My friend Stan, a 44-year-old public administrator in California, just had his first kid, a baby boy, a few months ago. The baby is healthy and happy. Stan and his wife are doing well, getting used to the rhythms of life with a new member of the family, reveling in the acute perspective shift that occurs for some when having a first kid. Stan considers himself lucky — he’s included in the 23 percent of new American fathers with access to paid leave. But Stan is in the last few weeks of it, and the other day he told me he was not looking forward to going back to work, at all.
I related. I found it tough and confusing to go back to work after the birth of my child. On one hand, I found parts of office life somewhat absurd in the face of my important new role at home: So many meetings of questionable merit, for example, didn’t stand up to scrutiny. I still wanted to be at home, where I was really needed. But I also found that I was able to focus on my work and do it well with a new sense of clarity and purpose. I didn’t have time to waste; I found that decisions were easier to make. Being at work was oddly refreshing.
But every father’s journey is different. And every father faces different challenges when coming back to work. Some in more conservative workplaces battle the stigma, from other coworkers, that child caregiving is solely a mother’s work. Others are dealing with something much simpler: Trying to be productive in the face of a paltry amount of sleep.
So how should you approach coming back to work after paternity leave? What’s the best way to get back to it without feeling like you’re miles behind everyone else? Here, with help from family leave experts, are seven ways to put your best foot forward when you return to work.
1. Make a Plan in Advance
Your return to work will be made much easier if you’ve already set up a plan for how you’ll take up your prior duties — and/or acquire new ones. It’s crucial to have those conversations with your boss and coworkers before you take leave.
“This does two things,” says David G. Smith, author of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies in the Workplace. “One, it implants in people’s minds the expectation that you’re coming back and are committed — that this is normal fatherhood caregiving stuff. Two, it sets some expectations that you may need some flexibility moving forward.”
Point being: It’s unlikely that you’ll perform your job the same way as you did prior to becoming a father. And that’s great. You evolve, and your job should, too.
2. Take Baby Steps
This one is simple: When you’re heading back to work, try to avoid starting on the Monday of a five-day week. Start on Wednesday so you can ease back into working. Better yet, stagger your return over a few weeks.
“Trying to get everything done at once is a horrible mentality to have when you’re returning to work after a long period of time off,” says Richard J. Petts, Professor of Sociology at Ball State. “You’ll never stop working. So, starting with a shorter week and recognizing that you’re not going to get everything done immediately can get you in the right mindset.”
3. Be Transparent
When you go back to work, prepare to do some boundary-setting upfront. You might have to make it clear to coworkers that you won’t be staying past six, or that you’ll be out the door at 4:30 to pick your kid up from childcare.
“You want to be transparent right up front and set those expectations early. You almost have to over-communicate with your co-workers,” says Smith. While you might be thinking about your new roles at home while the project is being doled out, don’t take it for granted that your coworkers are.
4. Find Focus Wherever (and Whenever) You Can
It may be tough to draw a line between work and family responsibilities, especially if you’re still working from home, and even if your partner is trying to give you some space. It can be difficult to, say, focus on filing a report while a baby is crying and your partner needs a break. So, you may need to work strange hours, like late at night or early in the morning — whenever you can find focus.
“When I was a new parent, I felt myself trying to be more efficient in my work, knowing the new importance of being ‘on task’,” says Chris Knoester, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Ohio State University. “But inevitably, you just have to fake it until you make it and do the best you can do under the circumstances.”
5. Propose Flexible Solutions
While you’ll want to communicate to your coworkers and bosses that your life outside of work has changed, you shouldn’t just walk out of a meeting at five o’clock and say, “Sorry, I don’t do that anymore.” Because of course not. Instead, try to be proactive about proposing more flexible models.
“If a big project comes up and you’re asked to stay a couple hours late, ask to head out a few hours earlier the next day,” says Petts. “You’re demonstrating that being a father is a priority for you, but your work is still a priority to you, too.”
6. Get Back to Basics
Upon returning to work, you may find it helpful to rely on management strategies such as letting co-workers know that you only reply to emails in certain windows of the day, like from eight to nine and four to five. In addition, Amit Kramer, the Dean of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, says that you might need to strip your job down to the essentials just for a while.
“You want to focus on core parts of your job — what you’re being measured on in your performance evaluations — and not on the periphery parts, like committees or extraneous meetings.”
7. Be Realistic
Having a kid (or having another one) will no doubt lengthen your daily to-do list. If you’re lucky, you’ll have fits of supercharged focus. But you’ll also have passages of brain fog. So set reasonable goals for yourself.
“Resolving competing expectations, especially between work and family, involves tough decisions,” says Knoester. “Doing everything is basically impossible. So just do your best.”
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