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Real talk: How to cope when you’re going back to work after baby

By Christine Michel Carter

Nearly half of women worry motherhood will negatively impact their career trajectory or leave them unable to advance as quickly as their peers, and 11 years ago, when I first became a mom, I was definitely one of them.  

I gave birth nine weeks earlier than expected. I hadn’t attended infant CPR classes, had a baby shower, or even considered my departure from (or much less return to) work. Luckily, my village was right by my side for most of the challenges. 

Regardless of whether or not I knew women who were able to climb the corporate ladder and raise children simultaneously, I had to fight doubt and become that woman. I had to do it for my daughter and other women like me, who should know of at least one ordinary woman who, when the odds were stacked against her, remained brave for, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, just “five minutes longer.” So, during one 3 AM NICU visit to see my two-pound, twelve-ounce baby girl, I lay in a recliner by her side and devised a post-baby back-to-work strategy. 

Defying Expectations

Almost three-quarters of moms — and more than 70 percent of women without children — say mothers are offered fewer opportunities to move up the ladder than childless women. And those working moms who are interested in being leaders? Well, 82 percent cite barriers keeping them from leadership roles. 

“Not me,” I remember thinking. This plan had to not only allow me to return to work, but it also needed to ensure I would thrive. I remember the sound of my daughter’s heart monitor empowering me; it reinforced my given duty to care for her in every way possible, including financially. I had career goals long before my daughter was even a thought in my mind, and being a mother wasn’t going to end them—it was going to fuel them. Here are some of the steps I took, and what I learned along the way.

1. Make a daily gratitude list.

Why you need it: First of all, a living being just came out of your body. Not only is that a miracle, but it is a very emotional (read: hormonal) experience! Let go of the expectations and practice gratitude—at the end of each day, think of three things you’re thankful for (research shows it might even make you happier). Give yourself some grace when it comes to work. Although you know what you want the end goal to be (#momboss), accept the anxiety around not knowing how you will get to it.

2. Slow down—then slow down even more. 

Why you need it: You will experience a lack of sleep, which will cause a lag in your speed and response time. Expect that you’ll need more time to get yourself and your baby dressed in the morning, a possibly longer commute to work (if you’ll be needing to drop your kiddo at daycare), and more time in meetings to simply comprehend all the information being thrown your way. “This should only take me…” needs to be removed from your vocabulary. In this entire process, you will need time to process

3. Allow yourself to trust yourself. 

Why you need it: Expect more stress at work, because now you’re not only a leader in the workplace, you’re a leader at home, too. You’re a manager everywhere you go, and that’s exhausting. The great thing about being a leader all the time is that you are in command. So you should feel no guilt or doubt about making things happen. You know what needs to be done, so you also have the right to make the tough calls and not allow others to derail your focus. For example, family emergencies are going to happen. If you can’t stand the conviction to leave when such issues occur, your colleagues will take advantage of that fact (by testing you) in professional situations, too.

4. Ease on down the road to efficiency. 

Why you need it: You’ll need to adjust your schedule to accommodate things like doctor’s appointments for your little one and daily breastfeeding (or pumping), if you’re planning to nurse. Perhaps you should even consider a gradual return, slowly increasing your responsibilities. But don’t think of the adjustment as your career conceding to motherhood. Quite the contrary: You’re optimizing your time for efficiency. Make a case for a part-time schedule, flexible hours, remote work, or a combination of those things. Schedule a meeting to speak to your manager about your “heads down” versus “meeting” time, because to be truly productive, you must protect your time for batch work. 

5. Moms do return to the workplace, so find some who understand. 

Why you need it: Whether you have to find someone who became a mother five or fifteen years ago, seek out another mom at work who you trust, and use them as a sounding board. It’s great to socialize with someone who can celebrate and commiserate. After all, the uncertainty of working motherhood doesn’t change just because your child gets older—only the circumstances that cause the uncertainty (a surly teenager can take up as much or more brain space as a surly toddler!).

6. Set some physical and emotional boundaries early. 

Why you need it: You gotta find that one space in the office (and at home) that provides a restful moment to breathe. Where you won’t get asked one. more. Question. It should not be a bathroom stall. You’re going to have to really advocate for this one in male-dominated industries, but this also serves as an emotional boundary because even at work, there are ways to take care of your mental health. Even if you aren’t planning to pump, you will still benefit from having a space where you can take a mental break during the day.

7. Ask for support when you need it. 

Why you need it: It’s comforting to reflect on the days when you had fewer responsibilities, it’s normal to envy your colleagues who don’t have to worry about baby-related issues at work.  But here’s the truth: You will never have that part of your life back. Dwelling on those times will just turn this blessed experience of motherhood into something you resent. Instead, think of all the amazing things you’ve accomplished thus far in your career and for goodness sake, write them down, so you have a list to refer back to. (You know mom brain is real.) 

The bottom line

Perfection is a performance. You are a real working mother, with real needs. You don’t have to go through this experience (any part of it) alone. You are not failing, and you are not weak for needing help. In fact, some mothers have used this time to empower their junior colleagues by giving them more responsibility. (Maybe you don’t need to hop on a plane to present at the same conference for the umpteenth year in a row, but someone else might jump at the chance.) Sometimes, all you can do is simply say to yourself: “I am doing enough. All I can, in fact. Now I need someone to help me go the extra mile.”

By the time my daughter Maya left the hospital NICU, I was more or less properly trained—as much as any new parent can be—and had all the supplies I needed to take care of my baby girl. I’d also (albeit unknowingly) created a comprehensive guide on returning to the workplace after having a baby.

Meet the Author

Christine Michel Carter is the only award-winning global advocate defying the stereotypes and expectations that block ambitious women from having rewarding careers and being badass moms. Christine elevates the honest truths of working motherhood as a Senior ForbesWomen Contributor, the author of the children’s book Can Mommy Go To Work?, and the author of the adult novel MOM AF. She is also a working parents and women’s ERG subject matter expert; employees have ranked her signature mental health talk the best corporate programming event of the year. 

She’s also worked on the maternal initiatives of Vice President Kamala Harris, is an advisory board member for Mom Congress and received a Congressional Citation from the U.S. Senate for going “above and beyond in ensuring that Black Moms and Moms of Color have access to important health information for their children and families.”

Sources:

  1. Motherhood’s impact on women’s career. Bright Horizons. 2018. “MODERN FAMILY INDEX 2018
  2. Gratitude lists and happiness. Harvard Health Publishing. 2021. “Giving thanks can make you happier.
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