Besides the 3,800 unread emails, frequent well-wishers stopping by to welcome you back, and a mid-morning mad scramble to find a lactation room, your return to your workplace after maternity leave will be eerily familiar. In this twilight zone episode even though 3 months has passed, the same annoying things are there, that project still hasn’t happened, and the same cool people are making work tolerable. Yet at the same time, something is different. You feel like you have aged, grown (and shrunk) and become a new woman. “Fish out of water” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Your coworkers don’t have a clue – except others who have left to have a child and come back. To them you look the same as you did before you got pregnant (partly because they forgot what you looked like way back then). But what do they really think of you? Do they instantly see you as someone who’s back on the team, or like a new hire who needs to be reoriented? Even reinitiated? Do they envy or judge you for the time you took off – while you got next to no sleep in the process of introducing a new human being to life on this planet? Have they noticed that you have two different black shoes on?
Here is what people really think you when you return from maternity leave:
Every person: No matter what, they are jealous that you had so much time off. All they see is that you were gone for a long period of time. They don’t factor in that during the epic amount of time, you have undergone a 3-month, 24/7 triathlon of physical, mental, and spiritual endurance. Thank goodness for make-up and coffee for propping you up and holding your sleepy ass together.
Other working moms with young children: They get you. DON’T LOOK THEM IN THE EYE. The half-smile that is a mix of pity and support means she is telepathically sending you a message (you now have mom-to-mom telepathic abilities) mentally saying “Girl, doesn’t this SUCK?!” They really want to run up and hug you but know that if they do that, you will start to cry.
Other working moms who have older children: They admire you for doing it and are proud of you. They will reminisce to you about how hard it was for them “even way back then.” That comment does not help! Older woman reminiscing is just one more reminder of how your heart is breaking into pieces because you’re no longer at home with your child, which consequently pushes your mom guilt-o-meter to “nuclear meltdown.”
Your boss: He or she kind of just wants you to get back into the swing of things ASAP because you are really good at what you do and they NEED you back. He or she will be as accommodating as they can let themselves be, or as much as the business will allow, whichever is less. This is the ROBOT ZONE. Reassure him/her of your super-fly skills by doing your job well, but do not dare mention how you feel. They don’t care. And even if they did, they can’t help because they are still beholden to their own bosses. So suck it up and get all C3PO up in there!
The lady at the front desk: As you walk up to sign in at the front desk (because they forgot to turn on your security badge) she will say “Good morning, Cheryl. Welcome back!” And you will say “Hi Deb, it’s good to be back. And… it’s Elaine.” You have been gone for entire quarter, and Deb means well. Go easy on her.
The weird dude co-worker: He has NO sense of time and thinks “She’s back already?!” He is going to ask “How was it?!” like how you ask someone who just went to Disneyland for the first time. Your answer is always “My baby is happy and healthy, I’m so blessed.” Mental high-five for dodging yet another conversation with that guy.
The honest truth is that the vast majority of people don’t understand even a tiny amount about how you transformed over maternity leave. Their work lives are exactly the same. There might be some minor dramas or slight changes, but work for them has essentially been “same ‘ol, same ‘ol.” They might even struggle to answer your question: “What did I miss?”
(And oh Nelly, don’t ask “What did I miss?” if you are anywhere near pumping time because some work nerds get waaaaay into the details.)
The good news, Sister, is that you are probably going to judge yourself WAY more than anyone else, because you are NOT able to get as much done as you did pre-baby. Be kind to yourself. You are entering into a new norm as a working mom. This transition back to work means you cannot, will not, and SHOULD NOT get as much done. Taking two 20-minute breaks to lactate is the right thing to do for you and your baby. And by law your company must accommodate. Your homework is to start to be okay with okayness. You will not hit the same level of productivity during this time. It’s ok.
You are ok.
Ok is really DAMN good.
Elaine McGhee (aka ThriveMomma on Twitter) is a Working Mom Support Coach who founded ThriveMomma to help new moms confidently go back to work after maternity leave and find balance as a working mother. She works part time for a lovely corporation and feels fortunate to be able to follow her passion and coach moms on the side. This post originally appeared on ThriveMomma.