Parental Leave: What to Expect When You Return to Work

Maternity Leave Part 2: What to Expect When You Return to WorkPlease welcome back guest writer Jennifer Warren, attorney and Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law, to discuss some strategies for a smooth transition when returning to work following parental leave.

Life as a first time parent is filled with questions and uncertainty. Am putting this baby wrap on correctly? How much should the baby be eating? Is that a rash? Is this normal? Will I ever sleep/go to the bathroom by myself/finish an entire television show again? Babies change and develop so rapidly, especially during the first few months, that it seems like there is always something new and unexpected around the corner. What you can expect, however, is that eventually your parental leave will end, and you will need to return to work. If, like me, you live in a state without any parental leave laws other than the Family Medical Leave Act, that means you could be returning to work as early as six weeks after the birth of your baby (or sooner). Whether you’re returning to work after a few weeks, a few months, or even a full year, resuming your professional life as a new parent can be a difficult transition. Everyone will face different challenges depending on their work requirements, financial situation, and family support, but there are a few common scenarios that you can expect to encounter upon returning to work from parental leave.

Expect a Smoother Transition if You Prepared in Advance

To the extent you can, give yourself some time to ease into your return to work. Prior to starting your leave, look ahead to see if there are any deadlines or large projects that will be due within the first few weeks of your return and try to get them completed (or at least started) before you leave. It will likely be hard enough getting through your first few days back at the office without also having to worry about a briefing deadline or a trial date that’s right around the corner.

Expect Mixed Emotions

Returning to work may not only be logistically complicated, but also emotionally complicated. In the days leading up to the end of my maternity leave, I felt sad about leaving my baby for so long every day, worried that no one could care for him as well as I could, and deeply guilty. (Prepare yourself: the guilt gets easier to cope with, but it never really goes away.) At the same time, I also found myself looking forward to reentering a world where I was able to converse with adults on a regular basis and quietly enjoy a cup of coffee while working at my desk. Of course, my secret eagerness to resume work only made me feel guiltier! Now that I have more perspective, I’ve realized that most working parents have mixed emotions about their situation. Expect to have some complicated and perhaps not totally rational feelings about returning to work and don’t be too critical of yourself. Trust that you are making the right choices for your family and have faith that it will work out in the end.

Expect a New Routine

Getting out the door in the morning will not be the same now that you have a baby in tow. Nor, for that matter, will pretty much anything else about your pre-baby work day. Expect a new routine and think about what you will need to change about your day in order to accomplish all of your tasks. How will get yourself ready while also tending to baby in the morning? Does your commute need to change now that you have to stop at a daycare on your way to work? If you’re breastfeeding, how will you plan your day to fit in pumping sessions? Do you need to improve your efficiency or productivity during the work day in order to leave the office on time? Plan out your new routine and make tweaks along the way until it works best for you. Your routine may be a bit more rigid than your previous schedule, but it will soon become your new normal.

Expect Sick Days

I know from firsthand experience that kids get sick, a lot! And they often seem to get sick on the day when you have a deposition or a court hearing or some other task that would be really difficult to reschedule. It’s inevitable that there will come a time when you’re debating with your partner at 6 am about who will stay home with the sick baby or who should be the one to sneak out of the office after receiving a call from the daycare. These moments will be stressful, but in the long run they will be easier to cope with once you accept that it’s going to happen at some point and that it’s essentially out of your control.

Expect Changes at the office

Hopefully you work in a supportive, family-friendly office that will gladly allow you to resume contributing to meaningful projects while appreciating that your schedule may require some increased flexibility. But, unfortunately, that’s usually not the case. Many new parents, and particularly women, feel that they are treated differently after becoming a parent. They may sense that they are not being allowed to work on important projects or that they are not being fairly compensate. Even if you do work in a supportive office, you will likely experience some changes in your duties and schedule as you transition back to work. Seek out advice from colleagues who have already made the parenthood journey so you know what to expect and stand up for yourself when necessary.

Expect to be Overwhelmed

There will likely be many days where you feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a full time employee and a full time parent. Cut yourself some slack, and don’t hesitate to take advantage of anything that will make your life a little easier during the first few weeks (I paid someone to mow my grass for a few weeks and it was the best money I ever spent). There will definitely be some really tough days as you transition back to work, but there will also be great days, both personally and professionally. Focus on the good days and do your best to let the bad days go.

While these are a few of the typical challenges you can expect to encounter when you return to work from parental leave, you also have to expect the unexpected. Parenthood is a unique journey for every person, so anticipate for lots of changes and new challenges along the way!

For more helpful advice, check out these articles:


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About Jennifer Warren

Jennifer received her B.A. in Politics cum laude from New York University and her J.D. with highest distinction from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She has several years of experience in the areas of juvenile law and civil litigation and is the Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law.

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