What to expect when returning from parental leave: Senior Staff Engineer at Slack, Maude Lemaire, talks through how she navigated her return to work after a six-month parental leave.
In April 2022, six months after welcoming my first baby into the world, I returned to work. It was bittersweet.
On the one hand, I loved spending time with my son. We’d just recently gotten into a groove with nursing and the spring air made it possible for us to enjoy the outdoors. On the other hand, I had started to over-analyze everything he did, which caused me a lot of anxiety. Was he hitting his milestones at the right time? Was he getting enough sleep? Having spent my entire adult life honing my analytical skills, I found myself trying – and failing – to “debug” my baby. Turns out, babies aren’t debuggable.
But, going back to work would give me the opportunity to channel these refined skills in their intended capacity (and hopefully relax a bit on the baby front).
Getting in the swing of things
I anticipated the return to remote work to be difficult; after all, I was a different person from the one who’d logged off of Slack just a few months prior. I had an entirely new identity as a mother and new responsibilities that came with it. To complicate matters further, my son was what many would affectionately refer to as a “barnacle” baby, happiest when nuzzled up against me in a carrier.
Before fully returning to work there were a few things that I preemptively secured to make the transition all that smoother.
- Secured childcare, with a trial run and a backup plan. For my first month back, my baby was with my parents and my sister-in-law. My parents had spent plenty of time with him before my return to work, so they wouldn’t be strangers to him. As a backup, my husband forewarned his teammates that he might need to take time away from work to help with the baby during my first few weeks back. Everyone pitched in so that I could focus on reacquainting myself with work.
- Meal prepped. I wanted to make things as easy as possible for myself and the whole family, so I made sure we had plenty of food ready to go in the fridge and freezer ahead of time: no need to worry about grocery shopping or the dreaded "what’s for dinner?" conundrum when 4pm rolled around. If you need inspiration for long-term meal planning, look no further than What To Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking.
- Set up a pumping station. I knew I’d need to squeeze in two to three pumping sessions throughout the day. I set up a rolling cart fully stocked with my pump, bags, snacks, and cleaning supplies. I also bought myself a cheap mini-fridge for milk storage in my home office. Minimizing trips back and forth to the kitchen throughout the day was key to keeping distractions at bay.
- Picked (back) up a mindfulness practice. I’ve never been very good at maintaining a regular mindfulness practice, but even just five to ten minutes a day, a few times a week can make a difference. Leaning on meditation was a great way to ease my anxieties and fears when faced with challenges during my first few weeks back.
Come back gradually, if you can
Thankfully, I didn’t have to immediately reenter into a five-day working week. Salesforce’s gradual return to work policy allowed me to work four-day weeks for a little over a month (Salesforce owns Slack). I decided to take Wednesdays off. This helped me digest the information overload of the previous two workdays and also allowed me to reconnect with my son more frequently.
Even if your company doesn’t have any official gradual return-to-work policy, you may be able to work with your manager to create a more flexible schedule. If you have any PTO accrued, consider using it to shorten your weeks. If you don’t need to be online for the entire duration of the standard workday, consider taking a handful of half days. Do whatever it is you need to (and can) do to make your return as sustainable as possible.
It’s equally important to be mindful about reintroducing any “extra” responsibilities into your workload. Hopefully, you were able to sufficiently clear your plate before going on leave, so now you’ve returned, any additional tasks picked up should be ones you feel will be manageable and appealing in your new routine. You might’ve had the capacity (and desire) for certain commitments in addition to your standard workload before your departure, but that might not be the case any longer. For instance, two weeks after my return to work our engineering learning team inquired about putting me back into our teaching rotation. In response, I politely asked them to give me a few months to readjust. At the time, this extra responsibility was an added weight I couldn’t take on. But, five months later, having become more settled, I returned to my teaching role.
Prioritize excelling at the bare minimum before heaping more tasks onto your plate. As best as you can, eliminate any notion of getting back to your pre-leave level of productivity. Trust that you’ll find a new level of productivity, at your own pace.
I’ve never been someone who’s been good about setting boundaries with my job. I love the kinds of problems I get to solve. Even if I’m not at a computer, I’ll often find myself thinking about a bug or the next item on our team’s roadmap (and occasionally popping into my office after dinner or on the weekend).
I knew this approach would not stand once I returned from parental leave. To prepare for this lack of flexibility, about two months before I went on parental leave, I artificially restricted my working hours. I disabled Slack notifications after 6:30pm and made a conscious effort to avoid working outside of “regular” business hours. I still allowed myself to start my working day a few hours late (correspondingly ending later) if I wanted to grab breakfast with a friend or run an errand.
Upon returning to work, two things became abundantly clear about my pre-leave approach. Firstly, I hadn’t restricted the number of work hours enough. Assuming I’d be able to get a solid eight hours of work done every day was unrealistic. Between the occasional errand, meal prep, and the sheer exhaustion of being a new mom to a six-month-old, there weren't enough childcare hours in the day to do everything I needed to on top of also completing an eight-hour workday.
Secondly, I hadn’t factored in how dependent I would be on other people’s schedules. For those lucky enough to have additional support, being reliant on someone outside of your home for childcare locks you into an immovable timetable. That meant that if I wanted to get my work done, it needed to happen between 8:30am and 5:30pm every day. If I wasn’t productive post-lunch, I couldn’t make up for it some other time.
Retrospectively, to combat the first hurdle, I wish I’d diminished my simulated, reduced workday down to six or seven hours to prepare me a little better. For the second, I wish I’d set a decisive “start” and “end” time to my day to mimic childcare schedules.
Capitalize on the beginner’s mindset
On my first day back, I told my manager that I planned to take two weeks to “re-onboard”. It’d been over five years since I joined as a new hire and I wanted to use this opportunity to reacquaint myself with the resources available to new engineers. Bar certain tedious tasks, like setting up my upgraded laptop and reading onboarding documentation, this exercise taught me a number of new tips and tricks, many of which improved my development workflow!
My reentry to work also highlighted the unique perspective that comes from returning to something after you’ve spent a significant time away. This fresh perspective creates somewhat of a superpower: the eyes of a new hire, with the context of a tenured employee. If something doesn’t make sense to you, don’t be afraid to question it. If a process doesn’t seem to be working anymore, suggest a shake-up.
Expect to be overwhelmed and don’t make any important decisions
Even under the best conditions – with my desk just a flight of stairs away from my baby, who was lovingly cared for by my parents – the first week back was agonizing. I was expecting to feel overwhelmed, but the reality of it was much more intense.
This was all heightened by the fact that so much had changed while I had been away. Our manager had moved into an individual contributor (IC) role and half of my teammates had left the company. Our parent company had also announced a hiring freeze, which extended to Slack as well. It felt as though I had returned to a sinking ship.
Processing these changes would’ve been difficult under the best of circumstances, but with sleep deprivation, the incessant need to pump multiple times a day, and a baby crying downstairs, it’s nearly impossible. I considered handing in my notice at least half a dozen times during my first month back.
A close friend reassured me that this wasn’t the time to make any important decisions about my career. “Take it one day at a time,” she said. “Give yourself at least six months in your current role to reacquaint yourself with working, now that you’re a mom.” I begrudgingly followed her advice and am wildly thankful I did.
Within two months, our team had found its footing again. We adjusted our goals to more adequately match the size and capacity of our team. At the four-month mark, we welcomed an internal transfer to our team.
By six months, my outlook on work had completely changed. Our son had grown to love his new caretakers, making it far easier for me to focus on my job. As a result, and given the fact that my work had provided me with an outlet for my analytical brain, I was a more present, more relaxed parent with him. I’d also found a renewed enthusiasm for my work; the problems I loved tackling before becoming a parent still needed solving, and I loved solving them just the same. In the end, as with parenting, I just needed to take it one day at a time.