How to Go Back to Work From Home After Parental Leave

Woman works with infant baby in her lap

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Going back to work after having a baby can bring a variety of emotions. You may be wondering about missing out on milestones, as your infant might be smiling, engaging in tummy time, and possibly even sleeping through the night by this point. Or, you could be itching to get back to your work routine, with big projects on your mind. But when work is also your home, things can get a little tricky.

At least one parent was employed in 89% of families with children in 2021, although mothers with young children remain less likely to be employed. For those who are working, 53% of mothers in one survey said they’d prefer at-home positions.

We turned to the experts to learn more about working from home as a new parent, and how to make the transition go as smoothly as possible for everyone.

How to Prepare to Go Back to Work

Going back to work after having a baby is an adjustment, whether it's at an office or at home. In preparing to go back, it’s important to set your own expectations, create transition phases, and give yourself grace. 

Set Expectations

It’s all about expectations, says Rachel L. Goldman, PhD, a clinical psychologist who is also a work-from-home parent of two.

“It’s an adjustment, and every change can take time and might be challenging,” she says, recalling her experience returning to work. “I thought I would be capable of getting emails and other work done when I was home with my baby, but I was setting myself up for disappointment,” she says. 

Accepting she wasn’t going to get work done on the days she didn’t have help allowed her to be more present with her child and enjoy their time together. “I didn’t feel like I ‘should have’ gotten other work done, because I told myself I wasn’t going to. It was an immediate weight lifted.”

Ease Back Into the Work Routine

Lauren Smith Brody, CEO and author of the “The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby” and co-founder of the Chamber of Mothers, stresses that one of the most important things new parents can do for themselves is to ease back into things. “An employer-supported phase back is key,” Brody says. “Very few of us can go from one routine to a completely different one without some steps along the way.” 

She advises taking a gentle approach with yourself and asking both your employer and loved ones to support you. If your schedule allows it, you can also build in a "practice round" about a week before you go back to work.

“Make plans that have you getting away from the house and baby,” Brody advises. If possible, consider starting childcare a week ahead of your job start date to give yourself time to organize and mobilize, or phase into childcare gently. 

Foster Daily Transitions

Goldman stresses the importance of a daily transition from home life to work life, as there is no commute involved when you WFH.

“Commuting is a built-in transition to be able to go from one role to another. Without that commute when working from home, you have to create that transition for yourself,” she says.

Goldman suggests taking a few minutes to breathe or stretch, tidy the office, or walk—and you can do this at the end of the day as well. “I tend to personally end my work about 20 minutes before I know I have to return to my family to allow myself time to decompress,'' she says. 

Create a Physical Space for Work

A stimulating environment is both conducive to productivity and your own mental health.

Brody advises creating a space at home that's your own, and not intended for anything other than work. “When that door closes, you are sending a signal to everyone that this is precious protected time and space,” she says. 

As part of your physical space, Brody suggests setting up home versions of some of the 'perks' of office life, such as a mini fridge stocked with your favorite drinks, or snacks on hand to look forward to.

How to Create Boundaries When You Work From Home

Boundary setting can be challenging for anyone who works from home, and it’s only amplified for new parents.

Try a few strategies and see what works best for you, whether it be making sure the kids are out of the house during meetings or something as simple as marking yourself busy on your calendar during peak dinner, bath, and bedtime hours.

"Of course, there will be times when you have to bend your own rules," says Brody. "Life happens, deadlines happen, bosses happen—but having that baseline of standards lets you be deliberate."

Close the Door, If You Can

For Michelle Sharma, a Connecticut mother of an 18-month-old, setting her boundaries began before she even accepted her job. She negotiated a fully remote position when returning to her current company, knowing she wanted to work from home to be closer to her child. “I knew having a baby was going to be a significant change in our lifestyle, and that was part of my negotiation when I rejoined this company,” she says.

She has a physical boundary of a door to her office, which her au pair respects. “I’m able to close the door when I’m on calls,” she says. On the flip side, she’s also able to pop out when she gets breaks. “I like being able to see my child during the day,” she adds. 

Strategize With Other Caretakers

Janet Fitzpatrick, an Illinois-based mom of three, is also fully remote and has been since 2017. While she's grateful for the ability to work from home, she blames the pandemic for removing some of the boundaries she leaned on like daycare.

That’s created a new world order in her house if her children are home over the summer or when they are sick. Fitzpatrick works in an open floor plan, but finds ways to cope if the kids are home, like asking a babysitter to take them out of the house.

She and her husband consult with each other if they need to schedule meetings and the kids happen to be around.

Don't Forget to Set Boundaries With Yourself, Too

You should also set boundaries with yourself about your own expectations, cautions Brody.  “You can’t work around the clock and always be responsive," she adds. "Be as good to yourself as you’d hope a boss would be to you.” 

Sharma admits she could have been better about setting boundaries with herself at work, such as blocking off specific time on her calendar to breastfeed and pump. “My supply dipped when I went back to work, even though I was working from home,” she reflects. 

Part of setting boundaries is also knowing when you have to reassess the situation and adjust. “Now that my son is a toddler, it's gotten much harder to work from home," Goldman says. "I have to go downstairs to my building's lounge to work if he is there because if I'm home, he wants me.” 

How to Navigate Inevitable Situations 

You’ll inevitably have a double booking. One example is breastfeeding and having an important meeting. Depending on the situation’s specifics, Goldman says it’s best to be transparent and communicate. “We are all human and everyone knows we have lives outside of work, even if some bosses don’t want to acknowledge that,” Goldman says. 

For the breastfeeding and Zoom scenario, which happened to Goldman, she suggests telling your boss you will be present, but your camera will need to be off. You could also communicate the situation if you are comfortable doing so, and ask to skip the meeting. 

She cautions against falling into the trap of apologizing by default. “We over-apologize,” she says, advising you to use your best judgment on whether an apology is warranted. 

How to Look and Feel Professional

There is evidence that an organized environment can improve focus, concentration, and mood. “If we are surrounded by ‘chaos,’ we are going to feel chaotic," Goldman says. She suggests maintaining some sort of structure by implementing routines. “They can help us feel more in control."

Brody says just thinking about preparation can be a way of preparing yourself. “Some people feel this way about dressing for the job, that certain kinds of clothing feel more in the work zone," she says. "But preparation can be just about knowing that you've done something for yourself to be ready, whether that's as big as buying new clothes, or as small as putting on your lucky earrings." 

For example, Fitzpatrick does as much as she can at night to feel professional the next day, such as showering and preparing meals. Sharma keeps dedicated Zoom tops like blazers and sweaters lying around to look more professional during meetings.

Advocate for Yourself if Something Isn't Working

Going back to work is a good time to assess a lot of things, Brody says, including what support you need, where the division of labor with a partner might need to be, and other hard but necessary conversations.

You might decide you need a little more time before returning to your job. “Some things may be more negotiable than you realize,” Brody says. “It’s worth asking HR to see what might work. Even an additional two weeks of maternity leave can make a huge difference.” 

Rachel Goldman, PhD

It can be hard being a parent, and working from home can be very isolating. Sometimes you just have to figure out a balance that works for you. It doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing.’

— Rachel Goldman, PhD

If you end up deciding working from home is not for you, Goldman says it’s okay to change your mind. “Be kind to yourself and remind yourself you are human,” she says. If your expectations don’t align with reality, it may require a different decision.

She suggests speaking with your company to see what you can test before committing, such as a hybrid situation. “It can be hard being a parent and working from home can be very isolating," Goldman says. "Sometimes you just have to figure out a balance that works for you. It doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing.’”

Take Stock if You’re Overwhelmed

Going back to work from home is a big transition. Brody says it might be helpful to declare yourself in a temporary survival mode. This might mean embracing shortcuts, avoiding an over-booked calendar, or keeping your daily tasks to the essentials.

“This is not a time to overdeliver,” she says, offering two mantras that may help with perspective: “No extra stuff,” and “Only one major challenge per day." She adds, "Remember, they just went from having zero of you to having you back (hooray!). An 83% effort might really be enough for now.”

Goldman suggests also focusing on time management. “Make a to-list, and a ‘not today’ to-do list,” she says. “Many times we have unrealistic expectations

and being honest and kind to yourself will help.” It could also help to delegate responsibilities to others.

As with any other time in your life, if you're finding that it's too challenging to navigate this stress and overwhelm on your own, consider turning to a therapist or counselor, or even talking with your healthcare provider. Going back to work after parental leave can be stressful in any circumstance, and it's important to know that you aren't alone.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment Characteristics of Family 2021.

  2. Institute for Family Studies. Homeward Bound: The Work-Family Reset in Post-COVID America.

  3. Espeso-Gil S, Holik AZ, Bonnin S, et al. Environmental enrichment induces epigenomic and genome organization changes relevant for cognitionFront Mol Neurosci. 2021;0. doi:10.3389/fnmol.2021.664912

  4. Housing environment and mental health outcomes: A levels of analysis perspectiveJournal of Environmental Psychology. 2007;27(1):79-89.

By Lauren Finney
Lauren is an experienced print and digital content creator with an extensive list of clients whom she has served through editorial consulting, content creation, branding, copywriting, native content, branded content, and more.