Many expectant first-time mothers meticulously plan out the logistics of their babies' arrival -- from careful hospital-bag packing, to pre-delivery coaching with a doula or midwife, to nursery decoration and furnishing, to car seat and stroller research. But what many don't think about preparing for is the transition back to work after maternity leave (if they're lucky enough to get it from their employers).
The back-to-work period after the birth of a child is such a uniquely stressful time that it's been described as an extension of pregnancy. While some have called a newborn's first three months of life the "fourth trimester," author Lauren Smith Brody coined the term "fifth trimester" to describe the return-to-work period.
Brody told CNN that once back at her job at Glamour magazine following the birth of her son, she "had this weird feeling of both, 'Oh, thank goodness, I know how to do this,' and then also, 'Oh, no, I really don't know how to do this with a baby,' and there were very few resources to help me ease back in and to help me manage my expectations of myself and not blame myself for it being such a struggle."
For many moms, giving up paid employment to stay home and raise children is, for financial reasons, simply not an option. Making matters more difficult still, among developed nations the United States stands out as the only one that does not mandate paid maternity leave. This means that not only will many mothers who would rather stay with their kids full-time need to return to work, but for financial reasons, many will need to do so far sooner than they'd like.
However, research shows that children benefit from having mothers who work outside the home, and many women would much rather do paid work than stay home with their children. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare both mother and baby for the transition back to the workforce. Here, we lay out the top five moves for making the transition easier on everyone.
Have a plan -- and then be willing to change it
It's best to start planning for your return to work before you've even left. This means deciding before the birth of your child how long a leave you think you will take. If you're lucky enough to have employer-paid leave for a certain number of weeks, this time period's length may already be decided for you. Or perhaps you are in a position to take additional, unpaid leave after that. Whatever your situation, it's best to try to estimate how long you'll be away from work -- before your baby is born. Make sure your boss is aware of and on board with it.
But be open to changes where this length of time is concerned, especially if you're a first-time mother. If this is your first baby, you may underestimate the amount of time you will need at home with your new child. Second- and third-time moms will know what's coming physically and emotionally, and may have a better idea of how long they'll need. If you find that it's week nine of your leave, you promised up and down to be back in the office at the 12-week mark, but you weep at the thought of leaving your child with your mother just so you can go to the grocery store, it may be time for a frank talk with your boss about a new timeline.
Do a test run (or three)
Of course, unpaid leave is not always an option, and many women must begin earning money before they feel ready to leave their newborns. For these mothers, 'testing out' a vetted, chosen child-care provider before the actual return-to-work date is hugely important. Arrange a date and time when you're still on leave to have your baby stay in the care of the recommended nanny or licensed, well-reviewed daycare you've decided on. It needn't -- and probably shouldn't -- be a full day. Just a few hours to give yourself a practice run at being away from your child may be all you need to quell your worries. Remember, if your child is under 4 months or so, the leaving is likely to be far harder on you than on your baby.
Chances are good that you have friends or relatives who have been or are currently in your situation. Don't rely solely on your and/or your partner's gut when it comes to childcare. Ask for recommendations, advice, and help. You may be surprised at the amount you receive, and glad you asked. A referral may lead you to a loving, attentive and affordable in-home daycare you may not have otherwise learned about. And posting on a Facebook mothers' group may get you the reassurance you need that yes, you will eventually sleep more than two hours at a time again.
Don't be afraid to negotiate
Perhaps your decided-upon maternity leave is coming to an end and you know you're not ready to leave your baby for hours at a time -- but you're ready to get back to work. Don't feel trapped. Instead, set up a call with your boss and see what your options are for telecommuting. S/he may be happily willing to allow you work from home for an additional month -- allowing you, if it's feasible financially, to stay near your baby and test the services of an in-home nanny or babysitter.
Explore your options
Perhaps you're set on leaving your current job, and circumstances permit you to take an income cut for at least a little while. Why not leave and set out on your own? Work is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It's entirely possible -- though not easy -- to both care for your child or children full-time and work on the side, without paid help. Perhaps you're a stellar resume writer. Or your handmade jewelry wows everyone every year at Christmas. Or you got a 178 on the LSAT and enjoy tutoring. Parlay your talents into a small business, and run it where and when you can. Baby sleeping? Partner available? Take advantage and do work you enjoy -- for yourself.
While you're not likely to want or need full-time office space for your venture, you'll probably want a quiet, comfortable place to work outside the home or meet clients on occasion. Metro Offices, the leader in shared, temporary and virtual office space in the Washington, DC, area, has you covered. Learn more about our locations which are all conveniently located in and around the nation's capital.