Leaving your new baby behind to take care of dozens of other children can be challenging. Figuring out how to pump before your boobs explode milk in front of your students is a level of stress you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. And realizing that you need to learn how to ask for help is tough but necessary.
There’s so much planning that goes into your maternity leave, but no one ever really prepares you for how overwhelming it is to come back to school—until now.
Enter The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby by Lauren Smith Brody. Consider it the bible for easing back into the classroom post maternity leave—without losing your mind. “It’s one thing to be at work thinking about that tiny human you’re now caring for. It’s another thing to be thinking about that tiny human while also being incredibly responsible for 30 other tiny humans that belong to other mothers and fathers,” says Brody.
“Most teachers would say they love the children that they teach. Any mom of more than one child knows that your heart is not finite, that you can just love and love and love. But at some point, you might lose track of keeping enough reserve to take care of yourself too.” Before you burn out, read on as Brody offers her six best tips just for teachers entering the fifth trimester:
1. Take control of your schedule—as much as you can.
One thing teachers don’t have is the luxury of setting their own hours—working from home or coming in late usually won’t fly. So, figuring out when you’ll pump or how to break away for a midday doctor’s appointment is difficult—but there are ways around it.
For starters, look at the set schedule of the school day as a huge advantage. “The teachers I talked to told me that they really did everything they could to plan the flow of their schedules before coming back from leave,” explains Brody. This includes deciding if you can use a prep period first thing in the morning to pump and get your head together to transition into the day, or if you will take advantage of lunchtime for unexpected appointments.
“Teachers of older students can also think strategically and plan undirected lessons such as reading time so you can slip into the closet and pump,” says Brody. With younger kids, however, it’s tougher to step away. In that case, Brody suggests working out a system with a fellow teacher. If they can cover your class when you’re pumping—figure out ways to return the favor. And if you can, double down on your pumping time to grade papers or work on lesson plans. “It’s OK to mention to coworkers that you worked during your pump time. It helps people understand that it’s not a break,” says Brody. “It shows that it actually can be time well used.”
2. Be up front with your students.
Kids have CRAZY imaginations. So, before they run wild with made-up reasons why you’re sneaking out of the classroom to pump, just be up front. Brody says it’s a great opportunity to explain how some mothers choose to feed their children while opening their students’ minds (and hearts) to the challenges of parenthood.
“I would say for any teacher who’s feeling any kind of guilt about stepping away to pump or feeling distracted, know that you’re also gifting these children with a sense of the real world and of the challenges that they may face as parents and as leaders and even managers,” says Brody. “That can be a real service that you’re doing for them.”
3. Ask yourself, “What would Beyonce do?”
Those feelings of anger, resentment and, most off all, exhaustion are to be expected after maternity leave. It’s OK to admit that you’re not ready to be back—especially if you had to cut your leave short for reasons like financial strain. But lean on your teacher community—that’s what they’re there for.
And don’t beat yourself up or try to keep your emotions under the surface. It’s OK to be transparent about the challenges of working parenthood. It shows your colleagues that even though you’re still getting your work done, it’s hard—and that’s OK.
“You get to the other side of it and you’re also saying, ‘I triumphed over this. I got this done despite a tough circumstance and I’m still doing my work and I’m doing it well,’” says Brody. “One of my interviewees in the book said, ‘Do not be afraid to embrace your inner Beyonce.’ Every great thing that Beyonce has done, she’s always said, ‘Look at the great thing that I did.’ If you can approach it like that, you’re not going to be the Debbie Downer whining. You’ll be the woman whose getting through it and helping make things better for all of us.”
4. Use your new superpower.
While pregnancy gave you the best hair and nails of your life, bet you didn’t realize that maternity would give you the gift of efficiency. You’ve had to keep this tiny baby alive, now you can do anything—without wasting a minute.
“You’re now more efficient because you’re better able to say no to things that are ultimately not helpful,” explains Brody. “When you do say yes to something, you’ve done the negotiation in your mind—like, ‘if I take on an extra period of algebra, what sacrifice will that cause me to make with the rest of my work and home life?’ If you’ve had that conversation in your head and you’ve still decided to move forward with it, you better believe that new moms are really committed to the things that they say yes to.”
5. Spell out your after-school needs.
The work day is not over for teachers just because they’ve walked through their front door. You take home grading, planning and even the heavy heart of sorting through a student’s struggles. Now with a baby to care for, your after-school workload doubles. So, how do you get your partner to pitch in a little more?
Ask. “You have to say, ‘Here’s exactly what you can do to help me,’” says Brody. And what if you assumed most of the responsibilities with the baby during your leave? You’re a teacher—show them what to do! “And if for some logistical reason, it doesn’t work out for your partner to help with the baby care, such as they get home too late, then it’s on you to ask for what you need emotionally.”
6. Redefine your “me” time.
Moms are multi-taskers—and in the beginning, you’re going to have to multi-task your self-care. “For the transitional period back to work, it’s OK—don’t feel bad about that,” says Brody. “Use your commute for things like listening to a podcast that you just love that just lets you escape. Or if you’re lucky enough to be able to walk to work, use that time for getting the sunlight on your face. In fact, always have a pair of walking shoes with you in case you can fit in that moment.”
Brody says that the most important part of “me time” is to take a moment to pinch yourself and say, “I did something for myself.” “It’s really important to recognize those moments or else you’re very quickly going to feel depleted,” says Brody.
Teachers, we’d love to hear what helped you the most in coming back to work after maternity leave. Please share in the comments.