It was mid-January 2018 when I returned to work after my four-month maternity leave. In January, in Boston, on a commuter rail. Talk about the doldrums.
I knew I was privileged to have a great job, and to have enjoyed had (I can’t say “enjoyed”) a full 16 weeks of paid leave, which–despite being pretty pathetic compared to what workers in peer nations enjoy – is far better than many of my friends and clients have had.
On a commuter rail, you typically see the same people over and over. You never really get to know them, but they are regular characters in your life. And riding at the front of my go-to train car each weekday morning on the inbound Haverhill line were a father and baby. Watching them giggle together amid the cold, gray sludge, a full 8+-hour workday ahead of me, just after I’d dropped off my own (crying) daughter at daycare, was a precious little pain that I love-hated each morning. I’d scroll through photos of my daughter on my phone the entire trip to North Station. On one of those trips, I penned this poem, which I called “Working Mother”:
Yesterday's mascara stays barnacled to her lower eyelids,
Keeping her sleepy, foggy.
A bug-eyed baby, gum-cheeked at the front of the car, coos--
And her insides origami.
She thumbs through fuzzy photos on her phone,
Another, another, another.
Reception's bad on this stretch
Now I run a company that helps parents feel supported throughout the journey of parenthood. What did I need at that time? A longer parental leave? (yes) A shoulder to cry on? (yes, which I found in the communal pumping room with the small group of other newly-returned working mothers) A stronger fortitude, to gather up more of a “keep strong and carry on” mentality? No, I don’t think so. I needed an expert to coach me through the challenges, but I didn’t find one–or really, even look for one.
I needed Tina Unrue, though I didn’t know that people like her existed until I started working in the parent-support space myself. Tina is a parent coach on Nessle, who specializes in coaching mothers through the ups and downs of transitioning into parenthood, balancing work and life demands, dealing with “mom-guilt,” and drawing boundaries that help you live the life you desire.
I chatted with Tina the other day on our podcast, Nessle Together - A Parenting Podcast, and (as every conversation with her is), it was healing and uplifting. I’m sharing here her key takeaways about the topic of “returning to work after parental leave,” but I hope you’ll give the full episode a listen.
Parental leave preparation can (and should) begin as soon as you start sharing news of the pregnancy with coworkers. Schedule a meeting with your HR department to understand how parental leave works at your company. If you’re the birthing parent, scope out your pumping room ahead of time, even if you’re not sure if breastfeeding is going to be happening when you return to work. Draft an easy-to-follow list of hyperlinks or an outline of where important information or “FAQs” you always seem to answer are located, so that no one bothers you while you’re out on leave. Talk with your manager about a possible ease-back-in transition when leave ends, such as by working from home more than usual, or with shorter days.
Some folks, as Tina reminds us–actually want to stay connected to work, as though that tether helps them stay connected to who they are. If that sounds like you, find a minimal-effort way to stay in touch, such as designating one team member who will reach out to you with a set regularity for updates, or dedicating time to big-picture thinking about your business every now and then, during a time when you’re sure to have a completely different perspective.
That was NOT me. And if that’s not you, here’s your permission slip to cut the cord and head into familial hibernation for the full duration of your leave. I remember texting my dear coworker Maryann (now Nessle’s Head of CX) a week into my maternity leave to ask how the Lucerne meeting had gone. Mercifully, she was like: Close your computer. It’s not legal for companies to give you work while you’re out on official leave, and as much as you think you’ll be “behind” when you return, you won’t be. Or rather, you will be, but that’s expected and totally fine. Put that OOO auto-responder up (or schedule it ahead of time based on when you expect to have your last in-office day). Something like this:
Thank you for your message!
I am out of office on maternity leave and expect to return on <<WEEK YOU EXPECT TO BE BACK IN THE REAL SWING OF THINGS>>. Please re-send your message at that time. If you have more urgent needs or questions in the meantime, please contact my colleague <<PERSON ACTING AS YOUR SECOND IN COMMAND>>.
Thanks so much,
Remember that going back doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Tina urges, ask yourself: “What are your minimum needs to be able to reenter the workforce? What are your nice-to-haves?” These most likely won’t all be possible, but they will give you a starting point to come up with a compromise plan with your manager. Be upfront and advocate for yourself, and get coaching from a professional or from a trusted colleague who has been there before as you prepare for conversations like these.
The communal pumping room on the 6th floor of my office building was where all the good stuff happened. I’m not sure it’s exactly “to regulation” in light of the latest legislation about private pumping areas, but every pumping parent at our entire company clustered 2-3x/day in that windowless resource room to submit to the joys of the dairy farm, answer emails, take calls (always fun when people asked about “that sound”), and–most importantly–to connect with one another about what was going on in our lives. I made great friends through that experience, people who I never would have met at such a large company otherwise.
You will benefit so greatly from a network of people like this at your office, who are going through what you are going through. Your HR team might take the initiative to build support cohorts like these, or you might need to do it independently as a Slack channel or interest group. And remember that this is not just important for birthing parents. Partners, adoptive parents, and other non-gestational parents too, need mentors and colleagues to lean on, and we urge HR teams to carve out support offerings for birthing parents and non-birthing parents alike.
I think back to the Carly who wrote “Working Mother” on that commuter rail, now more than 5 years ago. What would I tell her?
We are with you. This is hard, hard, hard. Our experts are here to support every member of the evolving family as they navigate this chapter of life. Please reach out.
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