Just as you're getting used to being home with your baby and your work life feels like a distant memory, you realize that your maternity leave is coming to an end. The thought of waking up at 6 a.m. and racing off to a job after being up all night with a crying baby seems impossible. And then there's the guilt: How can you spend so much time away from your infant?
No matter how long and hard you've thought about your decision to return to work, and how sure you are that it's the right choice, you need to be prepared for mixed emotions. "You might feel guilty about leaving your baby in someone else's care -- or you might feel guilty about being eager to go back to your old life," says Karol Ladd, coauthor of The Frazzled Factor: Relief for Working Moms. Although you'll inevitably encounter a few bumps along the way, these five tips will make heading back to work a little less stressful.
It's bound to take a while to learn to balance your new roles -- and you'll do so more quickly if your daily routine is efficient and well organized. The best way to make sure your new schedule will work? Do a couple of practice runs the week before you're due back at the office. If possible, arrange for your child care to start a week or so early so that you can try out your routine -- and get used to parting with your baby. Make sure you set your alarm extra early your first week back to give yourself time to work out any kinks in your schedule. And don't forget to come up with a good backup plan for days when your baby (or your babysitter) is sick.
One of the biggest complaints of working moms is sheer exhaustion -- and when you're overtired it's much easier to fall to pieces. Your own sleep needs should take priority over doing another load of laundry or cleaning up the kitchen. And have your husband pitch in whenever possible. Because you'll be getting up so early, you should aim to get to bed earlier too. Sticking to a 9 p.m. bedtime helped Heather Hill, of DeWitt, Michigan, get enough rest before her son Connor was sleeping through the night. "I woke up for the 2 a.m. feeding, and by that time, I'd had about five hours of sleep with a few more hours still ahead," says the mother of Sean, 6 years, and Connor, 10 months.
You've probably made a handful of new "mom friends" while on leave. Don't put those friendships on the back burner once you start working. "Relationships with other moms are vital," says Ladd. "You need them for emotional support." Aim for regular weekend get-togethers. Gina Yager, mother of 5-month-old Mia, made it a point not to lose touch with her new friends when she went back to work. "On Saturdays, I'll meet the girls and their babies at a coffee shop, and I've also joined a 'mom and baby' yoga class," says the mom from Henderson, Nevada. "And I stay in touch during the week through our online support group."
Although you might feel like an absolute wreck when you're at your desk -- worrying about your baby, feeling physically and mentally exhausted, being daunted by the piles of work that have built up in your absence -- don't let your boss think you're off your game. Keep your concerns to yourself, and avoid venting to your coworkers. Remember, your new juggling act might even make you more productive. "I'm a better boss now that I'm a mom," says Sue Hermann, of Denver, mother of Sarah, 3, and Sophie, 10 months. "I'm more willing to delegate, more able to think outside of the box, and definitely better able to multitask."
In your first few months back on the job, you will undoubtedly encounter days when you decide that you can't manage and need to quit. But stick with it -- at least for a while. Experts say most moms need time to get used to a new routine. If after a few months you're still unable to cope, think about asking your boss for a flex schedule that lets you work from home one or two days a week, or for a part-time arrangement. Come up with a concrete plan before approaching your boss. "But be prepared for the possibility that your boss will reject your proposal and give you an all-or-nothing ultimatum," warns Donna Lenhoff, JD, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who specializes in work-family issues. If that's the case, maybe it's time to consider whether this job is right for you. "Your goal," says Ladd, "is to find a healthy balance that works for you, your career, and your family."
If you're planning to continue nursing, you'll need to get the pumping routine down well before your return to work.
Start pumping and freezing the milk a month before you're due back on the job. You'll get in the habit of pumping and build up an emergency supply.
Let someone else bottle-feed your baby. "He needs to get used to being fed by someone besides his mother," says Kathy Baker, Peer Counselor Program training administrator at La Leche League International.
Talk to your boss to come up with a pumping schedule that works for both of you. You might suggest dividing your lunch hour into pumping sessions: You'll need to take 15- or 20-minute breaks two to three times a day.
Find a private location. "If your company doesn't have a designated lactation room, perhaps there's an empty office or conference room that you could use to pump," suggests Baker. "Some women get creative and hang a curtain around the outside of their cubicle when no privacy is available."
"Unless you have a contract that specifically states you'll return to work on a set date -- which can happen in some union or high-profile jobs -- you can decide to quit whenever you choose," says attorney Donna Lenhoff of the National Employment Lawyers Association. Though your employer does have the right to take you to court to get back the health-insurance premiums and wages paid during your maternity leave, Lenhoff says that this rarely happens. As for the best time to give your boss notice, the sooner, the better.