After nearly four months of maternity leave, I returned to work on a Wednesday in April. To my surprise, I was welcomed by a decorated desk, desserts, and congratulations from team members. One sign on my desk read: “Keep Calm and Welcome Back to the Office.” I couldn’t have asked for a better reception.
Getting back into the swing of things after maternity leave ended
Although I have been with my IT firm for almost six years, I felt like both a new and old student back at school upon returning to work. Some things were familiar, but so much had also changed. For the first few days, I was fueled by adrenaline, catching up with coworkers I hadn’t spoken to for months.
After a week of catching up and realizing that I had to use my brain to think about work again, I was convinced I was recovering from a stroke. It didn’t help that my previous development team now ceased to exist and I was on a new team with some unfamiliar faces. In technical meetings, I could barely follow conversations since new acronyms and concepts might as well have been in Greek.
Did this brain blur happen to everyone?
To cope with this unsettling feeling, I reached out to two other new moms who had also returned to work a few months earlier from maternity leave. “How long did it take for you to get used to things? #forgotteneverything #slowandsteady,” I messaged on Slack.
Independently, they both responded that it took several weeks to get used to things. And there were even times when they would forget people’s names. It was so reassuring to hear this. I was forgetting names too! From that moment on, I told myself that I had to be much more forgiving and self- compassionate.
With that mindset, returning to work had become a refreshing change (as Ali Wong says on Hard Knock Wife, “I need to be (at work) to miss her!”). But it was also a different level of exhaustion than being a stay-at-home mom. I realized that I had to make my needs clear, setting the standard of leaving at a regular time and sticking to that demanding pumping schedule.
From early on, I developed a love-hate relationship with it. For about a month, when I pumped three times a day, I literally felt like I went to work to just pump. Even when I knocked it down to two pumping sessions a few weeks later, it was still taking about an hour of my time. Some moms would be productive while pumping, but I knew that, by the time I set up my laptop, my session would almost be up. The best I did was craft a few work emails on my phone. But most of the time I used my pumping sessions as a meditative time to repeat affirmations if I was having a hard time adjusting or to look at baby photos and videos.
Surprising perks that come with returning to work
The other thing I learned about returning after maternity leave is that it was the best time to reinvent myself at work. Whereas there are always team meetings that you can’t get out of, I was more reflective of certain meetings that I had on my work calendar in the past that didn’t necessarily add value now. And although I was fulfilling my work identity, I found myself engaging in projects that reflected my motherhood.
I used this momentum to finish up an Expectant Mother manual that I had started while pregnant. It was a centralized guide that included our company’s insurance benefits as well as recommended providers and my personal anecdotes. Since a large percentage of my coworkers were fresh out of college, these were resources that would be valuable later in their lives.
So that’s what happens during the fifth trimester
First off, your brain will never stop thinking in trimesters. Second, you forget everything. But after you adjust your expectations and accept this new identity, you learn that you can Keep Calm and Everything Will Be Okay.