How to Re-Enter the Workforce After Stay-at-Home Parenting (Without Losing Your Mind)

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Re-entering the work force after taking time off to take care of young children is no easy feat. Logistically speaking, there’s a resume gap, a potential lapse in relevant industry connections, and childcare to set up. Behind the scenes, there’s often confidence to rebuild, guilt to tackle, and the mental load of navigating two demanding jobs—parenting and the work that earns actual money.

We often hear that the trick to pulling off this juggling act is “balance.” I personally believe there’s no elusive place of “balance”—it’s an ongoing see-saw where either your income-earning job or your family will be up in the air, while the other is closer to the ground. If the twain do meet perfectly in the middle, it’s a wondrous moment, and it’s not designed to last.

While we can’t achieve true balance (whatever that is), what we can do is plan ahead and fortify the people and systems around us to provide optimal support.

Secure reliable childcare

Duh, you may be thinking, obviously. But wait. Of course, you’ll need to get your preschooler a nanny or daycare. But what about after-school care? What if you and your spouse are both working from home and you think, “Well they don’t get home until 4, and then I’ll only be working another hour or two. We can manage. Let’s see how it goes, and get help as needed.”

If you learn only one thing here, learn this: Do not “see how it goes.” Select not only a daycare, nanny or family member to care for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, but also someone to entertain, feed, get ready, and drop-off older kids at various activities when they return home from school. (Because, unless you have preternaturally independent (or older) children, guess who’s office they will be barging into for help with snacks, petty disputes, finding shin guards, and untying their blasted, double-knotted cleat laces—while you’re on deadline or in a meeting?)

Whoever you choose to help, specify up front if you need them to help with dinner prep, homework, driving, housework, or laundry. Find out if their hours are flexible and secure a back-up person to call in case of emergency.

Hold a family meeting

When a formerly stay-at-home parent heads back to the office, little ones need help understanding they will no longer be available to meet their every need. Go over your new schedule with your kids, making sure they know when you won’t be available, and what they can (and can’t) do during that time. Establish boundaries about when they can come into your office, or no interruptions while you’re on a call. (Haha. We can try.)

Give them a chance to ask questions and express anxieties about the transition. They may not have anything substantive to say, yet. Check in periodically during the first few weeks to give them a chance to air their feelings.

Become a schedule-posting machine

When you are no longer around to facilitate each and every transition for your children (to school, back home, to extracurriculars, to bed) your littles will need help to stay on track. Consider posing the following schedules for all to see:

  • Morning, get-ready-for-school routine, including what time to finish breakfast, pack snacks, brush teeth, and put on socks, shoes, and coats.
  • An after school schedule with time slots for homework, piano practice, getting ready for sports, free play, etc.
  • An evening routine/bedtime checklist with dinner, bath, TV, reading, and morning prep.

Have a weekly schedule meeting with your partner

In addition to posted schedules for various key times throughout the day, have an informal “meeting” with your partner every Sunday night to go through each day’s schedule of activities and confirm any travel, later-than-usual work nights, or other one-off evening events your partner may have planned to avoid last-minute surprises.

Review and redesign the household division of labor

When the primary caretaker or “default parent” is home full-time while their partner works outside the home, the division of household responsibilities is more clear cut. (Read: The one who is home does most, if not all, of the domestic labor.) Before your new job starts, sit down with your partner and review the major weekly duties (outside of childcare): laundry, cooking, grocery Shopping, cleaning, and transportation for after-school activities, to name a few. How will these responsibilities be divided going forward? Can the two of you handle the load, or will you need to hire someone for certain tasks? Spell it out, and make sure it’s clear you won’t have the bandwidth to shoulder all the domestic work you were previously doing.

Automate everything you can

Instead of spending your precious non-working time on a mountain of household chores, automate wherever you can. Subscribe and save for regular purchases like diapers, laundry detergent, and pet food. Sign up for a grocery or meal delivery service. Set up autopay for all recurring charges like credit card bills, and go paperless with your insurance provider. Hire a lawn cutting or laundry pick-up service if your means allow, and coordinate a regular carpool for kid activities.

Schedule one-on-one time with each child

Though they may not be able to articulate it yet, kids who are used to you being available as soon as they walk through the door may experience disappointment or frustration at your lack of constant presence. Each week, or twice monthly if possible, schedule time with each child to give them one-one-one attention and connection. Let them choose how they’d like to spend your special time together.

Prep the night before

What do you need to do by Sunday to ensure the week goes smoothly? Grocery shop, meal plan, make babysitter time changes, put the kids’ clean clothes in their rooms? What needs to be done every school night? (Check homework, make lunch/snack for the next day, pack sports clothes in backpack? Figure out and post your (and your kids’!) weekly and nightly responsibilities to make the mornings—and the whole week—go smoothly.

Schedule self-care

We throw this word around so much it feels cliché. And yet, I still haven’t designed my life in a way that ensures my emotional and physical needs are regularly met amid the working parent chaos—have you? It bears repeating that when we are taken care of, we take better care of our loved ones; if we are living in a deficit, so will they. Banish all thoughts of guilt and schedule time for whatever fills your tank; from exercise, massage, or meditation to book-reading, poker, or social time with friends.

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