More hours in the day. Dishes that wash themselves. Bosses and coworkers who understand the demands of motherhood. Most of all: more paid leave for both moms and dads. Those were the top wishes that moms returning to work listed in a recent survey conducted by Seleni and the Families and Work Institute (FWI).
"When it comes to maternity leave, the U.S. is at the absolute bottom of the barrel of countries with advanced economies," says Brigid Schulte, author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time." It's the only developed nation that does not mandate paid maternity leave.
Although a national push for paid parental leave is under way, those changes will take time (and lots of it). That's why Seleni and FWI wanted to ask women what we can do now to smooth the monumental transition of returning to work as a new mother.
Here's what we learned:
Preparation at work and on the home front, before and after your baby's birth, will pay off when you return to the office. Women recommended talking to your supervisor before you have your baby about how much time you plan to take off and what coworkers need to know while you're out.
After your baby is here, most moms recommended doing as much as possible the night before a day at the office, from showering to setting out clothes for you and your baby.
"Be willing to engage in the discussion when you're ready about how your employer will handle your responsibilities when you're out. Don't just have a conversation but develop a plan so you have peace of mind." –Laura Boone, state government administrator and mother of a 14-month-old in Charleston, West Virginia
"Use the Crockpot and do meal preparation the night before. Get two meals out of one and use leftovers. We do breakfast for dinner one night a week, and sandwiches one night. This is not the stage of life when you make a meal with 15 ingredients. And take healthy snacks to work if you're nursing – the vending machines just don't cut it."
–Alicia Wolff, elementary school teacher and mother of two in Overland Park, Kansas
Start back midweek
Making your first "week" back a short one can ease that transition. Or, if you can swing it, returning part time initially can help you ramp up your working mom routines and skills.
"I'm a teacher, and the biggest thing that helped me go back to work was to start midweek on Wednesday," says Wolff. "I did a trial run Monday and Tuesday and took [my baby] to the sitter. That way, the week was a short one, and it eased me back into the routine."
"Remember that dread you feel on Sunday night before Monday? Go back on a Wednesday, or even Thursday or Friday," recommends Boone. "One friend of mine started on a Monday but worked half days the first week."
Make arrangements if you plan to pump
Moms who choose to breastfeed are less likely to continue once they return to work. It can be embarrassing to explain that you have to leave a meeting to pump, or coworkers may be squeamish about having breast milk stored in the communal fridge. But here are some tips from those that did continue to pump:
"There was one interior room that had no windows and a door that locked. It was a storage room, but it was available to me as a priority when I needed to pump. I pumped three times a day – it was just part of my day. I was able to leave meetings. I never felt embarrassed. I pumped for a year after going back to work."
–Megann Strajcher, assistant director in public health grants management and mother of a 3-year-old in Brooklyn, New York
"I was able to have my caregivers bring my 12-week-old to work to nurse and only had to pump once a day. This was crucial for me… My employer had already established it as an accepted practice when she had her baby two years before I had mine."
–Lena Eson Roe, associate director of an after school program and pregnant mom of a 3-year-old in Brooklyn, New York
Find flexibility where you can
Flexibility can mean working variable hours, telecommuting from home, and having an employer that adapts to your changing circumstances or a partner with leeway in his or her schedule.
"I am lucky to have a work-from-home job that allows me to create my own schedule and work just 15 hours a week. Many challenges [of returning to work] do not apply to me. I was lucky to have a manager and team who were extremely supportive and flexible. They also realized that travel and certain work events were not possible for me to attend while caring for an infant." –Jessica Elder, social worker in nonprofit management and mother of a 17-month-old in Scottsdale, Arizona
"I had a full course load as a graduate student and was teaching when I had my first child. My husband was in law school. We could both almost always adjust our schedules and had a sitter just four hours a week. Even with my second baby, when we had 20 hours of childcare a week, I had more flexibility. I didn't feel torn between work and home life and all the challenges of being a new parent because I had my toes dipped in both and didn't feel overwhelmed." –Kristen Oganowski, adjunct professor of philosophy, freelance writer, and mother of three in Columbus, Ohio
Ask for help
Mom after mom who answered our survey or spoke to us emphasized that it was okay to ask for help, whether from your spouse, family, friends, coworkers, and, yes, even your boss.
"You can plan your life but your partner can't always be here, or your sitter gets sick. Don't be afraid to call on resources. If you don't ask, you'll never know."
–Jennifer Hill, chief operating officer of healthcare data tech start-up and mother of two in Hoboken, New Jersey
"I know I'm a valuable employee with a lot to offer, and I know my number one priority is my family. My boss is supportive. She understands the need to be flexible, and she's a phenomenal leader in supporting policies for work-life balance. I work 20 hours a week and job share with another mom, so I have a lot of flexibility."
–Wendy Root Askew, aide to a county supervisor and mother of a 3-year-old in Monterey, California
"The last two weeks of my maternity leave, I realized this was going to be much harder than I thought. I had a conversation with my boss, and he said we'll figure out what will work. I work at home (in Florida) for a risk management firm in New York with global clients. My husband's a college professor (with a flexible schedule), and we have two extraordinary nannies who are full-time students. Between the four of us – our little village – we keep my son happy and healthy. I'm still a working mom, but I'm not missing hearing him say mama."
–Stephanie Ilderton, officer in a risk management firm and mother of an 11-month-old in Orlando, Florida
Form a parenting partnership
Women often just do more of everything: more childcare and more housework. In one study from the Journal of Marriage and Family, researchers found that nine months after couples became parents, the working moms had added 22 hours of childcare while still spending the same amount of time on the job and on housework. Meanwhile, dads added 14 hours of childcare, but reduced their time doing housework by five hours.
"Be clear about the division of labor," advises Strajcher. "If the mother is nursing or pumping, the father simply must take on more at home to help balance out."
"My partner does the morning routine, and I do the evening. That's what a lot of couples we know do." –Roberta Marguerite Chavez, college lecturer in performing arts and mother of a 4-year-old in Edinburgh, Scotland
More specifically, lower them. That's the advice from a number of moms, although most admit that's easier said than done.
"You have to give yourself a break," says Hill. "Realize the new normal is not normal."
Find more tips on how to manage the first weeks and months back at work.