Key Strategies for Parents Returning to Work After Parental Leave

Transitioning back to work after parental leave is hard. You’ve been out of the flow of the office for weeks or months, and you’re returning as a different person with new priorities and concerns. (Not to mention the stress and strain of endless new logistics.) It’s jarring and often overwhelming. So how can you make your first few weeks back in the office as smooth as possible? If you have the choice, is it better to ease back slowly or to jump right in? How should you manage your relationships with your boss and coworkers? Perhaps most important, where can you turn to get the emotional support and encouragement you need during this time?

What the Experts Say
Returning to work after being home with a new baby is “a transition that’s like no other,” says Daisy Wademan Dowling, the founder and CEO of Workparent, a consulting firm for working parents and employers. “Everything is changing — from your practical day-to-day schedule, to your new responsibilities as a parent, to your identity in terms of how you’ve seen yourself your entire adult life,” she says. Adding to the pressure, you’re making this transition while “taking care of a little human who might not be sleeping very well.” It’s an “intense physical and psychological adjustment,” adds Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “You may not feel ready to leave your child,” she says. Or you may even feel guilty about your decision to go back to work in the first place. “All of this is normal,” of course, but that “doesn’t make it any less overwhelming.” Reentry is a challenge, and there’s no perfect path. Have faith “that you will walk it well,” she says, and know that there are many ways of doing so. Here are some pointers for how to navigate those first weeks back at work.

Be gentle with yourself
First things first: “Try not to take your emotional temperature in the first two to three weeks” that you’re back on the job, says Dowling. Your life has changed dramatically. “You will be tired, frustrated, and full of self-doubt,” she says, maybe even conflicted about whether to return to work or stay at home. Indeed, many people come back from parental leave and consider quitting. But just because you’re sad or worried now doesn’t mean you will be forever, she says. “It’s an emotional time.” Remind yourself that it’s too early “to draw conclusions.” Don’t ignore your feelings, but bear in mind that, just like the ages and stages of your new child, this too shall pass. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” agrees Rousseau.

Consider your schedule
Making the transition back to work will “never be easy,” but there are “a lot of aspects of it that you can manage and plan for,” says Dowling. Take, for instance, the question of whether you return gradually by working a couple of days a week or resume full-time work from the get-go. Not everyone has an option, but if you do, it’s sensible to consider the pros and cons of each.

  • Easing back in by working part-time at first “allows you to learn how to do the job you did before differently,” says Rousseau. It removes some of the pressure of juggling your new home life, and it helps you focus at work. “You learn to prioritize and concentrate on the things that move the needle.” When you’re part-time, “you can’t putz around,” she says. “You have to be discriminating” about the tasks you take on and how you do them. Be aware, however, that this schedule might “send a complex message” to your team, says Dowling. “If you’ve been a guns-blazing professional and you come back to two days a week, you’re telegraphing — even if you don’t mean to — that you are no longer working in the same way,” she says. “Your attention and ambition have shifted.”
  • Going back full-time immediately allows you to “resume the career you had before,” rather than one “with radically reduced expectations,” says Dowling. It may be harder at first, but the benefit is that you’re not “setting the bar differently” at the outset. Returning full-time allows you to “go in and do some data gathering and test things out.” If you need to, you can then “ratchet back.”

Whichever path you choose, Dowling recommends working only two or three days in your first week back on the job. A midweek start allows you to make the adjustment a little more slowly and ensures that you don’t have a five-day stretch of work from the start, which will no doubt feel too long.

Do a few practice runs
Returning from parental leave often involves executing on a new set of complicated logistics. Dowling advises “trying to get ahead of them” as much as possible to “minimize the sting.” Start with the basics: The first day you go back to work shouldn’t be the first day your baby goes to daycare or stays home with a new nanny. Dowling recommends doing at least a few practice drop-offs or asking your sitter to start a week early. “Get your child used to the process and accustomed to the caregiver,” she says. Dry runs will help you, too. “Get up in the morning, take a shower, put on your work clothes, feed the baby, take her to daycare, get your Starbucks, and drive to the office,” she says. “Then literally turn right back around.” If you’re nursing, try to add a pumping session or two in there as well. Your goal, says Rousseau, is to get “a realistic preview” of what to expect.

Be upfront with your boss
Maybe not on your first day back, but at some point, you need to have an honest and “up-front conversation” with your boss about the new realities of your life as they relate to your job, says Dowling. Acknowledge that the “next few weeks may be bumpy” — your emotions may be all over the map — but make it clear that “you are still fully committed to your job and organization.” Think about what you need from your employer and how to make your new situation work best for you. Bring up “projects you’d like to be considered for” and “work travel that you’re willing to do or not do,” Dowling adds. “You need to proactively own your story; the more you can control, the better.” Rousseau recommends asking for your boss’s advice and counsel on how to reenter successfully. Be candid and realistic about what can be accomplished in your first few weeks and months back on the job. “Talk to your manager about what’s critical versus what’s nice to have.”

Set expectations with colleagues
Be mindful of how you manage relationships with colleagues as you settle into your new work life. A lot of parents return from leave with the “mindset of ‘I’ll figure it out’ or ‘I’ll adapt,’” but this is risky, Dowling says. “If you don’t go in with a clear idea of what your schedule and plans are, others will make assumptions.” Communication is critical. Be direct about how and when you will work. Make your schedule predictable. For instance, “if you need to leave every night at 5 PM on the dot, then people will know not to come by your office at 4:59 PM wanting to talk,” she says. Things may change over time and even on the fly, of course, but if you “train your colleagues on what to expect” — and explain your schedule requirements clearly — they will learn how and when to adjust as needed.

Seek support
Resuming your professional life is a process — don’t go it alone. As you make the transition, Dowling advises, seek out support and encouragement. “Join a mom and dad network,” she says. Look for an online support community. “Build connections with people in your neighborhood who also have young children.” Find out if your employer has resources for new parents. Seek advice from colleagues who’ve been through the process.

Be deliberate about your time with your child
As you’re getting back into the swing of work, think about “how you will spend time with your kids,” Dowling says. Will it be in the morning? In the evenings? Mostly on weekends? Especially “if you work long hours or travel,” you need to have a plan for when you’ll have “rewarding time with your child.” Let your child’s caregiver in on your thinking. Whether the baby is going to daycare or staying at home with a nanny or family member, these people are now critical pieces to your professional puzzle. “Do you want them to send pictures to you while you’re at work? Will you do FaceTime?” The bottom line is, “Don’t allow your emotional bond with your child to play second fiddle,” Dowling says. “Be deliberate.”

Reset your expectations
In those early days of coming back to work, it’s wise to think about how you can recast yourself professionally. Think about “what makes you special or different,” Dowling says. Then consider how to modify those attributes to suit your new life. “If you were the hardest-working person in the office, then maybe you become the most efficient. If you were the best mentor or project leader, you become the best delegator,” she says. Your goal is to reset your expectations for yourself. “If you don’t, you will find yourself trying to play a role you can no longer play.” Rousseau agrees: “You need to be realistic about what you can and should give.”



Work Well Daily Team
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