When I was nearing the end of my maternity leave, the thought of leaving my new baby, who was now old enough to flash me these heartwarming gummy smiles, killed me. How could I possibly pump enough milk to feed him? How would I not make an idiot of myself on the job, when I was getting only four hours of sleep a night?
I realized that this going-back-to-work thing was going to be hard. Maybe even harder than what I’d just gone through. And if I—a person who had a stellar partner, a decent-paying job, a fair boss, and a supportive work environment—felt this ambivalent about looming working motherhood, surely millions of other working women did too.
Having consulted with countless experts and other moms, I hope that what I’ve learned will help you manage your own expectations. The biggest takeaway: Don’t have too many. Just assume that your first day back is going to be a running-mascara, bra-pads-soaked, pants-too-tight, insensitive-coworker-comments kind of day—and it might not be that bad!
“Do your best not to judge yourself, no matter what your feelings are,” says Sarah Best, a psychotherapist specializing in reproductive and maternal health. And remember that tomorrow (or, okay, tomorrow’s tomorrow) will be better.
Throughout maternity leave, you’ve probably been sweating the small stuff: You’re timing your infant’s naps on an app, moving a safety pin from one side of your bra to the other to remember which breast you nursed from last, and planning your hair washes around the timing of the Mozart ditty played by the vibrating bouncy chair. So when you think about what went on back at work during your leave, it’s only natural that you’ll imagine countless “important” details of calls missed and memos unseen.
Forget about the minor stuff now. Instead, focus on the small handful of VIMTs (Very Important Missed Things), and you’ll be back up to speed at work in a matter of days. What is a VIMT?
A new colleague at your level or above
A major new client—or one that’s being wooed
A game-changing new HR policy (like the glorious pumping room they installed, hopefully!) or a shift in the way your workplace conducts its annual reviews
A scandal large enough that it made industry news outside of your actual workplace The recalibration of resources (people or money) that affects one of your projects
Rescheduling of a major deadline
The emergence of a new competitor in your industry
Your coworkers will assume you know the VIMTs already, so treat the first few days back like a listening tour. Schedule a quick catch-up with your boss(es), as well as immediate colleagues, any important underlings, and anyone who’s new to the staff.
Here’s how many of those meetings will go:
Them: Welcome back! We missed you! How are you feeling? How is the baby? Can I see pictures? Do you miss her sooooooo much?
You: Of course...um, hang on, wait, I’m trying to find some pictures on my phone where we’re both appropriately clothed.
Them: Coo, coo, coo, etc., etc., etc.
You: So, can you fill me in on what happened with the Peterson trial while I was out?
Them: Oh, sure!
And then you get the fill-in. Every time they ask a baby question, you ask a help-me-not-look-clueless question. It’s a dance, an exhausting but informative tango. Generally speaking, people will feel very generous on your first days back. You’re relieving them of the work they’d taken over for you, and many colleagues are just glad you didn’t quit entirely.
You want help finding your special ergonomic desk chair that went missing while you were gone? Ask for help with that. You need to claim a chunk of the intern’s time every day? Ask. It’s going to be a quick honeymoon, and then it will be business as usual.
Congratulations. At work, you are now officially a Person With a Personal Life. Everyone knows you had sex. You made a baby. There’s a good chance there’s milk being made in your breasts and that you’re wearing little round pads in your bra to keep it from leaking all over your clothes. I’m not telling you this to make the transition harder; I’m suggesting that you embrace a new kind of transparancy. Or roll with it, at least.
If you’re uncomfortable marching around the office with your breast pump, or you have to excuse yourself from a meeting to answer an urgent text from the day care, know this: You’re making things easier for all the moms who come after you. Of course, you have to use your own best judgment about how much of your mommyhood to bring to work with you. If you’re in a work environment where you couldn’t dream of mentioning a sleepless night, let alone bring in your baby, I feel for you. I also respect you if you can grit your teeth and get through it with enough satisfaction.
A lot of women have told me that they brought their baby into work just once to meet their colleagues while they were still on maternity leave. That’s a smart move: There’s just something about seeing someone with a baby that makes you realize how capable they are. It always made me laugh when someone who previously couldn’t change the toner cartridge in the printer could now unswaddle a baby, collapse a stroller, and give me a hug at the same time.
How the hell will you juggle everything? You just will. That time at home with your newborn—when you learned to be completely responsible for keeping this brand new human being alive, fed, well, clean, and safe around the clock, in three-hour intervals—has trained you well. Now it’s your job to capitalize on your new abilities and use them.
As I’ve learned, if you want something done well and fast and reasonably, you should give it to the busiest mom.