Thriving in the New Normal//

Returning to Work When You’re Still at Home

Five tips for keeping your sanity when returning to work from a pandemic maternity leave.

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In the darkness and exhaustion of 3 A.M. feedings as a new mom, I would often dream about being back at work: sitting at my desk, sipping iced coffee with my headphones on and even wearing a dress!

And yet, the first time I went back to work from maternity leave, I cried all the way to work on the train the first day. I cried all the way home on the second day, and I didn’t cry at all on the third day… until I randomly cried again over the weekend.

All of this is to say, working motherhood and returning to work has always been an all-the-feels situation. As mothers of pandemic babies know, returning to work when we’re still at home has only brought new challenges and more feelings. It’s never been harder to be a working mom, so here are five tips for returning to work when you’re still at home:

#1. Get Serious About Scheduling

One of the best things you can do is create a schedule and stick to it. What is your care arrangement like, and what hours, accordingly, will you be working? Pumping? Caretaking? Get clear about when you’re available and not available, and educate colleagues through conversations and visible calendar blocking.

Creating a schedule is important for two reasons: First, it puts you in control. Second, in our stretched-too-thin world, structure is our conduit to agility. It’s a lot easier to regroup from a plan that got sidetracked than to reinvent the plan every single day from scratch. Importantly, if you want people to respect your schedule, then you need to respect your schedule. If you’re joining calls and writing emails when you said you’re not available, people will continue to expect you to be on-call at that time. People respect your schedule when you respect your schedule.

#2. Rethink Self Care

I’m not trying to stress you out if you’ve been bottle feeding and changing diapers for months instead of reading the news, but it’s kind of bleak out there for working parents. Working moms are burned out, and an estimated 2.2 million of us have left the workforce. That’s why I need you to rethink your self-care time, and I won’t mince words: daily self-care is not a luxury; it is an urgent professional priority if you care about your career and well-being. Research from the Harvard Business School shows that those who take even “micro-moments” of self-care — 30-60 seconds at a time — have both higher performance and higher happiness ratings.

DAILY SELF-CARE IS NOT A LUXURY; IT IS AN URGENT PROFESSIONAL PRIORITY.

Here’s where self-care gets especially tricky: you have to work for this and plan for this. Pre-pandemic, we working moms used to gripe about our commutes, daycare drop off, getting home to meet the nanny… But nearly a year later, the #1 thing I hear from moms about self-care is that they miss that time in their car or on the train to listen to music and podcasts, read, catch up with friends or just sit in silence. You will not take this time if you do not schedule this time. Make it just as important as every other meeting on your calendar, even if it’s five minutes a day.

#3. Have Catch-Up Coffees… and Bring Your Little One for a Cameo

Without watercooler moments, we all have to be more thoughtful than ever about connecting —and reconnecting — with our colleagues. Although it’s tempting to jump back into the actual work of working, don’t underestimate the impact of carving out social time with colleagues you haven’t seen in a few months.

Gallup research shows that workplace friendships reduce our stress levels, increase our productivity, enhance our performance and increase our fulfillment work — four things absolutely essential for moms returning to work. As an added bonus, asking people how they’ve been doing over an informal catch-up is actually a great way to get up to speed informally: you’re likely to get much better intel on both the mood and moves inside the organization. Lastly, working parenthood has never been more humanized or normalized, so do consider bringing your little one for a cameo appearance. If you’re like 99% of parents out there, he or she will probably make a cameo sooner or later on a future call anyway, so might as well make the first one on your own terms.

#4. Set Mini Goals

As working moms, we’ve been fed a story that if we’re not doing it all, we’re doing it wrong. As one of my clients recently said to me, “I feel like I’ve been waiting for my working-mom-superpowers to kick in, and I just realized that’s never going to happen.”

We can’t humanly do it all, so what do we want to do? Let’s focus less on being perfect-on-paper and more on doing the things that will grow our careers while growing our families in ways that are authentically meaningful to us. That requires taking time to set intentional goals and then getting crystal clear about your mini goals: what we will say “yes” to and what we will say “no” to. Bonus points if you can make these mini goals really simple. For one of my lawyer-mom clients, her mini goal when returning to her demanding and unpredictable job was as simple as “yes” to kissing her kids goodnight. Consider what you need to say “yes” and “no” to at home and at work to achieve your goals. At times, these may come into conflict, but when you keep them mini and specific, you’re much more likely to avoid falling down the existential, mom-guilt rabbit hole.

#5. Cut yourself some slack— but actually. 

This one sounds so simple, but as working moms, we are so hard on ourselves. Being a working mom has always been hard, returning to work has always been a challenging and emotional transition and the pandemic has been crushing. Put them all together, and it’s a recipe for stress and self-doubt.

We know we should cut ourselves some slack, but how do we actually do it? I recommend asking yourself a simple question: where am I judging myself in a COVID-19 world by pre-COVID-19 metrics and expectations? One of the biggest ways we can cut ourselves slack is to first recognize where we’re heaping on the self-judgment. This is the difference between surviving and thriving.

As working moms, we often think about ourselves in relation to others. Just look at our name, working moms. We’re defined as a group by our relationship to our work and our kids. As you look back over this list, you’ll notice that each of the five tips puts you at the center. As you return to work, remember that prioritizing your needs and reclaiming your goals will make you a less stressed, more impactful and more fulfilled working mom.


Randi Braun is an executive coach, consultant, speaker and the founder of Something Major

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