The (Often Overlooked) Third Phase of Parental Leave: Your Reintegration Back to Work
In the major personal and professional rite of passage our culture simply calls, parental leave, one phase often gets overlooked: the reintegration phase. The excitement of the pending birth or adoption and the delight in welcoming a new child dominate the first two phases, but what happens when it’s time to return to work? Heading back to work, whether it’s a new parent’s first time or fifth, can be a challenging process that requires mental preparation, flexibility, and plenty of self-compassion.
If you’re feeling daunted or overwhelmed, remember: this feeling is normal. This blog post will help you navigate this often-overlooked third phase, validate your feelings, and equip you with practical tips to ensure a smoother transition back to your professional role while you gain increasing confidence in your new parenthood role as well. Let’s dive in!
Understanding the Reintegration Phase
Returning to work after parental leave means reintegrating your new dual roles of worker and parent into a new, unified identity. It’s an iterative process of trial and error, learning, and adjustments. Remember, you’re not just returning as the same person who left; you’ve undergone significant internal and possibly physical changes that have brought you new insight and knowledge.
This transition is profound and largely ignored in our culture. It’s vital to recognize and honor it with the same attention and focus you did when you were preparing to leave work and become a parent. Some eagerly anticipate returning to work, while others dread the thought. Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, these emotional and intellectual shifts within you can yield fruits that when recognized and harnessed, can be beneficial personally, professionally in your workplace, and at home.
“The best way to prepare for leave is to plan your return.“
Preparing for Your Return to Work
1. Acknowledge the Transition
Recognize that this shift is not just about going back to work; it’s about harmonizing with your new identity. Be patient with yourself during this time and allow room for flexibility and creativity as you define your new normal. What this looks like in practice is different for everyone. I’ve had clients order a big cake and throw themselves a going back to work party! And others who’ve needed to schedule time in solitude to grieve who they were before while also welcoming who they are becoming. Others have needed to surround themselves with loved ones 24/7 who understand the complex feelings at play and are there to lend emotional and practical support. Point being: the only right way is the one that works for you.
2. Give Yourself Time & Space to Adjust
Remember, finding a new normal takes time – that’s why it’s a transition. You’re not just going back to your old routines – you’re reshaping them to accommodate your new identity and your new reality. Being gentle with yourself and others during this time is crucial to manage future transitions as your child grows and your roles evolve. For example, you may find that everyone else expects you to pick right back up where you left off, but you’re finding you’d prefer to adjust the scope or focus of your job or responsibilities. Let yourself sit with your thoughts and feelings the first week or two to see if they are short lived or reactionary, or something more in tune with a new direction on your expanded path.
3. Prepare for the Unexpected
After parental leave, especially after such a life-altering event, it’s common for new parents to lose confidence in their abilities or question their commitment to their work or even grow apart from their spouse. Instead, consider how you can explore and use these new feelings as catalysts for your own self-awareness, growth, and development. With reflection they can help you put a robust plan in place that ensures your career and family stays on track, even deepens, while capitalizing on the personal and professional insights you gained during your leave journey.
Crafting a Reintegration Plan
Like planning for parenthood, drafting your reintegration plan is an equally significant task that deserves your focus and time. It includes visualizing your ideal future at work (and a few contingency or alternative plans) and aligning your actions to ensure this future becomes your reality. This process also allows you to clarify and align your expectations with your manager and team, preventing unwanted assumptions or decisions that might not sync with your preferences. Ideally, you’ll finish this plan before you start your leave, but that’s not a strict requirement.
Your reintegration plan should be comprehensive, covering onboarding strategies, contingency plans, and return logistics.
- Onboarding Plan: Detail how you’d like to pick your work back up from your team and how you’ll get support as you transition back into work. It can be useful to pick up the elements of your job you enjoy most for some quick wins.
- Contingency Plans: Have backup strategies (and backup strategies for those backup strategies) for when the inevitable unexpected occurs that could disrupt your new normal.
- Return Logistics: Consider the little details that will ease your return, such as your schedule, workspace arrangement, childcare, pumping necessities if applicable, tech needs, etc.
Benefits of a Thoughtful Reintegration Plan
A well-crafted return plan can offer many benefits:
- Relief: It can provide peace of mind by clarifying your thoughts and plans, which is critical for you and those around you.
- Alignment: By explicitly stating your needs and wants, you can ensure that everyone is on the same page, preventing misunderstandings and miscommunication.
- Empowerment: Making your needs known can help you set healthier boundaries and adjust as your needs change moving forward.
- Agility: A plan that includes contingencies helps you navigate any unexpected changes efficiently and without judgment or set expectation.
- Work-life Integration: A well-structured plan allows your work and personal life to complement and enrich each other rather than exist in conflict.
Reintegration is an essential yet often overlooked third phase of parental leave. It might not be as exciting and joyful as preparing for parenthood (though for some it is!), but it is equally significant. By acknowledging and embracing this third phase of your transition, giving yourself time to adjust, and crafting a comprehensive and flexible plan, you can manage this third phase of your parental leave transition with confidence and grace.
If you’re feeling apprehensive or overwhelmed, remember: you’re not alone and you don’t have to do this by yourself. Many have walked this path before and many are walking it with you. Join in our free RETAIN Coaching Hub community moderated by certified parental leave coaches, or find a local or online community that you can lean on and ask for support. With patience, flexibility, community, and planning, you will navigate this journey with ease and success.
Welcome to your new normal—you’ve got this!
Transitioning back to work after parental leave is a pivotal and complex time for your direct reports. As a manager, your understanding and support of what they are navigating can smooth this process and provide them with the confidence and resources they need for a sustainable return. Here’s a condensed guide on how to help your team member reintegrate.
- Acknowledge the Change: Recognize the life-altering shift your team member is experiencing. Show empathy, compassion, and convey your readiness to support their transition back to work.
- Foster Flexibility: Adaptability is key during reintegration. Promote open dialogue about your direct report’s return plans and be willing to explore different working arrangements.
- Prioritize Communication: Maintain clear and consistent communication with your employee. Discuss their reintegration plan before their return to ensure alignment of expectations.
- Encourage Gradual Return: If possible, support a phased return to work. Gradually increasing responsibilities can help ease the transition.
- Reinforce Confidence: Your employee might face self-doubt upon return. Reaffirm their abilities and encourage their ongoing growth. Let them know that even if they doubt themselves, you don’t.
- Stay Prepared for Changes: Reintegration plans may need adjustments. Be ready to revisit and revise the plan according to your employee’s evolving needs. Remember: this is a transition and transition, by definition, takes time.
Your empathy, flexibility, and proactive communication can go further than you can imagine to gently ease your employee’s transition back to work, leading to a stronger and more supportive team dynamic far into the future. Even if the days feel hard, remember, their career arc is long and your support will matter and influence them for years.
If you need help preparing for your return (or supporting your direct report) and adjusting to your new normal as a working parent (or as a manager supporting a direct report), our team is here to help! Schedule a call with us to discuss what options are available to get support with reintegration including how to have hard conversations, holding and setting boundaries, and much more. Click here to explore.
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About the Center for Parental Leave Leadership
Navigating the journey of parenthood while balancing a career has its share of beautiful moments and inevitable challenges. At the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, we’ve walked this path alongside countless families, and we understand the nuances, joys, and anxieties it brings. Rooted in 35 years of dedicated research, our RETAIN Parental Leave Coaching™ method is more than just a framework—it’s a labor of love.
We’re here to support, guide, and empower employers, managers, and parents to turn the transition of parental leave into a shared journey of growth, empathy, and connection. Because everyone deserves to experience this profound life transition with support, clarity, and grace. Click here to learn more about what we do and set up a free informational call. Let’s dive deeper and chat about how we can help you.