6 Tactics for Returning to Work Post-Maternity Leave

Harvard Business School recently polled their alumni as part of their gender initiative. One finding was particularly interesting: About 37 percent of millennial women plan on interrupting their career to have children. That’s compared to 28 percent of Generation X women and 17 percent of baby boomers.

In a time when more people are talking about equal opportunity for both genders and books like Lean In are flying off the shelves, the fact that more women are thinking of pausing their careers for family surprised me. However, as one article explains, there are a number of factors that make this option appealing, including rising childcare costs and poor paternity leave policies.

There’s also the simple fact that returning to a full-time job when you just acquired a huge personal responsibility is challenging, even if you have a supportive partner and understanding work environment. While we can’t immediately change laws or childcare costs, there are a few tactics that can help ease your transition back to work.

Below are six tactics to help you get back into your professional groove after maternity leave:

1. Plan ahead. The most important tip I have read on blogs and heard from coworkers is to make a plan and test it before you return to work. If possible, start your childcare early so you and your newborn can adjust to that routine before you add the stress of returning to work. Spend a couple of days away from home so you know what you require (breast pumps, etc.) for an 8-hour day at work. And finally, learn what you can do in the evenings (e.g. prep bottles, pick out clothes) to make your mornings a little less chaotic and rushed.

2. Start slow. You’ve been away from the office for weeks, on a completely different schedule. Jumping back into a straight 40 hours of your work routine will logically seem overwhelming. Avoid diving in headfirst. Instead, try to come back on a day in the middle of the week and start on half days if you can. That way, you can ease back into work.

3. Know (and use) your rights. When you do return to work, be sure to exercise legal or agency-specific rights that can help ease your transition. Unfortunately, the U.S. private and public sector maternity leave policies lack many concrete protections. But the Fair Labor Standards Act does grant some, including the right to reasonable time and space for pumping at work. Check with your organization’s HR department for more specific accommodations, too.

4. Set expectations. You may want to wait a couple weeks to get a good understanding of how your new family member impacts your professional and personal life. But when you’re ready, schedule time with your boss to talk about what you need to maintain your work-life balance, given your new obligations. This conversation might include exploring flexible work arrangements or it may simply be establishing the times you need to be able to leave the office each day. The goal of this conversation is to clearly set expectations for both you and your manager about how to make sure you can continue to excel professionally while accommodating new personal responsibilities.

5. Be transparent. I asked a coworker what her biggest hurdle was when returning to work. She followed the above advice of setting new expectations with her manager and easing back into work. What challenged her, though, was how she communicated her transition with her clients and other colleagues. Because she was working part time and still trying to figure out her new routine, she often had difficulty communicating her availability and expectations to others.

In most cases, transparency is the best option. Part of being a feminist mom is accepting that motherhood – especially new motherhood – is important but difficult work. Be transparent about how you’re transitioning and any issues that arise along the way. Update your manager and any other relevant parties as you find out what is and isn’t working for you.

6. Find a mentor. I firmly believe every working woman should find a mentor. A mentor can share her experiences and help you think through common challenges. This advice is no less applicable when it comes to navigating post-maternity leave work than it is any other part of your professional life. Find someone at your organization who has already taken maternity leave and returned to work. Ask her about her experiences – what worked for her and what she would have done differently. After your initial meeting, keep this relationship going so you have someone to talk through your hurdles with.


Have other tips for helping new mothers return to work after maternity leave? Leave them in the comments section below!

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Kevin Mosley

A colleague taking maternity or parental leave is likely excited about their departure and can be approached with a bit more levity and enthusiasm. Be careful not to cross the line in terms of sounding sexist or condescending. You could write, “Enjoy one of the best jobs you’ll ever have!” or, “And you thought this job was tough!” A more thoughtful and sensitive approach: “Enjoy this magical time with your new family.”