When I was pregnant, I wrote down my hopes for my daughter’s delivery at the behest of: my birth coach, my acupuncturist, my yoga teacher, and every single one of my Mom Friends.
Like many expectant mothers, I thought a lot about what it would be like to give birth at home versus the hospital, considered the pros and cons of pain meds, and wrote down a list of who I wanted in the room when our daughter arrived.
I didn’t realize that crafting a similar strategy for my career plan—mainly, how to transition back to my office job post-baby—was just as important. And without that framework in place, I was stuck making big decisions about travel, meetings, and flexible hours on the fly, all while dealing with the enormous stress of caring for a newborn.
Working moms tend to focus on a fixed point in the maternity road (i.e. childbirth), but there’s so much more to consider, especially when it comes to juggling domestic and workplace duties.
While it’s impossible to map out all the challenges of working parenthood, experts say you can prepare for the transition back to the office by considering some common stumbling blocks.
“You don’t know what you don’t know, but you can make multiple contingency plans,” says Dr. Amy Beacom, CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership in Portland, Ore. "The best way to prepare for leave is to plan your return.”
Write down some “what ifs”
Beacom, who works with companies that want to increase their retention rates of new parents, encourages moms to run through a series of career hypotheticals before the baby arrives — both good and bad.
What if your role changes once you return to work? What if you can’t find the adequate time to use a breast pump, like you’d planned? What if your manager quits while you’re on maternity leave? What if you or your child has a health issue? What if you change your mind about wanting to return to work at all?
Moms often calculate these equations last minute, and under tremendous pressure. But figuring them out ahead of time allows you to make decisions based on your goals instead of reacting to your fears.
When it comes to starting a family, “work-life balance doesn’t exist,” Beacom says. “It's all life when you’re a parent.”
Talk to your boss about flexibility
Having the ability to transition gradually back to work after parental leave can temper the shock of juggling work and motherhood.
Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, a career development expert, advises expectant mothers to talk to human resources about the malleability of their parental leave policies.
Maybe it’s possible to work from home a few days a week, or take every Friday afternoon off for a few months after you’ve returned to work full-time.
“If you're not cutting hours or impairing productivity, employers will often be agreeable to making those kinds of adjustments,” Sabatini Fraone says. “The first step is seeing what the organization offers.”
Involve your partner in your success
Research from The Boston College Center for Work & Family shows that millennial fathers are more eager to be involved in the care of their babies than previous generations.
Sabatini Fraone, a senior member of the Center and the study's co-author, says dads are taking on more parenting responsibilities, like bringing kids to appointments and transporting them to and from daycare, that once defaulted to mothers.
But some couples still have antiquated ideas about the household division of labor, she says. For women in a different-sex partnerships, this often means taking up a “second shift” of additional, child-related work (in same-sex couples, research shows, domestic duties tend to be split more evenly).
When assumptions about work and home responsibilities don’t default along gender lines, parents can talk frankly about their desired career trajectories — and moms can negotiate their needs accordingly.
“Look at all the tasks that are involved day-to-day, and really work that out as a couple,” Sabatini Fraone says.
Keep your boss updated while you’re out
Moms tend to “check out” when they’re on parental leave (and for good reason).
Sabatini Fraone doesn’t advocate for working during this precious time, but she does suggest having a phone call or two with your supervisor before you return. These check-ins help ease you back into the “work” mindset, while keeping managers abreast of how your current reality compares to the back-to-work timeline you mapped out pre-baby.
This is also a good time to flesh out any last-minute flexibility considerations. For instance, if you travel often for your job, but feel overwhelmed by the challenges having a newborn will present, it could be worth asking for a workaround.
“If you’re walking in the door without having had those conversations, there’s a missed opportunity to make the transition more successful,” Sabatini Fraone says. “The manager may not initiate these calls, so it’s up to [you] to initiate.”
Practice speaking up
Some supervisors assume that working mothers aren’t interested in career advancement.
But research from Sabatini Fraone’s team shows that 23% of moms actually want more workplace opportunities after returning from parental leave. Understanding these biases ahead of time can help new mothers plant the seeds with managers about their desires for advancement before, during, or after parental leave.
“Oftentimes, [employers] won’t even put you in the running because of their assumptions about motherhood,” she says. “If you really want that career advancement, you need to be very vocal about it. You can say, ‘Listen, I know I have this new baby, but I have a great arrangement with my partner at home and I would love to be considered for that promotion.’”
While advance planning is important, no amount of goal-setting can completely eradicate the chance that things will go haywire. Sabatina Fraone’s advice? Make peace with that.
“Rarely does your experience with parenthood match your expectations,” she says. “If you have very rigid ideas before you go out on leave, or when you start your return back to work, it will be harder to shift and adjust as needed.”
Remember: New motherhood can be a deeply rich moment. And with the proper planning and support, so can working full-time throughout it.
“You probably will feel very overwhelmed very often,” Sabatini Fraone says. “But there are many of us who have made it work.”