Grown-Up Reads

How to Not Lose Your Mind Going Back to Work Post-Baby

by Lauren Smith Brody

Photo credit: Cultura RM Exclusive/Frank Van Delft, Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

I’m an optimist, and for the most part I thank my lucky stars for whatever gift of nature or nurture gave me my default sunny outlook on life. It’s come in handy as a parent, with one notable exception: My first weeks returning to work post-baby.

In those head-spinning days, my too-high expectations bit me in the butt. Years later, however — and here’s the positive spin — they inspired me to survey and interview 800+ other moms about their experiences. These were women with all approaches to career and family. CEOs and shift-workers. Adoptive moms of three, and single moms by choice. Women who wanted to work and women who had to work, and a whole lot of women who found themselves somewhere in the middle.

The result is my new book, The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby. Success, of course, is however you define it. And it starts with pushing back against some of the expectations we’ve been conditioned to have for ourselves. Here are three biggies for postpartum moms returning to work:

EXPECTATION #1:

My old pre-pregnancy work clothes will be fine. A bit tight in the waist, maybe … but fine.

REALITY:

Well, you’re right about those clothes being tight — on average the women I surveyed didn’t feel normal-ish physically until 5.5 months after birth, when most had already been back at work for months. But that’s not even the biggest issue: You may also find that your clothes need to be more stealthily functional than ever, accommodating spit-up attacks as you’re on your way out the door, potential milk leaks that need to be hidden ASAP, easy access for pumping, and a commute home that has zero time for hobbling in heels. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that you’ve got fewer minutes than ever in the morning. Typically, women reported spending more time on the morning routine, but far less on themselves as most of that time was dedicated to baby care. A handful of solutions:

  • Buy a few new pieces in your temporary size. If you stick to neutral colors like navy and black, you can absolutely get away with buying cheapies.
  • Make a mini closet within your closet. Eliminate the stress (and time suck) of standing there staring at all of the things that won’t work by cordoning off a little section of go-to pieces that fit and work for work right now. You can add to them as more things start to fit.
  • Lean on your accessories. Your earrings and bags still fit … and they can make you feel great even if you’re wearing the simplest, least-expensive clothes with them.

EXPECTATION #2:

My husband is evolved and awesome and will be my partner 50/50 in all of the home duties now that we’re both back at work.

REALITY:

That would be so great. And it should be the goal. But getting there can take time — and that’s no reflection on the quality of your partnership. The simple truth is that in our culture (and indeed in much of the rest of the world, too) women take more parental leave than men do. Couple that with our current generational need to be The Best at Everything, and there’s a good chance that you’ve spent your maternity leave becoming your home’s resident pro at all things baby. Fast forward to your Fifth Trimester, and suddenly both you and your partner arrive home in tandem at the end of the workday … and your second job begins. If Dad doesn’t know how to help, you’re left shouldering the burden, or grumpily teaching him everything through the charmingly gritted teeth of resentment (where is the emoji for that that face, by the way?). Here’s help:

  • Learn some bit of babycare together — something that’s new to both of you. The truth is (lactation aside), your partner is capable of just about everything you are when it comes to caring for and loving that baby. To drive this point home, experience the bonding fun/terror of learning at least one bit of it together. Being newbies together at something like an infant CPR class helps build trust, empathy, and excitement.
  • Ask for the help you need both physically and emotionally. Dads want you to ask them. They just might not know what to offer. Want a cup of water every time you pump? Want to hear him say the words “you are a great mother” at least once a day? Ask. He will be happy you did, and — just as important — you will be happy you did.
  • Spend at least a little time together just the two of you. My research showed, conclusively, it doesn’t have to be much. The couples who spent four hours together on a candlelit date-night complete with a sitter and wine reported the same level of satisfaction as those who spent one baby-free hour a week on the couch holding hands, watching “Shark Tank.” The key was that one hour. It was vital, and the couples that didn’t have it fought more and grew less.

EXPECTATION #3:

If I ask my boss for a different schedule or change of duties, everyone will assume I’m slacking off.

REALITY:

Only if you act like you’re asking for an accommodation. This is so key: What you’re asking for is a good thing, and it’s your job to show that these changes will actually allow you to get your job done more efficiently and effectively … benefitting not just you but your boss and the greater company, too! Sounds great, but how? Like this:

  • Come with a clear, simple plan that anticipates your supervisor’s concerns. Spell out (in one page or less — that’s key, this shouldn’t look too complicated), exactly how you intend to maintain your “deliverables.” How will you continue to deliver the same amount and quality of work as before? And if one of those deliverables is mentoring or teambuilding or putting out fires in real time, how will you make yourself available to do those things?
  • Do your research. It’s your job to know what your employer offers officially of course. But also look for other precedents that have been set by employees with varying personal needs and investigate what benefits are given by other competing companies. Even if theirs aren’t better, you can make a case for helping your employer become a leader in this arena, impacting recruitment, retention, and reputation in the field.
  • Agree to re-meet. Put a date on the calendar to check in about how your new arrangement is going. This can help your boss feel at ease that he or she isn’t committing to forever. And, you may find that your own needs change as your baby gets bigger. This gives you an opportunity to reassess what kind of flexibility you need most in real time.