Surviving and Thriving in the Transition Back to Work: Life after Maternity Leave
When you don’t have an infant at home, it sounds ludicrous. Even though I’ve done it myself — twice — saying out loud “I haven’t slept more than 4 hours in a row in 6 months,” sounds utterly preposterous. And yet, most new parents experience this lack of sleep anywhere from a few weeks to a year (or more) after the birth of their children.
When you’re in the throes of this sort of sleep deprivation, and still expected to go to work and produce, how can one function? How can one do a good job? How can one…. not go crazy ??
When I returned to work 3 months after the birth of my second child, I was determined to kick butt. I was (and am) the lone technical woman on my team, so I had some things to prove. I knew that the conventional wisdom at Intel, where employees get sabbaticals, was that if you came back in too hot after sabbatical, you’d burn up on re-entry. If you came in too shallow, you’d skip off the atmosphere and bounce back into space. I was not returning from sabbatical, but I felt like the wisdom held…and I wanted neither of those. I wanted to return and kick an appropriate amount of tail.
However, it became evident after a few months at work that I was in danger of burning up. I cried in my boss’s office, saying, “I’m just so tired.” I was exhausted, cranky, and taking two showers a week, at MOST. I looked and felt like hell, all the time. I was at rock bottom. I needed help. And not from my husband — he was doing all the drop-offs and pickups, he was doing multiple loads of laundry a week, and cooking dinner semi-regularly. Our family needed help. We needed some serious “we have two young children and have demanding full-time jobs and we’re dying ” life hacks.
So I sat down and thought about what we needed help with, and what I could do about it. I’m an engineer. I solve problems. I could do this.
My hope is that in listing out this process, other moms in the same position that I was in can consider what they need, and ease the transition back to work. Additionally, anyone in HR or Benefits should consider that these are the things that make life hard for new parents. The transition period between parental leave and returning to work that can be extremely difficult, and companies can certainly step in with help. It should be in a company’s best interests to prevent returning employees who want to be at work from skipping off into the atmosphere. Solve the problem once, at a corporate level, and avoid requiring every returning parent from solving the same problems, over and over again.
Here is what I needed, and what I did about it:
I Needed Encouragement
Around the time I realized that something had to give, I needed to change my work password as required by IT. Since I type my password multiple times a day, I figured I would try to boost myself up. I came up with an inspirational sentence, took the first letter from each word in that sentence (and sprinkled the appropriate letters and symbols throughout for password strength). For example, “I Can Do It, I Am Badass” would be a password of “icdiiab,” or “Kicking Ass Every Day Mama” would be “kaedm.” In the last 3 years, I’ve had to change my password multiple times, and every few months I have a new sentence I have to think through to type out my password. In hindsight, this has been incredibly impactful to my high level of productivity since returning to work. The mind works in mysterious ways.
I Needed Rest/Mental Sanity
One of the best things that I did was to begin using a meditation podcast regularly. As a nursing and pumping mom, I didn’t want to pound coffee every time I felt tired, which was all the time . And I could not afford long naps. And when I could find time to nap, I needed to be asleep as soon as possible to maximize sleep time, but to do that, I needed to turn off the mama-brain . The Meditation Oasis podcast has 3 meditations that I have saved on my phone so I don’t need to be online to listen to them, they are a part of my life even now, years later:
- Relax into Sleep Guided Meditation (18 min) — when I listen to this, it’s lights out before the audio is even over.
- Mini Break for Work or Study (9 min) — I shut my door in my office and let my head loll. I’m not kidding, 10 minutes later I’m ready to go. Better than coffee.
- Deep Rest Guided Meditation (24 min) — I have used this every Saturday and Sunday afternoon for nearly 3 years. It’s the only way I get through the weekend.
I have a friend who teaches high school and had three children under 3, the second and third being twins. She tried these and told me she used the 2nd podcast every day at work to get through the day. I’m telling you — give them a shot.
I Needed Weekend Help
Once you become a working parent, you know the feeling. Monday rolls around, and you’re thrilled to be going back to work just so you can talk to adults and do adult things again. Then when Friday rolls around, you’re thrilled to be leaving the office to go have some family time.
I love family time, but sometimes with 2 very young littles, 48 hours of family time in a row is too much. So I hired a neighborhood teenager to come to our house for 2 hours every weekend to help out. Sometimes she played with the children so I could do my rest meditations. Sometimes she folded the kids’ laundry. Sometimes she helped the older kid clean the playroom. Sometimes she fed him snacks and read him stories. 100% of the time, she was a lifesaver. I didn’t babysit as a kid, but apparently this is called “mother’s helping” and my neighborhood is full of tweens who want to do this, and for much less than what a babysitter costs since both parents are always home. It’s been 2 years now, and my 2.5 year old thinks our mother’s helper is a member of our family. Plus, she’s now 15 and has perfectly transitioned into occasional babysitting too, since she knows our house, our kids, and our routines.
I Needed To Remove Things From My To-Do List
I realized that at least for a while, I needed to remove as many decisions and tasks as possible out of my daily life. I wanted to be working, spending quality time with my family, or recovering. I wanted everything else OUT, at least temporarily. For some people, recovering means going for a run, or therapeutic cleaning, or folding laundry. Not me. So everything that I consider a chore was considered for removal.
This was difficult for me, as I’ve always been very “together” and Type A. I do things on my own. I am self-sufficient. I had to really sit down and give myself permission to get help for myself and my family. As a child of immigrants who were the epitome of doing everything on their own, I had a very hard time with shrugging off the feeling of being a privileged prat. But desperate times were calling for desperate measures. I was short-tempered with my kids, short-tempered with my husband, and crying at work. I needed to get over my mental hurdles and figure out what I needed and what I could afford.
I gave myself a pass on exercise for 2 years. I literally told myself, “Forget it, not going to happen, don’t worry about it, act like it’s done.” And it was marvelous. I’m just now getting back to exercise, and honestly, I’m glad I waited. Only now can I exercise effectively, because only now do I WANT to exercise. This actually was a money-saver, because I canceled my gym membership and didn’t look back.
We were a cloth-diapering family, and there was just so much laundry, all the time. You know, piles of it, everywhere, 24/7. Then I found out a local laundry service that does adult laundry only, and so we could at least focus only on kids laundry. They pick up your laundry from your front door and return it, FOLDED, 48 hours later. I remember feeling very uncomfortable with the idea of sending out my unmentionables to be washed and folded by someone else. I remember wondering what kind of a person I was becoming if I couldn’t do my own laundry. I remember feeling ashamed for not being able to do it myself. But I also remember feeling DESPERATE. So I made myself a deal — we would try it, for a while. Just for a while. As a frame of reference, for this to happen every 2 weeks costs $48 a month. This is less than cable (and we don’t have cable). I would much rather have laundry service than cable, so here we are. I am not going back. My husband won’t go back. Maybe when the children are older we can train them to do the laundry, but for now — we unabashedly use this service.
I made a real effort to keep our house clean on our own. For people with two small children, we didn’t have a lot of stuff. We had a mini stick vac upstairs, because lugging a vacuum cleaner upstairs is just too hard when you are a sleep-deprived zombie. We had a mini stick vac in the kitchen, because Cheerios. We had a Bona mop. I googled “how to keep your house clean” and downloaded schedules from various home-making experts. I vowed I would scrub my toilets every Saturday. I did not scrub my toilets every Saturday. I vowed I would scrub my toilets every OTHER Saturday. I did not scrub my toilets every other Saturday. Someone online suggested making sure my cleaning agents smelled really good, so that I would love cleaning because it would be tantamount to aromatherapy. So I got a cute caddy and cute rubber gloves and good-smelling cleaning sprays, just like the blog suggested. But when it came down to it, if I ever actually got a moment to myself long enough to do something on my own for 20 minutes, my first thought was not to scrub toilets and bathtubs, even with Mandarin Orange Zest cleaning spray. So I broke down and hired a cleaning service. The result? My toilets, floors, bathtubs, and grout look great, and I haven’t cleaned a toilet in 2 years.
I was once at a neighborhood get-together, and all the moms were chatting. Someone said, “I hate dinner.” Then everyone chimed in and agreed, “Ohhh, I HATE DINNER!” “Dinner is the worst!” “I HATE dinner!” Why do we hate dinner? I love food and I enjoy cooking. I grew up in an immigrant family, where food is love, and food is life, and food is family. How could someone like me hate dinner??
Because dinner has to happen every damn day, and when a baby is starting solids and needs special food, and the other kid is 3, and it is a family priority for everyone to eat together and eat delicious and nutritious food, dinner becomes a very difficult problem. I had worked hard to make dinner work. When I was on maternity leave, I had made 4 weekly dinner schedules, filled with easy recipes that I could make in 25 minutes or less. For the first few months after going back to work, I rotated these 4 weeks and knew exactly what to buy on the weekends, and exactly how to make everything, and quickly. But within a few months the wheels were falling off. Because despite all this planning and effort, the bottom line was that we were all exhausted. We were wasting food and wasting money, because on weekends when I did manage to get to the store and buying everything on the list, chances were that on at least one of the days, we would get home and just could…not…cook. So we’d order pizza and the groceries would rot in the fridge. Some weekends, we just could not manage to get to the store at all, and so the whole week would be scrambling for frozen foods, eating out, and takeout.
Then, someone on a local parents group gave a positive review to a meal service she was using. From this, I discovered a whole world of help I had previously assumed was only for people who had second homes in Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard. It turns out there are a plethora of services that are there to help with dinner, and they run the gamut from full-service to helping with just one of the aspects of dinner planning, shopping, preparing, or cleanup. I was at rock bottom, so I decided to go full-service with the recommendation from my parents group. Someone came to my house every two weeks with groceries, cooked 3 meals for the fridge, and 3 meals for the freezer, put them away, cleaned up, and left. The only signs of his being there were delicious food in the fridge, and instructions for reheating them. Doing this removed basically every aspect of dinner from our todo lists. Additionally, I really believe this actually saved us money because we completely stopped going out to eat and getting takeout. As in, ZERO times in a month. And I stopped having to go to the grocery store, and we wasted so much less food. It was truly a gamechanger, and less expensive than I expected. However, this is the one service that we are not continuing to use because I miss cooking, it is on the pricier side, and the children sleep and are less needy now. However, for the time we used it, it was very worth it.
But now, I’m exploring replacements that are a little less full-service, and I’m sure eventually we will settle on a routine that works for us. As of now, this is what I’ve tried or am planning to try:
- Our local grocery store has express pickup, where you buy online, and then drive by and someone will walk your groceries to you for $5 each time, or a $100/year you get unlimited pickups. This removes the physical shopping from the to-do list, though you still have to drive to the store. Most major grocery chains seem to have this service, and I know some people who swear by it.
- Instacart — Instacart has arrived in my area, and you can order groceries online and have them delivered to your door, same day. I am just trying this now, and so far, I like it.
Family Dinner Services
Several restaurants in our area actually provide Family Dinners where you can order a fixed menu on Friday, and pick up 5 days worth of dinners for 2 adults on Monday, for approximately $100–150. Then, you just pop the food in the oven or microwave and eat it. Most have a mac-and-cheese add-on for kids as well. We have tried this a few times and may go back to it. This removes planning, shopping, prepping, and cleanup (just recycle/throw away single-use containers). However, as a dirty hippie, I just don’t love all the single-use containers.
Advance Meal-Prep Services
There is a kitchen in my area that has an interesting concept I’d like to try. They have a massive industrial kitchen, and you can go with friends and spend two hours assembling twelve meals in advance to take home and put in your fridge. Choose from their menus and they will have all the ingredients for you, sliced and chopped and prepped, and you just assemble it AND you can do it with friends. Dinner Savvy is my local option. This removes planning, shopping, and a lot of prep. I’m intrigued by this.
Blue Apron and the Like
By now, everyone knows about Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and the like. These services remove the planning and the shopping from dinner, but not the prep and cleanup. I have not yet tried any of these, but it’s on my list. Do you have a favorite?
So, I hacked my life and tried a number of things to ensure I was firing on all cylinders at home and at work. It was a process even to give myself permission to seek help, and to consider what I needed. You might need different things — you might need exercise to feel whole, or you might decide that for 1 year, you will live in a messy house. I once asked the advice of one of my mentors, and asked how she did it all. Her response? “I live in an ugly house.”
Having an infant at home and going back to work is difficult for nearly everyone, and I have yet to meet anyone who found it easy without help. So I thought about what I needed and tried to fix it all. What was the result?
Oddly enough, the result was that about 1 year after returning to work, I received the best performance review I had ever gotten by far. I had the respect of my all-male colleagues. I was recognized as an integral member of my team. I boiled my life down to my essentials — work, family, recovery — and I felt good about how much time my children got with me, and how much work I was getting done. And now, I’m on the other side. I’m no longer “transitioning back to work.” I’m no longer perpetually sleep deprived. And I did not skip off into the atmosphere, nor did I burn up on re-entry. I am here, I am productive, I am happy about it, and still doing very well at work.
A few months after I began my life hack extravaganza, I mentioned to my boss that the baby was sleeping more and I was feeling better. He said, “Well, I’ve noticed you started smiling again, so I figured things were good.” I hope my story helps someone else smile again, or even better, inspires some HR department to improve the retention of new parents by incorporating some of these hacks into their benefits program, because the last thing a company should want is to lose an employee who wants to work over some genuinely temporary and hackable problems.
If you’re a new parent with a young baby at home and returning to work, don’t be afraid to think about what you need as you transition back to work, and maybe even try some of the hacks above. The babies won’t be tiny forever, and you won’t need this help forever. Just remember, “You can do it, badass!”
This content was originally published here.