“What surprised me about my reintegration initially, was that no one was talking about it. There was this lack of awareness in the office that anything may have been different. Meanwhile my life shifted 180 degrees! And everything about how I viewed myself was different. Yet I was entering a world where it was like, okay turn the lights on, you’re back,” said Lori Mihalich-Levin, Entrepreneur, Attorney and Return to Work Expert.
Like many of us, she was surprised by the jarring reentry to work she experienced after her two maternity leaves. Which led her to specialize in managing this delicate transition. The pandemic pushed more than a million Mothers out of the paid workforce. And millions of caregivers, who have worked remotely through the pandemic, now face a return to the office. And the often hidden expectations, that come with it.
So, we’re living through a global work transformation. But let’s remember, that the workplace didn’t really ‘work’ for Mothers or primary caregivers, pre-pandemic. Change creates new opportunities, though. So, whether it’s coming back from a furlough, layoff, or parental leave, is there a better way to rig the return to work for success?
Acknowledge (For Yourself) That You’ve Changed
After any absence from the workplace, the returnee, is different. Your priorities and worldview are different. And after the birth of a child or recovery from illness, you are physically different. You’re making constant adjustments. But at work, you’re treated as if things are static. It’s like, let’s not talk about why you were gone. You’re back now so, boom, just jump back in.
But as Lori wisely reminds, the return is a journey. “Anticipate that it is not going to be a quick transition. When people know that this is a whole year process, and it’s not something they’re supposed to feel, ‘normal’ about after a week. It helps reset their expectations.”
Whether You’re Returning to Work or the Office
There’s the return to work, for people who either were forced out, terminated or opted out of the paid workforce, during the pandemic. And then, there’s a larger group of people, facing a return to office after over a year. Many of whom embraced the positives of working from home. Despite the loss of work-life boundaries.
After starting a business to help make the process easier, Lori has learned a lot about returning from absences. And there are steps you can take, to make it less bumpy. She said, “The first step, is a mindful mindset to manage that, ‘oh my gosh, I’m watching my brain go off the rails, how do I bring it back’ piece.” Ah, yes. Something many of us can relate to.
Your Reporting Manager Will Make a Difference
“I was surprised by a couple of other things after my leave. One, there was a lack of empathy from a particular manager, who had been through the process herself, many years earlier. And when I talked about a desire to form a community for working parents within the workplace, I was basically told, ‘well, I don’t know why you would need that. It’s not an issue.’ And that was from my manager. Human Resources was more open to my starting a group. And I ultimately founded a working parent group, because I wanted people to be having conversations around the return.”
At a human level, people crave belonging and peer support. And Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s) have become much more common in the workplace.
As Will the Money and the Role
Before Covid, between the wage and leadership gaps, many Mothers felt trapped. Viable career options for working parents have to meet a checklist that often includes enough money for good childcare. And the right culture, flexibility and growth potential. Before Covid, Moms were overwhelmingly either co-, sole or primary breadwinners.
Lori said, “I’ve read too many stories of women who have tried to go back in after stopping work because of Covid and have found roles that are way below their competency level and a third of the pay they used to make. My fears for Moms are not only about whether they will be able to find a job,, but also the level at which people will be able to return.” How do we tempt displaced Moms back into the workforce?
And the Support of Your Village Matters, Too
When asked what will tempt people back in, Lori said, “It’s necessity. And reaching an economic point, where it is completely infeasible to have one person at home.” Childcare costs more than mortgages in most US cities. And for kids over age five, school is the primary childcare for most families. Covid also removed critical infrastructure that made working parenthood possible.
She added, “The reopening of schools, childhood vaccines and the ability to know that your village is there to support you and your family once again, in a way that just wasn’t available during the pandemic. And then quite frankly, employers willing to be flexible, who understand and have learned the lessons of Covid. That we need not have 100% butt-in-chair-24/7 in order to have a productive employee and a successful and creative workforce.”
How to Move Forward? Start With Your Mindset
“It’s all about micro self-care and gratitude practices. And connecting to community and making sure that you are, even in teeny tiny ways, every single day, doing something to sustain yourself,” Lori said. Self-care is critical, yet often abandoned with the demands of parenting.
She teaches four key principles to ease the return to work, “So, it’s mindfulness, logistics, leadership and then community. And this is the big one. I probably would never have created Mindful Return had I not felt so isolated.” Yes! Starting from a strong psychological place helps buffer many of life’s plot twists. She added, “And we’ve learned a lot about self-care as humans, by taking time for gardening, baking,reading and walking during the pandemic. And we need to continue to incorporate all of those things, mindfully and intentionally in our daily lives.”
Then, Find Your People
Lori said, “I have been thinking a lot about safety in numbers. There was a Washingtonian magazine walk-out a few weeks ago. The entire staff walked out, when the CEO wrote an Op Ed for the Washington Post that said, ‘if you don’t come back to the office, then you’re risking your job.’ I feel like there are enough people who need flexibility that I’m hopeful our voices can carry. Because there are more of us, and we’re more united now.” Amen! Lori is also a serial founder of working parent groups. And added, “So, if your organization has a working parent group, tap into it to get the support of the people there. These working parent groups not only help us through the post-baby transition period, but just help us feel normal and sane through all of the ups and downs of parenthood. And they’re great professional business networking opportunities too! I’ve gotten legal work through the working parent group of my office.”
Learn from Others
“When you’re returning back to work after parental leave,” Lori explained, “there are a million ninja tips and tricks that other parents can give you to help make the process go more smoothly. Like having extra wipes and diapers in your trunk so you can always have them on hand, that sort of thing. And I feel like those logistical aspects are going to need to be revisited when we go back to our offices. We’re going to have to think about how we are going to get there. How much money will we be spending on commuting? And do we feel safe taking public transport? We’re going to have to map out the getting-out-the-door routine all over again.”
And Lead Others
Lori explained, “I’m a huge believer that parenthood develops massive leadership muscles. And that leaving and returning gives us opportunities to grow and to show up as leaders, no matter what our role or title is. There’s an opportunity for parents to view themselves as leaders in the space of return. For example, working parents can raise issues to leadership that they, as parents, are concerned about right now. Like the fact that our kids aren’t vaccinated and we don’t have childcare.”
Then, Set Boundaries From a Place of Strength
When financial stability is on the line, for many it’s harder to say no at work. But it’s possible. “I have found that some people have had more success with negotiating boundaries,” Lori said, “when they have gone through coaching programs to help them feel like they have agency and some power over their work environments. It’s often an act of daring to be assertive and to set those boundaries.” So true.
She explained, “I had a Mom who went through the Mindful Return course who, pre-Covid, wanted to change her work hours after she had a baby. But she was terrified to ask her employer. She went to visit her manager while on her leave and was shaking in her shoes to be able to ask this question. After asking for a different schedule, her manager said to her, ‘Oh my gosh I thought you came here to let me know you were quitting! What else do you want?’ Her manager would have given her a lot more flexibility, but she didn’t even think to ask for it. So, you do find people who are massively supportive and willing to raise up the careers of working parents and help them figure out how to make it work. But you can’t get those things if you don’t actually ask for them.”
Or, Upgrade Your Work Situation
We tend to compare ourselves at work to our pre-kid selves. Unfortunately, so do many employers. Lori admitted, “Sometimes people need to change to another work environment where people don’t know them a certain way, in order to get a fresh start. When I left the workplace where I had my babies and was working full time, and I then joined a law firm on a 60% schedule, no one knew me at that law firm as a 100% attorney on 100% schedule. And so, for me, it was much easier to craft a schedule where I had all these boundaries from day one. In contrast, I’ve seen people try to morph from round-the-clock employee to part-time and try to set new boundaries, and it can be much harder to stick to, when everyone knows you without the boundaries.” Sigh.
Reset to New Norms
Whether you’re returning to work or to the office, know that many, many others share the intense feelings you are experiencing right now. Whether it’s wanting to resist the return to high-stress-no-space living, guilt about leaving your kids, or concerns about the pandemic and safety, it comes back to connecting within your community of support.
Lori said, “There’s extra work that we need to do as individuals going back to offices to make sure that we’re not isolating ourselves. We need to be talking to people about the feelings and the anxieties that we’re having.” Yes!
Share your pandemic experiences! How are the latest changes affecting your life? It’s quick and the results from this study are used to advocate better support for parents.
Employers, let us help you transform your workplace into an environment where caregivers thrive. Learn about Allies @ Work.
Many thanks to the talented Lori Mihalich-Levin!
About Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD
Lori believes in empowering working parents. She is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, co-host of the Parents at Work Podcast, and creator of the Mindful Return online course that 75 employers currently offer to retain their working parent talent. She is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys (ages 8 and 10), and is a healthcare lawyer in private practice. Her thought leadership has been featured in publications including Forbes, The Washington Post, New York Times Parenting, Thrive Global, and The Huffington Post.
Tags: Career development, Career Development for Moms, Manage Stress For Moms, Moms Career Growth, Remote Work with Kids, work/life balance for parents