The last thing you might want to do is go back to work after having your baby. Your maternity leave was likely too short. And it’s very likely you’re still exhausted — and very upset to be leaving your little one.
According to Allyson Downey in her information-packed book, Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenting, one woman said: “I felt like I was leaving a part of my soul at daycare every day.” Another woman’s husband had to drop their baby off at daycare because, if she did, she’d be a wreck the entire day.
Or maybe you’re more than ready to return to your job. Maybe you’re even excited because you’ve missed working and you loved your work (or you need to get out of the house — whatever the reason). Either way, there’s a lot to figure out and some challenges to navigate. In Here’s the Plan Downey, an entrepreneur and founder of weeSpring, provides thoughtful and specific guidance to working mothers. Below are some of those valuable insights.
Focus on the right things at work
HR strategy consultant Rachael Ellison told Downey that when she’s working with new moms, she asks them “to identify what value they bring to the table beyond being an endurance worker.” Because the endurance part might be tougher with a new baby at home. Instead, it’s more helpful to identify your greatest strengths and how these strengths distinguish you from others. This helps you make sure that you’re concentrating on the right things.
Also helpful is a tip Fran Hauser, president of digital at Time Inc. received from her executive coach: Pinpoint the two or three things you need to be focusing on, which “really move the needle.” Then every Friday, take an “airplane view” of the upcoming week. That is, make sure that what’s on your calendar ties back to your most important tasks. And don’t forget to look back and acknowledge what you’ve accomplished — which likely is more than you think.
Hauser also carves out 90 minutes on several mornings each week for “thinking time.” This is when she contemplates questions such as: “What’s next? Is there a major trend we’re not paying attention to?”
Expect the unexpected
According to Downey, when you have a baby, “there are countless things that can completely throw off your day.” This might be anything from a sick baby who can’t go to daycare, to a babysitter with a broken-down car, to a baby who needs to see the doctor.
One way to deal with the unexpected is to have a backup plan for your backup plan when it comes to childcare. Can friends and family step in? Do you have a backup sitter?
If you need to skip a meeting and you’re dealing with someone who isn’t a close colleague, one woman told Downey to be apologetic but vague: “I’ve had an unavoidable conflict come up. I apologize for the short notice. Can we reschedule for _________?”
Be strategic about sleep (or lack thereof)
The real problem for new moms isn’t sleep deprivation. It’s actually sleep “fragmentation.” New moms don’t get enough consecutive sleep. That is, our sleep happens in 90-minute cycles. The most important (and restorative) part is at the end: REM sleep. New moms tend to get interrupted so they don’t reach REM — and when they go back to sleep, the sleep cycle starts all over again.
Lack of sleep affects your frontal lobe, making it harder for you to express yourself clearly at work and to remember colleagues’ names. It also impairs your focus and ability to make simple decisions. When her daughter was 6 months old, Downey spent 20 minutes in the soap aisle at Target paralyzed by all the options.
If you have a partner, ask him or her to take care of one bottle-feeding every night, which will give you several continuous, uninterrupted cycles. If you’re a single parent, can your baby spend one night a week at grandma and grandpa’s house?
At work, write things down. Set reminders on your computer and smartphone for everything from project deadlines to meeting dates. If you need to remember specific details in a meeting, consider recording it (most smartphones come with a recording option). When it’s possible, try to schedule meetings and calls for the times you’re most aware and alert. (For many people this tends to be the morning.)
Most importantly, Downey writes, “offer yourself a little self-compassion.” Giving birth and being a mom are incredibly difficult. Don’t expect yourself to return to work as though you never left in the first place. You’ve experienced a major change in your body and in your life. Try to be patient with yourself. Reflect on the challenges that arise and try to come up with strategic solutions — without blaming or shaming yourself. You’re doing the best you can. You really are.