By Erica Pieczonka, Dream Lab Coaching
There is so much preparation that goes into welcoming a new baby into your life. Not only are you navigating personal mental, emotional, and physical changes, but on top of that, you are responsible for this tiny new human. The transition into motherhood and back to work is truly an exercise in rolling with the punches, having a plan but also building the plane as you are flying it. Keep reading to learn more about how you can navigate this transformation with grace and agency.
As a newly minted mom of two, I have been thinking a lot about my experiences of going on leave, recovering from birth, and then returning to work after maternity leave. Each time was different and presented its own unique advantages and challenges.
The first time I experienced a complete identity crisis. My first son’s birth was what I had always dreamed of, my recovery was straightforward, and motherhood felt natural. However, nothing prepared me for what I would experience when I went back to work. New leadership had come in while I was out and the work that had given me so much meaning for years was being changed without my consent. I went from loving my job to not wanting to be there at all. For so long work had been my identity, and now I couldn’t help feeling like it had all been stripped away. I was devastated. I tried for 8 months to make it work until I realized there was nothing left for me there – I was burnt out and I needed to get back to ME. I had to find a career path that fed my new needs and priorities. (SPOILER: This is when I made the leap into entrepreneurship).
Fast forward to 2ish years later when my second son arrived. I had found a new career path and embraced an evolved identity but now had a whole new set of challenges. Mainly, I struggled with juggling all my to-do’s as a mom of 2 and an early entrepreneur. To boot, this time around I had more physical challenges (prolapse, SI joint issues, etc.) that also required significant time and energy. I quickly realized I needed to rethink my approach. I got creative, invited ease and simplicity, and found new ways of honoring my needs and the needs of my family and business. The key to overcoming my overwhelm was clarifying my priorities and values so I could focus on the right thing vs. everything.
Big life changes are an opportunity for reflection and recalibration. We are shedding our old skin and stepping into an entirely new season of life. Attention must be paid!
One of the biggest ah-ahs I had the second time around I needed a whole new modus operandi (MO) not just a maternity leave/return to work plan. Trying to live life the way I did before kids (or even with 1 kid) was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Once I gave myself permission to throw out the old way and allow myself to start over, I was able to create a new approach that suited me SO much better. Below is a summary of the process I followed to design my life in a way that honored all parts of me.
Step 1: Clarify your Vision
It is easy to get pulled into the trap of thinking we should be doing it all, or that we are failing to live up to others’ expectations of us as working mothers (SPOILER: the expectations change depending on who you are talking to so it’s quite literally a losing game). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Your goal is NOT to do it all, it is to focus on what is important to YOU. Before we even get to action and planning we need to get clear what is important to you NOW, in this present moment.
The first step is to connect to how you WANT to be in this new season. Close your eyes for a moment and envision how you would want to move through your day considering ALL parts of you and the roles you play. Starting from when you wake up to when you lay your head down on your pillow at night: How do you want to show up as a mom, partner, friend, worker, etc.? How will you fill your cup throughout the day? Take your time exploring the details of what an ideal day would look like for you.
When your vision feels complete, grab a notebook and reflect on what you wrote:
- What stood out as most important?
- What does this tell you about your values?
- How did you honor your needs, values, and passions?
- What routines and rituals did you observe that you may want to try?
Your vision defines your version of success and sets the foundation for how you will choose what you focus on in the next step.
STEP 2: Choose your priorities
I like to think of all the elements of our life as balls in a bowl (think exercise, hobbies, work, relationships, etc.). You get a BIG new ball when you become a mom and once you add it to the bowl, all the others become displaced. This is where we can often feel a lost sense of identity, freedom, and a whole lot of overwhelm. We keep thinking how can I juggle all of this? Try as you might the reality is you can’t, and truly, you aren’t meant to. You have to evaluate what balls you want to keep, delete, and change in size to make it all work.
With so much to do how do you know what decisions to make? This is where you let your vision and values lead you. When you choose your priorities in alignment with your what’s most important you actively and intentionally renegotiate your MO to enable your best life. So let’s get to it.
Grab your notebook and jot down the major roles in your life. I like to use 5 categories below but feel free to tailor them to best suit your preferences:
- Personal (this includes health/well-being, development, hobbies, passions, etc.)
- Career (work, business, networking, etc.)
- Mother (all things kids)
- Partner (for me, this is the relationship with my husband)
- Relationships (connections with friends and family)
Our next task is to align our next steps to our vision from step 1. Within each role, brain dump your goals and desires for the next 3-6 mos. Think about what needs to get done (child care, upcoming projects, money-making tasks) AND what you want to do (development, self-care, etc.). Let it FLOW, don’t overthink it, just write down everything that comes to mind.
Determine Your Priorities
Now, let’s determine your priorities. Once you have a comprehensive list, go back through each and think through the following:
- What are you keeping the same?
- What do you need to change?
- What can you eliminate?
- What needs to be added?
- What feels most critical? Put a star next to those items.
Remember to keep it simple and not overwhelm yourself with too much, too soon. Give yourself some breathing room to get your feet under you. Remember, you have a lot more on your plate now, so it’s important to be reasonable and realistic about what you can realistically take on.
Have fun with this and get CREATIVE as you redefine your priorities.
My greatest invitation for you is to think about the elements of your life that you loved before and figure out how you can make them work for you now. Instead of getting stuck in how it used to be, ask yourself, what CAN I do to honor that priority in this new season? Here are a few examples:
- I love reading and have always been a bookworm. After my sons were born I found it hard to find time to read. I started listening to books while driving, doing the laundry, going for walks, etc. Now, I am back into my reading habit – 20 books and counting this year!
- I used to love meal prepping on Sundays but I just don’t have a 2-3 hour chunk of time anymore. Instead, I meal prep as I go! I cook a larger portion (my favorites are sheet pan meals) so we have extras for lunch.
- Pre-kids working out in the morning was my favorite. Now with a toddler heading to Montessori and a 5 mo. old whose care doesn’t start until 9 a.m., it just doesn’t fit anymore. I allow myself to be flexible on this one. Sometimes I take the baby for a walk, or take a class at lunch, or do some yoga before bed. The important part for me now is making sure I move my body in some way every day.
Given our needs and the needs of others (kids, friends, partner, work) change – you will have to continuously re-visit this process. Most importantly, remember you are always at choice. Your life is not happening to you, you are leading your life. Make choices that align with your values and the person/mother you want to be.
STEP 3: Commit to A Plan
Here is where we translate intention into action and accountability.
- Based on your priorities from step 2 identify 2-3 simple goals and/or habits you want to meet every week personally and professionally.
- Determine the amount of time you need each week to complete them – then BLOCK your calendar for that time. For example, a big part of my marketing strategy this year is my blog and social media. To do that well I determined I need about 5 hours a week to research and write. So on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I have a 1.5 hours blocked.
- Be comprehensive of both work tasks and important personal habits like movement or meditation that you identified in step 2. This ensures you fill your cup and have enough energy to put your best foot forward throughout the day (more on energy management here).
Follow the plan and also permit yourself to iterate as you learn what works best for you and as your schedule is impacted by other demands. Give yourself grace as you ease into this new way of being. It’s okay to operate at a slower pace and make mistakes as you find your footing. Self-compassion is critical as you navigate change, don’t forget to hold yourself with love.
STEP 4: CELEBRATE YOUR PROGRESS
Last, but certainly not least, get in the habit of acknowledging and celebrating the little wins along the way. Our brains are wired for negativity so it’s easy to get caught up in noticing everything that’s not getting done. Celebrating our little wins is a proven way to improve motivation, confidence, and goal attainment.
I have several clients who have an end-of-day or end-of-week practice to write down 1 thing they are proud of. It doesn’t have to be big. To illustrate, here are a few things I have celebrated in the past month: (1) putting both kids to bed by myself, (2) being consistent with my movement goal, and (3) finding a good rhythm with writing.
Now for the fun part: How will you be celebrating returning to work after maternity leave, Mama?
Motherhood is hard but you CAN move from surviving to thriving and I am here to help! If you are interested in dedicated 1:1 support, book a chemistry session below to explore if Working Mom’s Coaching is right for you.
About Erica Pieczonka, Dream Lab Coaching
Erica is an Organizational Psychologist (Ph.D.) and Holistic Leadership Coach. Prior to entrepreneurship, Erica was a Director of Talent for a Fortune 200 company for 7 years. In this role, she lead talent assessment, organizational development, and leadership development projects. She left her corporate gig to pursue coaching and consulting full-time in 2021. Her coaching practice (Dream Lab Coaching) empowers women leaders and working moms to define success on their own terms, align their focus to what matters most, and thrive in all the roles they play. She is also an adjunct faculty coach at the University of Denver where she teaches a leadership certification course to frontline managers. In her free time, she loves reading, Pilates, walks in the sunshine, and spending quality time with her husband and 2 young sons (3 and 5 months).