practice to be good at. I wish I’d known that, after my son was born.”
“Everyone at work supported me”
For some women, motherhood can feel like a lonely experience. And for others, there is even shame in returning from maternity leave, as they are afraid their colleagues or managers will think of them differently. Natasha Lucke, interior designer of Kalahari Resorts and Wisconsin Dells and mother of three, wishes she would have known how supportive her professional community would be of her growing family. “After my first child, I felt I had to hide the fact that I was tired and stressed, but the reality was that my work community wanted to help. I used to trick myself into thinking that I couldn’t share too much about my personal life in the corporate world—but I found the exact opposite to be true,” she says. “It helps to create an environment of encouragement and a healthy support system for people at work. Now I share stories daily, and the kids come and visit often.”