Going back to work following maternity leave is never an uncomplicated task. But historically, moms who work outside the home have been able to approach this moment according to a pretty well-worn playbook — it’s not simple to go back to work after mat leave, but it’s more or less a known entity. But just like it did with every part of our lives, the pandemic has changed not just what it looks like to have a job but also what it means to go back to one following maternity leave. (No, apparently we really couldn’t have even one thing remain unchanged by the pandemic.)
So what do pandemic-era moms need to know about transitioning back into their work lives following maternity leave during this weird time? For starters, maybe the biggest thing moms need to know right now is that the things we do right now, during the pandemic-induced shift in policies and conditions for working moms, could very well define the “new normal” that will govern the working conditions for moms for a long time to come. We have an opportunity to normalize and institutionalize things in a far more favorable direction for working moms than ever before. The pandemic has been awful and tragic, so we owe it to ourselves and all the other working moms who might be impacted by our choices at this moment to be mindful about what we do and what we ask for. No pressure or anything!
Beyond that, here are a few key things to consider about what’s different now (and what’s not).
Take it easy on yourself as much as possible
First and foremost, you need to hear this: give yourself a break, both mentally and with the demands you put on your time as you go back to work. Moms are forever told that they should go easy on themselves, and moms are forever not doing that, but it can’t be overstated just how much you need to try to heed this advice during this particular moment in your life.
Whether you went on mat leave because you welcomed a new baby or adopted an older child, having a new kid of any age requires a massive amount of physical and mental energy from moms. Even in non-pandemic times, having a new kid is arguably the most draining thing a person can do. When a new mom is going back to work, she’s almost always going back depleted to some degree. And in a pandemic (that just won’t end), this effect is compounded by the stress and uncertainty of the broader moment that frames this period where your family is growing. You’re having a baby and you’re living through a pandemic. No need to panic every minute about it, but you should at least do yourself the minimal favor of remembering that you have a lot of stress on your mind and body, even when you aren’t actively thinking about it, and take it easy on yourself whenever possible. Even if that just means not mentally beating yourself up at the end of the day about things left undone or things done imperfectly.
You might have more flexibility to ask for what you want and need
As more companies are shifting to an all-remote working environment, others are embarking on some sort of hybrid model where employees are alternating between being in the office and working from home, and other jobs require employees to be fully back onsite, there might be more wiggle room than pre-pandemic times when it comes to your own working situation. Only you can know exactly what the parameters are for your particular role and company, but now could be an especially good time to take advantage of this fluctuating moment in working structure by asking for exactly what you want.
As you get ready to go back from maternity leave (or even as you are planning to start it), think through what your ideal situation would look like and then ask for it. Even if you don’t get everything you want, you’ll at least start the conversation on your terms.
For some moms, especially of young children, this can look like flexible working hours so you can be present with your kids during the hours they need you most and can work during the parts of the day (or night or weekends) when you actually have the best chance at getting some clear space to focus. For some moms, this means staying fully remote for a period of time after coming back to work from maternity leave before eventually going back to the office.
There are fewer built-in boundaries between work and home life — so you have to make your own
The remote-working class has largely had it the easiest when it comes to weathering the pandemic. They’re the ones who mostly had the luxury of continued employment during lockdowns, a greater degree of safety in times when COVID cases surged, and now the flexibility around when and where they do their work going forward. That said, if you are working from home as a mom — especially a new mom coming back from maternity leave — there is one big downside: the erosion of built-in boundaries between your work life and your home life.
When you are marking the line between work and personal life by physically leaving the office, you’ll need to endeavor to create those boundaries elsewhere, lest you permanently be in the miserable state of half-working and half-parenting (aka, the best way to feel like a stressed out failure at both). How does this look? For starters, being religious about your calendar. Block out windows of time for things like making your kids’ lunches or pumping or whatever makes sense for you. Make sure to communicate when you will be reachable for work-related things, and when you log off for the day, actually log off. When your office and your home are in the same building, managing where you put your attention is the key to making both parts of your life work.
Some things haven’t changed
All that said, returning from maternity leave still follows many of the same rules as before. You’ll want to ramp back up methodically, schedule meetings with all the key stakeholders who can fill you in on everything you need to get back up to speed, and set attainable goals for what you’ll accomplish and on what timeline. You’ll still be tired all the time, you’ll still miss your baby when you’re working, and you’ll still love being able to disconnect from mom life and talk to other grown-ups. Which is why everything else here is so crucial: the structure of how we work might be changed by the pandemic, but at the end of the day, you still have to work and be a mom, all in the same day. You’ll need to do yourself all the favors you can by being strategic about how you approach getting it done and what you ask from your employer and coworkers along the way.