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How to ease the return to work after maternity leave

Kristine Gill

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Broadside writer Kristine Gill offers advice from working moms on how to transition back to work after maternity leave. Then, scroll on for job opportunities from Goldman Sachs, Netflix, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and more.

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I should start by saying that I’m nowhere near ready to have children. (Hear that, Mom?) But when I was asked to pen a newsletter geared toward mid-career women, my first thought was about having kids and all the ways that starting a family can upend your career—just as you hit your professional stride.

I took some comfort in interviewing a handful of women who have made it work. These women had tons of advice about how to tackle motherhood and careers, and especially about how to make a smooth transition back to work following maternity leave. 

Beverly Adams, an auditor working in Columbus, Ohio, did not cry the first morning she dropped her son off at daycare following 12 weeks of maternity leave.

“I was just ready to get out of the house and go back to work,” she told me. Instead of feeling guilty about leaving her firstborn in the hands of a stranger, Adams felt a different kind of fear bubble up: “Am I a terrible parent because I’m ready to go back to work?”

Now, three years later, Adams is preparing to return to the office following the birth of her second son. And this time, she knows what to expect. She’s ready to play catch up, ready to field awkward questions and comments from coworkers and clients, and ready to communicate more with her supervisors about how she has to step aside to pump during those marathon meetings or leave early for medical appointments. 

Despite all of her preparation, she’s also ready for her mind to still stray to her sons. “I want to be prepared and more present at work,” Adams said. “But at the same time, you’re missing milestones.” 

It turns out, most women feel some kind of guilt upon returning to the workforce, according to Lauren Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, & Big Success After Baby. “That’s one thing that came up [in] every interview I did,” Brody, who spoke to 700 mothers for her book, told me. 

The women said they didn’t feel like themselves physically or mentally until about six months after giving birth. “That’s sort of the magic number: six months,” Brody said. Study after study bears this out. In fact, lawmakers originally pushed for six months of leave during the Clinton administration. 

Ultimately, lawmakers agreed on 12-weeks of unpaid leave, and women have come to believe that they should feel ready to go back after three months, Brody says, when that’s not the case. “It affects our expectations of ourselves.” Some states are making the push for paid leave and longer maternity leaves, but Yana Rodgers, director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, says the U.S. is still “one of the least generous countries in the world” when it comes to maternity leave.

Here’s what you can do to ease the transition back to work before the six-month mark—at least until lawmakers get with the program.

Keep an occasional tab. Adams skims her emails once a week while on leave to stay in the loop on major projects, and sends a photo here and there of baby to her coworkers, reminding them, “Hey, I’m still here.”

Communicate. Tell your boss when you’ll have to pump and what days you’ll need to come in late due to daycare drop off or doctor’s appointments. Lee Boole, Senior HR Business Partner at General Assembly suggests setting a pump schedule in advance and blocking off that time on your calendar. “You can always adjust it in the future, but it’s helpful to have something to work with.”  

Prepare for conversations. Even well-intentioned colleagues can comment on your pregnancy in a way that’s offensive. If it’s egregious, talk to HR. Otherwise, expect some awkwardness, says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better. “You are the same person with the same capabilities after maternity leave as before, but some people inadvertently treat new moms as if they are fragile china or have somehow lost brain cells,” she says.

Slow down. Don’t try to do too many things at once. Adams suggests leaving your laptop behind when you pump at work. “Stress and breastfeeding don’t go well together.” And when you’re away from the office, do your best to decompress and lean in to motherhood. “Keep shattering those ceilings — but don’t forget to be kind and gentle to yourself too,” says Bita Goldman, Global General Counsel for UNiDAYS Inc and mother of four.

Know your rights. Familiarize yourself with the Family Medical Leave Act as well as your own HR policy at work. If you feel you’re being discriminated against, D.C.-based employment and labor attorney Joyce Smithey suggests first bringing the concern to your employer. If you feel you’re being ignored, consider contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Document any discriminatory conduct and consider finding an attorney. 

— Kristine Gill