I remember the exact moment it happened. It was 2013 and I was in Penn Station with a colleague just before the morning rush hour. We were waiting to take the train to a client meeting — one that promised to be, for many reasons, terrible. On top of that, several projects at the firm were in overdrive, requiring too many early mornings and late nights than I’d like to admit. At the time, I chalked it up to it just being a busy time at the agency. But looking back, I was burnt out, and too proud to admit it and ask for help.
I was also pregnant with my first child. Very pregnant.
As I sat waiting for the train, it hit me. Soon, I’d be a working mother, and I wouldn’t be able to grind in the same way I was used to. Clearly, I knew the baby was coming, but the gravity of what it would mean to have a new child and work full-time really hadn’t occurred to me until that moment. How could I possibly return to work in the same capacity after having my son? How on earth could I do everything I was doing before, but with fewer hours in the day and more responsibilities (in and out) of the office? How in the hell was I going to make this work? How does anyone make this work?
Then, the floodgates opened just in time to board the train.
Six years and two kids later, I still think about that day and how it marked my new identity as a working parent. The client meeting was as bad as expected, but thankfully, my return to work was not.
As it turns out, with a little planning, personal reflection, and support from family, friends, bosses and colleagues, the transition worked, and dare I say, was fairly seamless. Here are some critical learnings:
- Establish new boundaries. No two babies or families are the same. What worked for a colleague or friend may not work for you. As you get to know your little one and his/her dynamic in your family, think long and hard about what you need to do in order to maintain a healthy work/life balance. Maybe it’s more flexibility in your schedule. Or a periodic work-from-home arrangement. Or no work email during your evening routine. Once those boundaries are set and agreed to by your employer, live by them.
- Plan for the unexpected. There was one harsh reality of returning to work that I was not prepared for. Your kids will get sick. A lot. During really inconvenient times. Like when you’re leaving for a business trip, or on the day your client has a major launch you’ve been planning for six months. You’ll learn fun new words like coxsackie and nebulizer. Don’t be caught unprepared. Consider scenarios like this that might arise before you return to work and establish alternative care plans for the times you just can’t be there. And for the times you can, always be there. Always.
- Email can be your enemy. During my 12-week leave, I disconnected from work completely (my choice). My first few weeks back to work felt like a blurry, alternate reality. I found it difficult to jump back in having lost valuable day-to-day context amid the flood of emails now piling into my inbox. Ultimately, I tried to catch-up through old emails. The more and more I read, the more overwhelmed I was, and the slower my re-entry into office life became.When I returned to work after having my daughter 2.5 years later, I made a completely different choice. This time, I archived all emails that came in during my maternity leave, starting fresh from day one. Having meetings with both clients and account teams in the first few days back in lieu of email dumpster-diving gave me a much clearer picture of what was happening and where my time was needed. With this approach, I was back in action faster, and more productive as a result.
- Accept help. There are times where you simply cannot do it all, especially in the early days back. Ask for help when you need an extra set of hands and accept help when it’s offered to you (in and out of the office). You may be surprised how willing people are to step in. My team operated without me for months, and during that time, developed valuable skills that allowed them to grow in their roles and take on higher-level work in my absence. Challenging my teams to continue owning those projects following my return created opportunities for their advancement and allowed me to focus on the things only I could do. We became a better team because of it.
Returning to work after having a baby is an experience in and of itself. But what feels unimaginable at first gets better and better with each day – and then magically, somehow, it all becomes normal. It’s a new normal, of course, but settling back in happens faster than you’d think. Be easy on yourself and remember that it’s okay to cry on those tough days — even at Penn Station.