After five months of maternity leave, it was time to get back to the office.
I had done my research on how to prepare. Childcare (check), pump parts ready for the office (check), practice commute (check), start having dad give babe the bottle more to ease my departure (check), and mentally prepared myself for life back at the office. The night before I went back, like a kid before the first day of school, I couldn’t sleep. I needn’t have worried about losing sleep. I only got to go into the office twice before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place mandate went into effect.
Like many Americans, my work life has changed drastically due to COVID-19. I am one of the lucky ones. I am still employed, and can fairly easily do my job from home. Is it cramped in my apartment? Yes. Do I have a comfortable ergonomic setup? No. Do virtual team happy hours make up for live ones? Of course not. Nonetheless, I’m grateful. Still, the transition to working from home—on top of the transition to becoming a working parent—has at times felt like a lot. Eight weeks into it and with a six-month-old in tow, here’s my advice.
The same rules apply
When it comes to ensuring a smooth return back to work from parental leave, know that despite the unusual circumstances, you will not need to reinvent the wheel. Some of the same measures you would have taken back to the office apply even from the comfort of your own home.
Have a clear ramp back plan
In an ideal world, your manager will have put a transition plan back together for you. If not, you’ll have to craft one yourself and get their input and approval on it. The idea is to chart out a clear path for you to get back up to speed and back to being full-time. Just as a new employee has an onboarding phase, so too will you. A lot has likely changed in your absence, so there will be new faces to meet, new strategies to understand, and new projects to take on. Things to consider as you develop your ramp back plan with your manager: What areas of ownership will you have now relative to your scope before baby? What is expected of you in your first 30/60/90 days back? What will a successful ramp back look like? And given the circumstances of working from home with a new baby, what’s a realistic set of priorities and goals to sign up for?
Breastfeeding moms, keep your pumping blocks on your calendar
Breastfeeding moms who intend to continue nursing after they return to work have likely heard the advice before: Put pumping blocks on your calendar so others know not to disturb you during this time. I work at a company where I feel very comfortable being explicit in my calendar blocks (“Pumping–Do Not Schedule” seems to do the trick) and have three 30-minute blocks on my calendar per day. Now, you might think that working from home means you don’t need those pumping blocks (I’ll just nurse the baby when he wakes up from his nap). That is only partially true. It’s true that you don’t need to use that annoying breast pump—you can indeed nurse instead. But you will still need some kind of calendar block to make it clear to others that you will need to step away from the computer for set chunks of time on the daily. As a breastfeeding mom, this is your right, by law. Whether your baby is on a schedule or not, you’ll find it helpful to have regular chunks of time set aside to keep him or her nourished, and clear expectations for your coworkers that you are unavailable.
Prepare for some mental sluggishness
When I was pregnant everyone talked about “pregnancy brain”—that feeling that you’re operating a little bit behind everyone else, unable to follow the thread of others’ thinking as clearly as your prepregnancy brain could. I personally never felt it. My brain seemed to be operating just fine while pregnant. But boy did I feel mentally foggy when I got back to work. As someone who normally has no problem thinking on her feet, I found myself struggling to be articulate. I confused my words the way a tired person puts cereal in their fridge and milk in their cupboard. I remember being surprised at how quickly people talked. My coworkers talked circles around me and I could almost feel my brain processing more slowly than the rest. Guess what? Parental leave often means you are spending a whole lot less time with other adults than you would otherwise. Your brain might need a little bit of time to get back up and running and processing like it used to. It’s ok. It happens. Cut yourself some slack and consider this part of your ramp back to work plan, too.
Some new rules apply, too
Of course, it’s also true that unique circumstances call for adaptability and flexibility, and that applies to your transition back to work from parental leave, too. There are a few areas where it pays to adapt your plan.
Adapt your schedule to childcare needs
Everyone’s circumstances are different, but just about every working parent has had to make some adjustments to work schedules in the age of COVID-19. For many work-from-home parents, this has meant working half days or off-hours, taking four days a week at work instead of five, or trading childcare time throughout the day with spouses or other family members. The exact schedule is one only you can come up with. It has to work for you, your family, and your manager.
To get to your new “ideal,” I recommend spending a week trying out a few options with your partner and your manager. During this trial period, aim to get a sense of how much time it takes to take care of the baby, and when your support is a nice-to-have (bath time) versus a must-have (nursing). Understand what your partner’s workload looks like, and what support each of your companies can offer to working parents, too. Make sure to let your manager in on your thinking and get their support to experiment with your schedule, and eventually settle on a routine that works for you, your family, and your job.
A year ago, you were growing a baby. Now, you’re raising one. That is hard enough work on its own—not to mention the stress of showing up to work, getting things done, and doing this all under the cloud of a global pandemic. You will likely get it wrong at some point. It will feel like too much to handle. Whether your baby is temperamentally calm or active, a good sleeper or a poor one does not really matter. A lot is changing in real time, for you, your baby, and the world at large. So forgive yourself if you don’t get it right all the time. Give yourself space to fail every now and then. Let the ball drop on being the perfect working parent.
Imagine a new ideal: one with flaws, but also self-compassion. In the midst of uncertain times and maximum responsibilities, even your mistakes show you are doing something heroic. And on a good day, try to enjoy it; the sitting, crawling, and other milestones you get to witness firsthand now might not have been possible earlier.