Returning to work after maternity leave
July 11, 2011 9:46 AM   Subscribe

What can I do now to make life easier for myself and my family when I return to work in three weeks, after a total of 3 months off for maternity leave?

You Mefites always have such good advice, and I got a lot of help here while I was still pregnant. Now that I am suffering from baby-brain, I'm sure I'm not thinking my return to work through entirely. Baby Vignettist (hereafter to be known as Short Story) will be 8 weeks old this week, and I have to return to work at the beginning of August.

He is EBF (exclusively breast fed), so my thoughts about returning to work have been mostly focused on pumping enough to store in the freezer, and trying to figure out the logistics of pumping at work.

Child care will be courtesy of my MIL, who will care for him here at our house. So I have to figure out my morning routine in terms of getting myself ready and out the door, but no other issues with regard to getting him to the sitter.

I have spoken to my HR (I am in California, just in case) and my supervisor, and I will be cleared to return with a letter from my doctor, which I am working on.

Otherwise, what am I not thinking of?

Bonus question: At the beginning I will be returning to the office, but a good portion of my job requires that I drive every day and meet clients, so after a couple of weeks I will be back on the road. Any tips for pumping in the car? My client visits are clustered near one another, so the drives are always short distances, so it's not like I can get on the freeway and pump during that drive. I will likely be parked somewhere on the street when I am attempting this.
posted by vignettist to Work & Money (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Know that you are light-years ahead of the game compared to where I was in preparing to return to work.

As to pumping in the car, if you can trial this out a time or two, that would be best. Are you using a hand-held or a powered pump? If it's the latter, I found that I had trouble with the battery pack of my pump and it just never worked as well as having it plugged into a wall. There are wipes made for cleaning pump parts if you are away from a sink, and having some kind of nursing cover for yourself and for the windows would be helpful. If you are going to have a fairly regular schedule of client visits, might it be possible to ask for a spot to pump in one of their locations? It just seems like having a cool, comfortable place might make things easier for you.

It's wonderful that you have family that is available to provide child care in your home! That cuts down so much on logistics and stress. It will take a few weeks to really get in a groove for how to get out the door, and get back home, but you'll get there. Just be prepared to feel a bit frazzled for a few weeks. Brainstorming a schedule with your partner would be helpful at this stage. How will dinner get made? Who will get groceries? What cleaning stuff needs to be taken care of during the week and what can wait for weekends or after baby is in bed? Be sure to communicate about this regularly in the early weeks! I found it was "easier" to just try to take care of all the stuff that needed doing until I was so stressed out I just exploded. My husband had been willing to do anything the whole time, but since I hadn't asked, didn't really see what needed doing. It's continued to evolve over time, and being able to talk about it all was so helpful.

I also made some changes to my own routine that were helpful. Especially at first I got everything ready to go for baby and me the night before to cut down on the scramble in the morning. Having one central spot where my stuff would always be, right next to the door, with my keys and phone in my purse unless they were being used really helped too. I'm disorganized on my best days, but adding sleep deprivation to the mix ensured I was losing stuff all the time. This really helped.

Also give yourself permission to be a bit of a mess and go easy on yourself, especially at first. Working and being a parent is HARD. You are not going to feel the same about work ever, ever again; even if you love your career. You will learn to adjust and priortize and juggle in different ways, and you will strike a balance that feels right for you and for your family, but it can feel disorienting at first. I found talking to friends with kids was so, so helpful during that time. If you can identify a couple of go to friends, it can make a world of difference.

Good luck to you and your family! You'll do great.
posted by goggie at 10:05 AM on July 11, 2011

I can't speak to the returning-to-work part (haven't managed that yet), but I can give one little tidbit for pumping: Bring a piece of clothing that smells like Short Story with you, in a ziploc, every day. My ability to pump milk went WAY up when I could smell my baby! A photo of him couldn't hurt either. I've also heard that a recording of your baby's "hungry" cry can help if you're having trouble, but that's hardly a stress-reducer.
posted by lizifer at 10:13 AM on July 11, 2011

2nding goggie that you should be prepared for your re-entry to kind of suck until you get a routine down. I went back to work when Baby Rabbit was 10 weeks old, and that first day, I came home from work and just sat on the couch and cried. But it did get better! It's just a matter of finding a good routine and getting into the habits that you don't have to constantly think about.

Definitely try to stock up on milk beforehand -- freeze everything you pump until a few days before you go back to work, and then stick that last bit of milk in the fridge -- you don't need to freeze the fresh stuff just to rethaw it! I found that the problem with breastfeeding is you have NO IDEA how much your baby drinks, so I found out what an average days' worth of infant breastmilk consumption was (according to they drink about 25 oz per day) and made sure I had that much in the fridge on the first day back. Turns out BR prefers to reverse cycle so now he only drinks about 6-8 oz during the time I'm away and then nurses a lot at night to make up for it, which actually makes pumping easier since I don't have to worry about getting a whole lot to keep the fridge supply, but definitely at first you should assume that your baby will drink a lot until you get a good handle on how much he needs.

It's a LOT easier to pump if you have a designated spot where you can leave your breastpump set up -- putting everything together and breaking it down all the time really adds precious time to your pumping routine, and over the course of the day it adds up big time. Is there a "home base" where you can go and pump? That will make things easier.

Figure out how you're going to store the milk until you get home. Freezer pack and cooler? Is there a fridge somewhere? Etc.

Not sure if you're cloth diapering or not, but if you are, I found I needed to increase the number of diapers we had, so I didn't have to do laundry every day if I didn't want to. Obviously if you're doing disposables, it's not an issue, but you were asking for things you're not thinking of, so this may be one of them.

Even if you don't think of everything beforehand, you will eventually figure out a routine that works for you, and once you get into the groove it gets so much better! Good luck.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:37 AM on July 11, 2011

It might be a good idea to figure out ahead of time exactly how you feel intellectually / emotionally about supplementing with formula should the need arise. Even under the most ideal pumping circumstances (a private room with an outlet and a comfy chair and a door that locks), your output will not always be optimal - I can imagine that having to pump in a car would only increase the stress level, which can also affect how much you can pump. Giving yourself permission to supplement if you need to - or knowing that no matter what happens, you will commit to EBF (which could mean extra pumping at home at night and on weekends) - can make the times of lower output feel less painful, because you have a plan. I was not able to pump enough to meet demand, and chose supplementing over lack of sleep, but I don't think I had to resort to it even a dozen times over a 13-month period. Giving myself that permission not to feel guilty made it so much easier during the times when I simply couldn't produce enough. There will also likely be times (roughly every four months) when ShortStory hits a growth spurt and demand can outstrip supply - so bank as much in the freezer as you can ahead of time.

I used the Lansinoh storage bags, and jerry-rigged a system where I pumped directly into the bags, then dated them with a sharpie and tossed them into the freezer bag - this made it much easier to clean up afterwards for me (seconding the disposable wipes for cleanup).

One last bit of pumping advice I wish I didn't have - it's fine to multitask, but do not attempt any important work-related phone calls while pumping. That whooshing sound may be low, but it's distinctive, and any woman who has pumped before will recognize it - and may call you out (ack!).
posted by Mchelly at 10:41 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

As I have gone through this twice with me wife, I will add that it will take time to get a new routine down once you go back to work. Both times, my wife thought that everything would be set for the very first day back to work, and that isn't how it works--it could take a few months to get into your new routine, so don't be hard on yourself if it takes that long (or longer). And practice being flexible so when things don't go your way (which will be most of the time), you can still cope. :)

(Otherwise, I would just repeat what everyone else has said--especially the part about the pump not working as well off batteries--my wife did most of her pumping in the car, actually, rather than at home, so she noticed.)
posted by TinWhistle at 10:43 AM on July 11, 2011

Oh! If you can take a day sometime in the week before you return to do a "dry run" (have MIL come watch baby, try pumping wherever you're going to, otherwise simulate your workday routine) that may help you feel better prepared.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:52 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

If baby is EBF, does that mean he's never had a bottle of (your) milk? If that's the case,get him used to alternating between breast and bottle before you leave him with grandma.
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 11:00 AM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Think about some nice things to do for yourself!

Massage? Warm bath when you get home? Pre-stock your freezer with some meals you love? Have a cleaning lady in once a week? TiVo your favorite show? Brand new sheets for your bed?
posted by bilabial at 11:01 AM on July 11, 2011

Be gentle with yourself. I felt dumb as a box of rocks for the first month after my return to work, but the following year was one of my best ever, on all fronts. It gets better, to paraphrase inappropriately.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:06 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Be gentle; give yourself permission to change your expectations (no matter how hard I tried, pumping while at work did not work for us as a family); think about how you will deal with your MIL if she is doing something you don't like (i.e. is she going to write down the daily routine? does she agree to do things "your way"? is she going to drive with the baby? give the baby a pacifier? always let the baby sleep on her chest? let the baby CIO, even if you don't want her to? Etc.); find a support system that you can complain to about your MIL (not your husband; probably not your mom); if the baby is still waking at night have a plan for sharing that work with your spouse so you aren't completely useless from exhaustion every single day; remember that your hormones are still wreaking havoc and you might cry/be depressed/be so excited to get out of the house and may feel guilty/elated/etc.

Good luck! It can be done!
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:26 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've pumped in the car quite a bit. The key is to have a car charger. You can buy one for all of the Medela pumps. I would pump while driving and wear a hooter hider. I felt ridiculous but it worked.

Also, I'd definitely suggest taking a day off before you return to work or scheduling a vacation day after you start. Those first few months after returning to work are really tough because, in addition to being separated from your baby, you have so little time to just relax and not be on the work or baby clock.
posted by JuliaKM at 11:29 AM on July 11, 2011

The idea of taking a few "test days" off is a good one. My wife was pretty much an emotional wreck the first few days back to work after 4 months on leave. Even though she knew I was staying home to be with our son all day, it was really hard for her to leave.
posted by ducktape at 11:51 AM on July 11, 2011

Make. Food. Now. seriously the best thing i did to prepare for going back to work was to cook breakfasts/dinners ahead of time, just like i did leading up to my due date. in fact, while i really appreciated friends/family coming by with snacks & meals right after Toddler Oh Really was born, i'll always have a special place in my heart for my friend who gave me 3 casseroles the week i came back to work.
posted by oh really at 12:11 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

First off, I really recommend joining the PumpMoms yahoo group for pumping advice and support. They were an amazing source of advice for me, I learned so much. I'd suggest signing up now, as the ladies on there can give you lots of tips to prepare you for pumping at work. Here's some tips that helped me.

* Don't bother cleaning down all the pump equipment after each pumping session, just throw the bottles, horns etc into a ziploc or cooler, and put them in the fridge with your expressed milk. Saves so much time. If there is no fridge available at work for you to use, then store everything in an insulated cooler with ice packs.
* If you have a private office and can pump at your desk, all the better, as you won't stare at the milk output and start obsessing over the amount. Distract yourself with work, or reading, or whatever. I was lucky enough to have a "lactation lounge" to pump in, and I asked IT to put a PC in there for me, so I could continue to work while pumping. Makes the time speed by and it means managers can't complain about time spent away from your desk/loss of productivity. *I used a pumping bustier, so I was able to pump hands-free. These things are fantastic. Your local mom store may carry them, I just got one from
*Don't try and skimp the pump sessions at first, try and pump 3 times a day, and see if you are able to cut down to 2. I tried to only pump twice a day at first, and my output dropped dramatically. Obviously this assumes this works with your schedule, and is an ideal, but as a general rule the more you can pump the better, until you find your rhythm.
*Baby ShortStory may adjust nicely to receiving a bottle of milk from your MIL, or there may be a transition period where he/she refuses to drink any milk from a bottle. If baby ShortStory has never taken a bottle before, this transition can be stressful for everyone. My advice would be to try and get MIL or Dad to give him/her a bottle to start this transition, but you must be out of the house when this happens. Otherwise baby ShortStory will just wait for you to come out of hiding (neither of mine would take a bottle from me ever).
*Use SLOW nipples. These are closer to the speed of breastfeeding. Ignore the age recommendations on the bottles/nipples, these are for formula-fed babies. If you use medium or fast nipples, baby ShortStory may get used to the faster flow, and start to fuss when nursing. Or not, none of this is predictable!

Good luck, and go easy on yourself! I'm happy to chat over memail if you need an ear.
posted by Joh at 12:12 PM on July 11, 2011

You'll probably need extra ice to keep the milk cold if you're leaving it in a warm car during customer visits. I can't imagine pumping while driving, but it sounds like some women manage it.

Try to figure out what you want your evening to look like - do you want MIL to leave the minute you get home, or do you want a few minutes to settle in before you get down on the floor with baby? Should baby be hungry so that you feed him right away? Or be awake and cheerful so you have some nice time together? It may be that your MIL can work towards a nap and feeding schedule that puts you where you want to be when you get home.

This was the one time in my life I ran the dishwasher every night, full or not, just so I wouldn't have to handwash all the pump stuff.

And, as others have said, you'll make it through. Don't be afraid to supplement if you need to. Talk to your boss if the schedule is just overwhelming.
posted by Sukey Says at 12:45 PM on July 11, 2011

DO clean your pump parts as often as you can. If you're in an office, get the steam cleaning bags. If you're on the road, do soap and water.

I didn't clean them enough and they grew mold and it was totally gross and I felt like I had to throw away months of pumped milk (the lactation consultant said not to though...)
posted by k8t at 1:52 PM on July 11, 2011

2nding Oh Really's advice to prepare dinner in advance. We ate out / had takeout way too much after I went back to work because we didn't want to deal with cooking, at all, ever.

Not to derail too much, but k8t, can you elaborate on what your cleaning routine was, such that it allowed mold to form? I asked a question about pumping, storing, and cleaning a few months back, so I clearly spend way too much time thinking about this issue, but I'm curious (and still paranoid).
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:17 PM on July 11, 2011

If you're going to be on the road, is there someplace that you could go to for pumping while out? I'm thinking maybe a library/community center, 24-hour Fitness (or other gym with multiple locations), YMCA, etc. Just sounds like it might be easier than in the car, but I've never tried it either way, so whatever works for you.
posted by CathyG at 3:59 PM on July 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, looks like I am on the right track at least. Now if I can just get my pumped volume per day up, I won't have too much more to stress about.
posted by vignettist at 6:42 PM on July 11, 2011

Hmm... pumping... I bought a big Medela pump and it was awesome. It came with a battery pack, which I used when I had to pump in the car. My friend who's a vet bought a car power adapter for pumping in her vet truck, so if you're on the road a lot I'd go that route. Mostly I pumped in my office, but I pumped all sorts of places when I was out of the office at meetings. I used to park in the back of a parking lot (library, grocery store, wherever) and put up my sunshade for privacy, and that worked OK for me. Even with the heat running that wasn't the most comfortable thing in winter though, so if you can track down some Babies R Us stores with nursing rooms (or other similar stores), that'd be nice. Worst place I ever pumped? In a bathroom stall at the Chicago convention center, with the bag hung from the back of the stall door and me on my feet so I was as far as possible from the "facilities." I took my iPod with me so I couldn't hear anything else and wouldn't think about people hearing my pump.

The Medela bag had great ice packs for keeping milk cold, which saved me (no fridge space at work). I took my equipment home every night and hubby helped clean everything. We sterilized using the microwave steam bags, and ran stuff through the dishwasher most nights. Medela makes special wipes for cleaning on the go - those are handy too.

I tried to keep my pumping schedule kind of close to the nursing schedule at home, and I think that helped with supply. That can be tricky, though, in the real work world, plus everyone is a little different about how they respond to pumping vs. nursing. If you don't already have a lactation consultant on speed dial, find one now so you have someone to call if your supply drops. Also bookmark, I used to get great info there.

My goal was to make it the full first year. We have some health problems in my family (diabetes and asthma) that can be protected against w/bf, so I was pretty motivated. My son ended up getting some supplemental formula at day care, but my daughter didn't. I set short-term goals, had to manage a couple of supply issues (stress was my enemy), and yeah - cleaning the equipment gets kind of old. Every once in awhile I'd think "I don't HAVE to do this - why am I doing it again?" In the end I'm glad I did it, it made me feel better about going back to work, and I think I felt more connected to them through that crazy first year.

Good luck!
posted by hms71 at 7:05 PM on July 11, 2011

What I didn't know with my first baby but found out in time for my second: My insurance covers breast pumps! I had my ob fax them a prescription, and the insurance company's medical device provider mailed me the latest Medela Pump in Style! Check with your insurance before spending your own $300.
posted by Knowyournuts at 8:59 PM on July 11, 2011

Obviously, wash your pump parts at the end of the day, but no need to wash them during the day. Getting into the nooks and crannies can be awkward, but the Dr Browns bottle brush is perfect for that, its like a super-thin pipe cleaner brush.

If you want to increase your output a bit, try pumping more in the mornings, when your output is naturally higher. Output is usually lowest in the evenings, when prolactin is lowest in your body.
posted by Joh at 10:20 PM on July 11, 2011

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