Tips for Returning to Work After Having a Baby
By Alaina Tweddale
For a new mother, resuming a career can be a challenge, particularly when her body is healing, household responsibilities are shifting and work keeps piling up. Plus, according to Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester: A Guide for New Moms Going Back to Work, to be published by Doubleday in spring 2017, “For most people, jobs aren’t optional.”
How, then, can women best recalibrate and navigate the return to work after giving birth for the first time?
Understand the Biology
Most women don’t even start to recover emotionally and physically for at least six months after delivering a baby, according to Smith Brody’s research. In part it’s because they’re exhausted (the average baby doesn’t sleep through the night until seven months of age), but it’s also because women often return to work before they’re physically healed.
The good news is that many managers don’t expect new mothers to make their most impressive career contributions during those first months after maternity leave. “You just have to get through it,” said Smith Brody. “You don’t have to ace it.”
Even so, many women do ace it. Since starting a family, Carolyn Vipond, a marketing director from Chester County, Pennsylvania, has become more focused and doesn’t procrastinate on deadlines.
“I’m too afraid my daughter will be sick that day if I wait until the last minute,” she said. “Now, I’m super focused. I have the mentality it takes to make sure I can fit it all in during the day.”
At the same time, she had to set limits.
“The day care closes at a certain time, and babies need to be fed and put to bed early,” Vipond said. “As much as I could, I wouldn’t schedule calls for after 5 p.m., at least not until my daughter got a little older.”
“You learn to say no,” said Smith Brody. “For every new assignment and new opportunity that comes up, you’re constantly weighing the benefits. Is this something that’s an investment in my future promotion? Or is this something I’m doing because I’m in the habit of saying yes?”
Divvy Up the Home Work
How can families figure out how best to divide household and child care responsibilities once Mom goes back to work? “When women really crack is when they’re primarily responsible for the second shift, the one that happens at home,” Smith Brody said.
Perfecting the balance takes trial and error. Vipond and her husband—who both travel periodically for work—made an agreement that they would never travel at the same time, so that one parent is always available in case of emergency at the day care.
“I had to be honest about not being able to juggle it all and ask my husband to step in,” Vipond said. “You prioritize and figure out what’s important. I’m still not on top of the laundry five years later, but who is?” she said with a laugh.
“Nothing is set in stone,” she added, noting that she and her husband have taken turns with their focus on career during the past five years.
Most important, said Smith Brody, is that partners make time for each other, particularly when life is hectic. “Whether it’s a one-minute conversation or a ‘let’s turn off the TV and have a heart-to-heart,’” she said, “you have to connect at least once a day.”
Pay It Forward
Whether or not you’re in a position to bring about policy change, women with seniority can influence cultural transformation in the workplace.
“Once you’re in a leadership role, you can show other women that the balance is possible,” said Smith Brody. “You can be understanding if someone needs to take a child to the doctor or be aware of what time of night you’re sending out emails.”
It’s not just other women in the office who are watching. Vipond wants her two young daughters to know that they, too, can successfully manage career and family if they choose to do so. Vipond’s five-year-old wants to be a fashion designer, a singer and a mom when she grows up.
“She can do all that,” said Vipond. “She gets it.”
Alaina Tweddale is a freelance business writer whose work has appeared on MSN Money, Time.com, Business Insider and Motley Fool, among others.
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.