Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return and creator of the Mindful Return Course, a 4-week online program that helps women make the transition back to work after maternity leave. She is also the author of the book Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, which will be published in early 2017. A partner in the health care group at Dentons US LLP, she is also mama to two beautiful red-headed boys.
Imagine for a moment: you are pregnant and completely giddy about the prospect of becoming mom to a beautiful new baby. (And yes, of course, exhausted and you have crazy amounts of heartburn.)
Or you just recently brought a precious new life into the world, and time stands still while you’re gazing into those baby eyes, smitten with love. (And fatigue.)
And imagine you’ve had, to this point, a career with an upward trajectory. You work hard, take pride in your progress, have built a solid professional reputation, and you’re passionate about your job. You intend to return to the office when your maternity leave ends. But you’re just not quite sure how all of this is going to work out.
“WAIT!”, you say. That’s not imaginary. That’s me.
Twice, I was where you are – pregnant, on maternity leave, and then back at work at a full-time job. And after kiddo #2, I admit, I lost it. One baby + 1 toddler felt like 85 children, no one was sleeping, and I was feeling remarkably overwhelmed. I was trying to take on the world, be a good parent and partner, and succeed on zero sleep. Something had to get thrown out the window. (Namely, perfectionism.)
When I went back to work after maternity leave both times, I was working for an association with over 500 employees, where plenty of women had gone out on and come back from maternity leave. Yet no one was talking about how tough the transition back to work was. Women would come into my office, shut the door, and vent. Cry. Fume. And I was inspired both to create a new parent group at my office and to do something to make this transition easier for women everywhere.
Why, I wondered, was there a course out there for everything from how to make a birth plan, to how to puree baby food, to doing postnatal yoga, but not a structured curriculum to help women plan for and return to work after maternity leave in a calm and empowered way?
After a good deal of thought, research, and joining communities of similarly-situated mothers, I figured out a framework for how to approach maternity leave and return that leaves new mothers empowered rather than anxious. Confident rather than confused. And grateful rather than overwhelmed. In other words, pretty much the opposite of how I did it.
If you are a new mom, planning to head back to work after baby, here are the four steps I recommend you take to put your maternity leave and return on a much more thoughtful, mindful, and calm trajectory:
- Spend time and energy getting your head in the right place.
Starting while you’re pregnant (though it’s never too late to begin), explore what fills you up. Journal about it. Play around with a daily gratitude practice to see if you notice a difference in how you view your days. Try meditating for 3-5 minutes at a time using an app like Insight Timer.
I write down five things I’m grateful for each night, and sleep tends to come more easily. I use my shower every morning as a time to recharge, and I use the acronym “ISS” (like “is”, a form of “to be”) to remind myself to set an Intention, Stretch, and Savor the wonderful hot water, and being alone for a few minutes.
Once you figure out what works for you, start a practice of micro-self care that you commit to doing EVERY DAY. Micro, I note, because really, after baby arrives, it’s hard to get more than a few minutes to yourself…but even those few minutes make a huge difference.
- Learn the logistics.
Start thinking about what you’ll need to do each night to get out the door to work in the morning. Pace your child care option exploration throughout your pregnancy. (I visited one daycare center per month, for example.) If you are breastfeeding or planning to, read up on pumping at work tips, and block off pumping time NOW on your work calendar. Talk to your partner about how you’ll juggle sick days, snow days, and the inevitable unexpected. Create a maternity leave plan at work, and be conscientious about knowledge transfer and leaving your projects in good hands. Explore phased-in return and flexible work options for when you’re back.
- Turn your leave into a leadership opportunity.
I know, you’re probably saying “What?! Leadership? You can’t be serious!” But indeed, I mean it. Think about how you can view your leave other than as a pause in your career. Can your leave present an opportunity to grow your team and evolve your own role? Are there ways to take credit during annual review season for a well-planned leave and return? Are you gaining skills as a new parent (say, amazing problem-solving abilities, prioritizing, rolling with the punches) that are valuable in your workplace? Can you communicate these to newfound superpowers to your colleagues and supervisors?
You CAN still have a successful career and a powerful impact on the working world, mama, even if your leadership might look different from how you used to imagine it.
- Find your people.
Community matters. When I went back to work after leave, there was an unspoken rule that I wasn’t supposed to talk about how hard it was. Or that I was struggling. Or that I had changed and grown as a person and employee. As I said, there were plenty of other women in my office who had gone on maternity leave and returned, and yet I felt isolated.
When I founded a “Returning to Work Community” at my office that met monthly for lunch and connected through a Google+ group, I thrived on having a regular opportunity to share experiences and advice. More than anything, it’s been connecting to other returning-to-work mamas who have made the difference in my life.
So my advice is to reach out. To connect. To find other women in your community who can say “me too.”
Yes, parenthood comes with unknowns and overwhelm that can make going back to work after leave seem terrifying. But there are also ways to plan a thoughtful and mindful maternity leave and return. AND there are legions of new working mamas out there who are eager to support you through it.
Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return and creator of the Mindful Return Course, a 4-week online program that helps women make the transition back to work after maternity leave. The next session of the course begins Monday, March 5. She is also the author of the book Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, which will be published in early 2017. A partner in the health care group at Dentons US LLP, she is also mama to two beautiful red-headed boys (ages 2 and 4).