Many years ago, a dear friend used an analogy that has become a guiding principle of my parenting philosophy, and I suppose of life in general. And it’s about burritos. Life was really busy for her at the time and she was feeling overwhelmed.
“It’s like I’m trying to manage an overstuffed burrito.”
Years later the burrito image came to mind as I was parenting a newborn for the first time, and then particularly when it came time to return to work. It seemed like there were so many more moving parts to manage on a daily basis, in addition to the emotional and identity challenges I was experiencing as I reconciled how I would return to the professional part of myself as a new mom. It felt like my burrito was suddenly overflowing. I wanted to have it all: the beans and the cheese and the guacamole and everything else. But I suddenly felt like I couldn’t keep it all contained within my life tortilla.
Where would the baby go when I was at work?
What would the transition be like returning to my office?
What hours should I work to be able to spend time with my baby and also get my job done?
How would I fit pumping into my days?
What should I set as my new work and life boundaries?
How will my partner and I manage this as a team?
How will we ever have time to cook dinner again?
Those of us who are planners (or over planners as in my case) love to try to figure it all out ahead of time to minimize stress, but it’s a lot to manage, and in reality it takes trial and error over time.
After navigating the return to work experience three times (under very different circumstances!) and documenting the experiences of dozens of other women from different professions through The Pivot Blog, I’m glad to report a universal truth:
You grow a bigger tortilla over time.
Just like learning a new skill, training for an event, or taking on a new hobby, it takes time to develop your parenting muscles, but in time you will grow your capacity to manage the very full (and fulfilling!) professional and personal parts of your life, and I hope you will feel hugely satisfied when you see your progress.
Returning to work can be overwhelming, but here are ten tips from working moms I’ve interviewed on how to have the smoothest, most efficient transition possible:
Find some small way to prepare your brain to start functioning in work mode before you return. This could be checking a few work emails to familiarize yourself with what’s been happening in your absence, reading industry news to catch up on trends and events, or listening to podcasts relevant to your industry. It’s not work, and it shouldn't take away from your leave experience, but it is a small way to start turning those professional gears in your brain.
Talk to your manager about what to expect before you return. And talk through any accommodations you need to have in place, particularly if you plan to pump.
Inquire with your employer about the possibility of a gradual onramp back to work over a period of time. Whether it’s a couple of weeks or a month, so many moms I’ve interviewed have expressed how much a gradual transition helped them re-enter the workplace.
Own your work schedule and proactively manage it wherever you can. Block times on your calendar to pump if you plan to, or even for a quick mental break during the day as you adjust back to work life. Make your working hours clear in your calendar so you can leave work or sign offline at the time you need to relieve childcare and/or transition into family time.
Do some “test-runs” before your first day back so the first week doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Practice getting yourself and your baby ready in the morning, gathering all the stuff you will each need for the day (consider packing it all up the night before), and then getting out the door and to your destinations. Plan for how much time you expect to need for all of that and then double it!
If you are co-parenting, make plans with your partner for how you will create new rhythms and habits together, from childcare arrangements to meal planning to house cleaning. Don’t forget that this is a partnership!
Ask for help from anyone willing to give it: family, friends, or colleagues. Transitioning back to work is a challenging experience and there is no need to go through it alone.
Set realistic expectations and give yourself the grace to make mistakes along the way. The truth is, on your first day back you won’t be able to operate at work exactly the way you did pre-baby. Expect a ramp-up period and don’t let yourself feel badly about anything because it will take a while to get into a groove again.
If it all feels overwhelming and you find yourself going to a dark place, seek mental health support. Your primary care doctor and OB-GYN are great starting points. Postpartum mental health challenges are so common, and there is absolutely no shame in seeking help so you can feel your best again and bring your best to your baby.
Find small ways to regularly celebrate yourself and what you’re doing, and ask for the time you need to do it. Get a haircut. Go for a walk. Get a massage. Read a book. It may feel indulgent to prioritize time for yourself during such a hectic time of life, but it’s essential for your own physical and mental health.
Remember, it takes time to get into a new groove and feel comfortable in your body and mind again. Most working moms I speak with report starting to feel like “themselves” somewhere around the one year mark, so patience is key.
I like to think that we as working moms are always growing a bigger tortilla, even after we’ve navigated that first tricky transition back to work. We’re constantly learning new skills as parents and professionals, and growing into more capable versions of ourselves. Transitioning back to work after baby may be one of the trickiest experiences you’ll ever have, but be reassured that you’ve got the capacity inside yourself to handle anything that comes your way.
For more inspiration and advice from working, pumping moms, join our email list and receive alerts when new stories are published!