Lori Mihalich-Levin, center am attorney and working mom, who has written a curriculum to guide women who are returning to work after having a baby, plays with her two boys in the backyard after work. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

When Lori Mihalich-Levin returned to work after having a second child, the stresses of her job combined with demands of taking care of an infant and toddler had her feeling defeated. Many nights, she said, she found herself in tears on the kitchen floor – a pile of dishes nearby and the prospect of another sleepless night in front of her.

The health care attorney started looking for advice online to help her transition to work go more smoothly. Amid the boundless advice for new parents, she found detailed instructions for how to write a birth plan, or massage your baby, or how to puree baby food, she said. “But there was no curriculum for how to go back to work after maternity leave without losing your mind.”

So she decided to design her own.

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In 2014, when her younger son was a year-and-a-half old, the Washington D.C. mother founded an organization called Mindful Return to guide new working mothers. She launched a blog and started a four-week online course. This month she published a book: “Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave”.Her course is now being offered by a dozen employers, including her own law firm.

Supports for mothers returning to the workforce after having a baby are rare in a country where only 14 percent of workers are entitled to any paid family leave through their employers. But managing work with caring for a baby comes with a range of emotional, and practical challenges that lead some women to opt out of the workforce.

Some companies — focused on retention — are beginning to acknowledge the stresses, and offering benefits such as transition planning, a slow transition phase back into work, and breast-milk shipping services for women who are traveling for work.

More business leaders are saying, “This is a normal life transition and we can make it more of a positive transition,” said Ellen Galinsky, president, Families and Work Institute, a New York-based research institute.

Such benefits are still rare, though.

Most women – even those fortunate enough to have maternity leaves – struggle upon return, as Mihalich-Levin did, with limited help and little plan beyond survival.

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Her four-week course starts every other month. Each week day there is a new topic, ranging from how to respond to “mom guilt” to how to feed your baby and yourself, followed by a discussion board. It’s designed so women can go at their own pace, scrolling through the posts during the quiet of night while breast-feeding.

The course – and the book – are based partly on Mihalich-Levin’s missteps and successes as a parent, and partly on the advice of dozens of mothers and professionals. A personal stylist suggests how to shop for post-maternity work clothes and a clinical psychologist writes about how to manage perinatal anxiety.

Mihalich-Levin is a consummate planner. She began researching day care centers before she was even pregnant, and had a stack of envelopes addressed and ready with completed applications and wait list fees on the day she got her positive pregnancy test.

But, even with a supportive hands-on husband, no amount of planning appeared to help her manage the chaos that two small children brought each day.

In retrospect, the first thing she needed was an attitude adjustment, she said.

Her book highlights the importance of practicing gratitude. Instead of worrying what food you are putting on the table, be grateful you have food on the table, she said. In the moments when you feeling getting burned out and tired, look for something good that is happening, her book suggests.

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She also advocates “micro–self-care” strategies. At a time when you feel like you are have no extra time to exercise or start a meditation practice, start small, she said.

That could mean a five-minute stop on a park bench during a morning commute to look around and watch the world. Or even something smaller: Mihalich-Levin pauses each work day for 30 seconds to take a breath when changing from her work shoes to her sneakers before leaving to pick up her son, and she thinks about how she wants her night to go. “It helps me release the day,” she writes.

The book has plenty of information about managing the logistics of returning to work, including how to lobby day cares for admission and how to express breast milk on air planes, in the halls of Congress, or wherever a working woman spends her days.

Michalich-Levin dares her readers to be ambitious when it comes to imagining and asking for the kind of flexibility they would like to have when they return to work and then offers pointers for how to ask for it.

And she emphasizes how women can think of their maternity leave as an opportunity for leadership. Instead of thinking of becoming a parent as derailing your career ambitions, consider how it can help, she advises.

Caring for an infant hones a new set of skills that translate well in a work place, including patience and adaptability, creative problem solving, prioritizing, organizing, delegating, and anticipating the needs of stake holders. “Little babies are demanding customers, aren’t they?” she writes.

That approach was a selling point for Kimley-Horn, a national planning and design consulting firm that started offering the curriculum as part of a larger package of maternity-leave benefits, said Kelly Sizemore, a human resources manager there.

The firm is looking for ways to retain and develop more women into leadership positions in a male-dominated field, Sizemore said. Some women were leaving their jobs after they started families. “We thought, what can we do to relieve the stressors in their lives?” she said.

Leadership can also come in a different form, by advocating for a more family friendly culture and policies in your work place, writes Mihalich-Levin.

She challenges women to set an example by executing a well-planned maternity leave, or by starting a support group for new parents at work, or by volunteering for more challenging roles.

Stephanie Weeks, a software designer and a corporate executive who took the course, said she was afraid that her career would stagnate when she had a child.

She ended up changing jobs and continuing to rise in her career, but she did not go back to work the same way, she said.

She became more transparent about what was happening in her personal life, even talking openly about the sadness she felt at leaving her baby at home.

Weeks wrote a passage for the book, and encouraged other women to not feel like they need to hide or down play their family life while at work.
“Even when you show up to work with no make up and with spit up on your suit, stand tall,” she said.

For Mihalich-Levin, opportunities for leadership became clear. She started Mindful Return and became a mentor to hundreds of new moms.
She is still an attorney, but moved from a trade association to a job at a law firm where she works 60 percent of the time. That way she can leave at 4:30 every day and be home on Fridays, giving her more time for her business and her family.

She also built a community, a place to offer support and to receive it, putting her light years away from the isolated, dark place she was in when she went back to work the last time, she said.

At the close of her book she writes a letter to her former self, offering some reassurance and perspective she wishes she had had in those difficult days.

“You got this, mama,” she writes. “This thing called parenthood. This thing called life. Called friendship. Called career woman. You don’t have to please everyone to be enough…You just ARE.”

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