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​​What to Expect as You Prepare to Return to Work After Parental Leave

Arianna Taboada | September 5, 2021

[This post is an excerpt from the book The Expecting Entrepreneur: A Guide to Parental Leave Planning for Self Employed Business Owners by Arianna Taboada. The book and additional resources on this topic can be found at www.theexpectingentrepreneur.com.] 

When heading back into work mode after parental leave, many parents notice that the processes of thinking, planning, and execution feel different than they did before. Empirical research agrees. Pregnancy and parenthood literally change your brain! These changes allow parents to become more attuned and responsive to newborn cues, and the changes may continue for up to two years postpartum. The parts of the brain specifically affected during pregnancy and parenting relate to our ability to perceive needs, be empathetic, and respond appropriately. This is fantastic news on the parent-infant attachment front, but what does it mean for your career?

First, it’s normal to feel different as you step back into work and business-related decision-making. Your life and your brain have changed, and it may take some time to find your footing. Once you do, you can use your brain’s new architecture to your advantage. You may be incredibly attuned to others’ needs, as well as able to connect and collaborate better with colleagues and contractors. Sales conversations, content creation, or high-touch services are all areas in which your newfound sensitivity may be useful.

We’ve all heard the cultural trope of “pregnancy brain” or “baby brain,” where forgetfulness is part and parcel of the pregnancy and new-parenthood experience. And research has shown that many people experience challenges with minor memory lapses, recall, and attention during pregnancy and postpartum. For some people, it can feel harder to remember small details, context switch, plan, and engage in complex problem-solving. It may take you longer to remember something or complete a set of tasks. It may feel different, and perhaps challenging, to engage in long-term planning, review and synthesize large data sets, or plan for major changes to core operations and services. Unfortunately, researchers are not clear on why some tasks may require more concentration or feel harder than before, but interrupted sleep and hormonal changes could play a role. Simply being aware of these common changes can help you normalize them and prepare for them. 

Preparing to return to work also involves plenty of logistics.  Addressing your own physical, mental, and emotional health, childcare, scheduling, and support prior to transitioning back to work will allow you to step back into your work with some clarity and sense of stability. As a place to start, here are 5 key ways you can begin to prepare for returning to work after parental leave.

Return-to-Work Checklist

  Build-in transition time

You do not have to go from being 100% in parent mode, spending all day with their child, to 100% in work mode, spending 10–14 hours a day away from them. Consider building out a 2-week transition plan, where you begin with part-time hours, and work up to your full hours. Starting your first day back at work in the middle of the week can also be a nice way to ease in with 3 days your first week back.

Address health concerns

You are your business’s biggest asset, so make sure you’re as healthy as possible before you head back into work mode. Routine postpartum care in the United States is one postpartum visit six weeks after delivery. However, international standards include four visits for the practitioner to assess the new parent’s physiological recovery, lactation, nutrition, contraception, and psychosocial support. Since it’s not possible to cover all of that in one visit, consider making additional appointments with your provider(s), especially if you experience any pain, complications, or distress in the weeks after birth.

Begin childcare

During pregnancy, many parents may begin to research their available childcare options but may not make a decision on how to move forward until their baby has arrived. I recommend beginning childcare about a week prior to your first day back at work. Don’t make your first day back at work the first day you have childcare! Practicing the new routine (drop-offs, handoffs, pickups, new nap schedules, etc.) for a few days before you actually have to be back in work mode can help ease the adjustment for both you and your baby. Consider starting with a few hours a day for the first few days and building up to the full amount of childcare needed for your work schedule.

Join a supportive community

Connecting with other working parents before you return to work means you will have a cohort of people going through similar experiences. The group can help normalize the hard moments, and individuals can offer support and camaraderie. This might be an online community, an in-person support group, or a mastermind group. Ideally, the person facilitating the group is attuned to the unique needs of working parents.

Add clear boundaries to your work calendar

Before you start adding work-related events back into your calendar, establish non-negotiable blocks of time for things like pediatrician appointments, your own health provider visits, and pumping time. If you have set childcare drop-off or pickup times, consider also explicitly adding them to your calendar (e.g., out-of-the-office time blocked every day after 4 p.m.).

Of course, new logistics will always arise, and so I invite you to embrace a spirit of curiosity and experimentation as you plan for this new transition. Things may change and you are capable of handling those changes!

Arianna Taboada, MSW, MSPH, is the founder of The Expecting Entrepreneur™, a consulting firm that helps entrepreneurs design parental leave plans that meet their business model and personal needs. Prior to her consulting practice, Arianna worked on maternal health issues for over a decade as a health educator, social work trainee, reproductive health researcher, and yoga therapist. She currently lives, works, and plays with her family in Berkeley, CA.

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