Motherhood really is a miracle. For all the work they do in their private lives to nurture their families, most moms also work hard outside the home. According to the Labor Department, 69.9 percent of mothers with children age 18 or younger were employed or looking for work in 2013. One concern they all share: How to juggle the demands of family life with professional obligations, starting from the day a child is born.
There's a lot more to coordinating a return to work after welcoming a child than this article outlines, but here are top tips for planning maternity leave so you might have a more smooth transition back to professional life.
[See: 20 Work-Life Balance Hacks.]
Before Having Children ...
Look for jobs with robust benefits and perks. If possible, sit down with human resources and your manager to discuss policies on family leave and workplace flexibility. Also keep in mind the varying policies different companies and states have and how you might use other leave, like short-term disability or unpaid leave time from the Family and Medical Leave Act, to supplement maternity leave. For instance, the state of California guarantees six weeks of paid maternity leave for many jobs, plus up to 28 unpaid weeks when combining both federal and state policies.
If you're still searching for work, then weigh how an employer's culture and benefits might complement your future plans. The best organizations offer competitive packages. "No matter what age you are or whether you're searching for your first job or your fourth, you should give consideration to how inclusive an organization is," says Terri McClements, vice chair and U.S. human capital leader for the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. PwC is renowned for the benefits and programs it offers to support families, including up to 14 paid weeks off for parental leave, plus an additional two weeks of paid leave for welcoming more than one child (through birth or adoption) at the same time. According to McClements, your first stop for information is the employer's website. "Companies with inclusive policies realize that those policies are selling points to the best job candidates and will make those policies easy to find," she says.
When You're Expecting Children ...
Set an initial plan for how much leave you'll take. Plans are made to be broken. Still, it's courteous and professional to give your boss and team members an idea of how many weeks or months off you think you'll need when you welcome your child. Medical professionals stress that you should take all the time your organization and budget allows -- preferably more than a month. "All women deserve far more [maternity leave] than they actually receive," says Monica McHenry Svets, an OB-GYN in the Cleveland Clinic's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. "It will take a minimum of six weeks to stop feeling physical pain, to adjust to the schedule of a new baby and just to feel human again."
Decide how you'd like to come back. You'll have a new normal to consider while transitioning back into work and then thereafter. Think about what changes you foresee having to make to the way you work, and weigh what toll it will take on your manager and colleagues to accommodate you. Lisa Horn is co-leader of the Society for Human Resource Management's Workplace Flexibility Initiative, a SHRM partnership with Families and Work Institute to educate businesses on the benefits of workplace flexibility. She suggests new moms read "When Work Works Workflex Employee Toolkit," a PDF guide from the initiative that outlines flexible work options and how to discuss them with your manager. If the change you're anticipating is small, like needing to set a definitive start and end time for each work day, or larger, like hoping for a flextime or telecommuting schedule, Horn says to "frame your request by demonstrating how your work will continue to get done. Take into account the business concerns of your employer and the core hours that are essential for your job and workplace." You should also make this request as early as possible.
Find a mentor. Not a professional mentor -- though you should have one of those also -- but a mommy mentor in the office who's been through the experience and can provide advice and commiserate. Little tidbits -- like a plan for your first day back to be a Thursday, not a Monday, or a heads up on the alternate work spaces you could use to pump in a pinch -- prove invaluable when starting back at work. PwC runs a Mentor Moms program to match women returning from leave with other PwC working mothers. "It's especially great for first-time parents," McClements says. "I was a first-time parent 14 years ago, and having the opportunity to talk to others who had been through a similar experience as me and who worked in the same environment as me was very beneficial." You can still do this even if your workplace doesn't sponsor a program. Find a mom at your job, and ask about her experience leading up to her time away and afterward.
When You Return to Work ...
Start slow. "The first day back is going to be very difficult, whether you're out for six weeks or 16, and no matter how prepared you are," says Jeanne Conry, physician with The Permanente Group in Roseville, California, and past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "I warn patients that the baby is probably going to do very well without mom those first few days, but mom might not do very well without the baby. It will be really hard emotionally."
Easing back into work life gradually might stave off some separation blues. "Financial concerns push some mothers to go back to work," McHenry Svets says. "But sometimes in women who take quicker returns to work you'll see increased levels of depression." If your job and manager will allow it, phase back into your role and hours.
Take care of yourself. Conry tells her patients the first pregnancy sets the precedent for their future health. "The first six months postpartum are critical to getting back to a healthy state," she says, suggesting that new moms take walks and get plenty of fresh air and sunshine after having the baby. "The best thing a new mom can do is get active as soon as possible, and this is still crucial even after she goes back to work. Whether she has a job that requires her to be standing or sedentary, she should take plenty of breaks to walk around."
Conry also stresses that new working moms should be patient. They might not be as ready to work in the time frame they originally thought. "The process of being ready to return to work is dependent on the individual," she says. "Keep up a constant conversation with your doctor about your postpartum feelings both emotionally and physically."
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