Step 1: Set the date
If your return date is flexible, you might be tempted to put off the decision as long as possible. Resist! The delay is nothing but unnecessary stress. Take the reigns and move toward a decision. "The worst thing you can do is feel powerless," warns Bump expert Tammy Gold, founder of Gold Parent Coaching. "Look at your options, even if you don't have a lot of them. Is there a proposal you can put forth?" Write out your ideal plan and pitch it to your employer. "Be honest," Gold urges. Once you've set your date in stone, you can move on to tricker things like...
Step 2: Hire a caregiver
Nanny? Group sitter? Day care? Think about what works best for your family (and your budget), then visit day care centers, interview sitters, check references, and ask tons of questions. If you're feeling overwhelmed by the process try starting on a site like Care.com where you can a post a job with all your requirements or search for child care providers in your area, read in-depth profiles and reviews and even request preliminary background checks. Once you narrow down candidates this isn't the time to be shy! Watch caregivers interact with your child and get a real feel for the ones you (and baby) are comfortable with. And then? "Trust yourself!" Gold insists. If the caregiver comes recommended, has the best credentials, and feels right, go ahead and make a commitment.
Step 3: Test-drive
A little rusty when it comes to certain life skills (applying makeup, walking in heels)? There are new skills to master too (getting showered and ready with baby in tow). Preserve your sanity by giving your new schedule a few whirls. Working out the kinks now can save precious minutes when you really need them later. Your sitter needs a good warm-up as well. "Let them start as early as you're financially prepared to let them," says Gold. A trial run allows time for bonding, smoothing over questions, and practicing spending a few hours apart. (This also gives you time to get a haircut, buy work clothes, and prepare to reenter the world of grown-ups).
Step 4: Stay connected
Time in the office can make a momma feel out of touch. To help, talk with your caregiver to get a good idea of baby's daily schedule. This way, you can imagine her sleeping at naptime, strolling through the park at 11 a.m., and so on. some moms are also using technology to their advantage. "My nanny and I text all day long. It's what gets me through the day!" admitted sallyc2003 on the _Working Moms _message board. Some day cares are even offering streaming video on their websites! Not so tech-savvy? Drop off a camera and ask caregivers to snap a few shots throughout the day.
Step 5: Commiserate
Tons of moms have walked this path before. "You MUST connect," Gold encourages. "Mothering can be very isolating. The more you connect, the more comfortable you'll feel." Seek out other moms in your office, check out local groups for working mothers, or visit parenting websites (like ours!) to chat about your fears, roadblocks, and successes. "You can learn a tremendous amount just by listening," says Gold. "Or you can engage online and type your concerns." Either way, you'll know you're not alone.
Step 6: Give yourself a break
Emotions (and, yes, guilt) might run wild in those first weeks without baby. Relax — it's normal. Give yourself permission to feel the way you feel. "Try setting aside five minutes of every hour to think about baby," encourages Gold. "Write down questions, ideas for things to do together... whatever's on your mind. Then refocus on work until your next 'baby break'" And don't be afraid to let a few things slide at home. "You CAN'T be everything," Gold says. Something's got to give. Let go of the elaborate meals. Put off the vacuuming. You're being a great mother, wife, and professional — don't worry about being a great maid.