Sheila McGarrigle

A Journey Through Paid Family Leave: Part 8

Returning to Work

February 12, 2019

PFL returning to work as a working mom

When you’ve been out for 14 weeks to recover from giving birth and to bond with a new baby, returning to work can feel a bit like “culture shock”. If you’re just tuning in to our series, Stephanie, an employee at ShelterPoint and first-time mom, has taken Paid Family Leave (PFL) to bond with her new baby. Click here to start at the beginning of her story. In this post—the last in our series—Stephanie shares what it was like for her as she prepared for the next phase of life as a working mom.

For Stephanie this was an emotional transition, and even as we chatted with her now, she got a little choked up as she described it. “Leading up to coming back to work and ending leave, I personally had a lot of anxiety,” she said. “Looking back on it now, most of it was just facing the unknown – Olivia and I had a good thing going, I felt like I was just hitting my groove as a mom, and I didn’t want any of it to change.”  How would Olivia adjust to the transition? How would Stephanie feel being back at work knowing that her baby wasn’t right there with her?  Would she be able to pump enough milk for her when she was away?   “There were some days while I was out on leave where it was a struggle just to find time to make myself lunch, or take a shower.  I just couldn’t wrap my head around how there would be time to fit in a 7.5-hour work day,” Steph added.

Stephanie was honest - if it would have been feasible, she would have transitioned to a stay at home mom. But for their family that wasn’t a realistic possibility, so they already had a plan in place for when it was time for Stephanie to return to work.   As part of their “back to work plan,” Steph and her husband researched daycares early on in her pregnancy, and found one that was just right. 

Before Olivia was born, Stephanie also worked with her manager, Katrin, to establish a flexible work from home schedule for part of the week going forward. This way Olivia would only have to be in daycare a few days per week, and she could be with Stephanie while she was working at home.  “I feel so fortunate to work at a company, and have the type of position that can be so flexible.  I truly believe being able to partially work from home, has made all the difference for me mentally” Stephanie said, “Just knowing I’ll still get to be with her more days out of the week than apart, makes me feel a little better.”

As the time got closer to her going back to work, Steph wanted to try and help prepare Olivia for the transition to daycare so she’d be somewhat familiar with the people that would be taking care of her.  So, in the couple weeks before Stephanie’s last day on leave, she brought Olivia to the daycare center a few times to let her play and get used to the space and the teachers while Stephanie was still with her in the room. It turns out, this was just as good for Stephanie as it was for Olivia because it gave her confidence to know that it was a safe, educational, and most importantly loving environment for her daughter.

In terms of her Paid Family Leave, there was a clear end date that she knew since the time she applied, so there wasn’t any paperwork to complete. Stephanie recommended that you confirm early in your leave that you have all the correct dates marked on your calendar so you know exactly when your leave ends, and when you’re expected to report back to work.  She notes that you may want to hang on to any payment stubs and other PFL paperwork in case you may need them for tax purposes.  “And, before you go back to work, if you’re breastfeeding, it’s important to check in with your HR department or boss to make sure there will be the required private space for you to pump.  I suggest doing this well in advance so if arrangements need to be made, there’s plenty of time for them to do so before you return,” Steph added.

Stephanie also didn’t jump straight into her new schedule all at once - they took it slow. “I tried to not have too many changes all at one time,” Steph explained.  For her first few days back Stephanie’s husband took off work and was home with Olivia, giving Steph the peace of mind that she could be away from the baby, but also knowing that she was at home with her dad.  She had one day in the office for the first couple of weeks, and then eventually worked her way up to her new in office/work-from-home schedule.  Once that transition was complete, then Olivia started at daycare.  “It worked best for me to only have to get used to one thing at time,” Steph explained.  “Having all these changes happen more gradually made for a more gentle transition.”

Stephanie said those first few days felt, understandably, “weird.” For the first time, she had to go hours without seeing her baby, and as she put it, “felt kind of like I had lost a limb.  I had gotten so used holding Olivia and having her close by all the time, to all of a sudden not have her right there was a very strange feeling.”  Plus, in the midst of all the buzz of being back in the office, she also had to carve out time for pumping. “Pumping at work is a whole new level of fun,” Steph said with a laugh.  Stephanie shared with us that she feels her Paid Family Leave bonding time helped her really establish her rhythm with breastfeeding, and gave her the confidence to continue pumping once she returned to work – something that can feel a little awkward.  She explained to us that the best way to ensure she stays on schedule was to set up a reoccurring event on her calendar so that her colleagues don’t book her time for meetings when she needs to pump.  “I have the same times blocked out every day, so everyone just knows now to work around it.”

Her colleagues welcomed her with joy (and a little relief, knowing that they would no longer have to cover her role). Katrin and the team decorated their corner of the office festively, complete with a big banner that read “Welcome Back Steph!” They had a cake to mark the occasion (and they cut into it at around 10 am, but who can blame them?). Their excitement reinforced how tightly knit their team is, and as Steph described it, “It was nice to feel missed. We are like a little family here, so I was actually happy to be back.”

But picking up where you left off almost 4 months ago is no easy feat. For example, Stephanie opened her email inbox to over 7,500 emails to sift through. Important Paid Family Leave rates were about to change giving Steph and her team some big deadlines they needed meet, so there was little time to get situated. Stephanie noted that to hit the ground running actually requires a bit of trust. You have to assume that the emails in your backlog have been covered while you’re out. For the most part, Steph just filed them away and started fresh.  Steph added, “And don’t go in and expect it to feel normal right away. It took me about the same amount of time I was out before I felt like I was really back.”

Now that they have made through the transition period, Steph shared with us that though she still has times of struggle within the daily grind, in the end she’s happy to be a working mom.  Their family has settled into their new normal and Steph expressed gratitude for her husband who takes on making dinner, washing her pump parts, and packing up Olivia’s daycare bag so Steph can enjoy the couple of hours she has with Olivia before bedtime each night.  “Priorities have certainly shifted, but I do love my job and it’s important for my daughter to see that she can have a family, and kids, but also a career,” Steph explained.  “Being a working mom helps for us to provide Olivia the best life possible.  I will always look back my PFL time with her fondly.  But, even though I may not be physically with her every day, I do it all for her and her future – and my hope is that someday, that makes her proud.”

PFL Tips for Returning to Work

  • Be certain you have coordinated with your employer on the day your PFL ends so that you can be clear on the date you need to report back to work.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself and be prepared for the potential emotional effect you may have when ending bonding leave - there might be some emotional impact associated with the separation of going back to work.
  • If applicable, make your employer aware that you will be needing a private pumping space with ample amount of time before your first day back to help ensure it’s ready by the time your leave ends.
  • If you can, think about taking the transition in phases, like Stephanie did. If your employer allows you to work from home, this can be a really great way to balance the transition to coming back to work. Be sure you connect with your employer with your ask for an alternative schedule early enough for them to work out the kinks and (hopefully) approve.
  • Keep in mind, with all things it may take time for you to get to your “new normal” – and that’s ok!

Remember: everyone’s situation is different! While Stephanie was able to manage her leave and her return to work her way, you’ll need to find the way that works best for you and your situation.

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This blog post is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal counsel. Please consult with an appropriate professional for legal and compliance advice. Any PFL information is as of the blog post’s date stamp; it is based on the applicable statutes and regulation,  and may change as regulations evolve or NY State issues guidance regarding Paid Family Leave regulations. Have more questions? Email us at pflquestions@shelterpoint.com

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