Are you planning to head back to work after your maternity leave ends? If you've just had a baby, and time is standing still while you're gazing into those beautiful little eyes, smitten with love (and fatigue), it can be rough to think about heading back to the office. Though I loved my job and knew I wanted to return, thinking about the transition was something I did my best to avoid.

I'm here to say, though, that some up-front planning - and finding strategies to get your head in a better place -- really can make a difference in how well your transition back to work goes.

Twice, I was where you are - pregnant, on maternity leave and then back at work. And after kiddo #2, I admit I lost it. I was feeling remarkably overwhelmed, trying to take on the world, be a good parent and partner and succeed on zero sleep. Something had to get thrown out the window. (Namely, perfectionism.)

After a good deal of thought, research and joining communities of similarly-situated mothers, I've developed a framework for how to approach maternity leave and return that will leave you empowered rather than anxious. Confident rather than confused. And grateful rather than overwhelmed. In other words, pretty much the opposite of how I did it.

Here are the four steps you should take to put your maternity leave and return on a much more thoughtful, mindful and calm trajectory:

1. Create routines that get your head in the right place.

Starting while you're pregnant (though it's never too late to begin), explore what fills you up. Journal about it. Play around with a daily gratitude practice to see if you notice a difference in how you view your days. (For example, write down five things you're grateful for each night, and sleep tends to come more easily.) Try meditating for three to five minutes at a time using an app like Insight Timer. Once you figure out what works for you, start a practice of micro-self care that you commit to doing EVERY DAY. Micro, I note, because really, after baby arrives, it's hard to find more than a few minutes to yourself … but even those few minutes make a huge difference.

2. Learn the logistics.

Start thinking about what you'll need to do each night to prepare yourself to get out the door to work in the morning. Pace your child care option exploration throughout your pregnancy. (I visited one daycare center per month, for example.) If you are breastfeeding or planning to, read up on pumping at work tips, and block off pumping time NOW on your work calendar. Talk to your partner about how you'll juggle sick days, snow days and the inevitable unexpected event. Create a maternity leave plan at work, and be conscientious about knowledge transfer and leave your projects in good hands. Explore phased-in return and flexible work options for when you're back.

3. Turn your leave into a leadership opportunity.

I know, you're probably saying, "What?! Leadership? You can't be serious!" But indeed, I am a firm believer that maternity leave can enhance, not limit, your leadership skills.

Think about how you can view your leave other than as a pause in your career. Can your maternity leave present an opportunity to grow your team and evolve your own role? Are there ways to take credit during annual review season for a well-planned leave and return? Are you gaining skills as a new parent (say, amazing problem-solving abilities, prioritizing, rolling with the punches) that are valuable in your workplace? Can you communicate these newfound superpowers to your colleagues and supervisors? You CAN still have a successful career and a powerful impact on the working world, mama, even if your leadership might look different from how you used to imagine it.

4. Find your people

Community matters. When I went back to work after leave, there was an unspoken rule that I wasn't supposed to talk about how hard it was. Or that I was struggling. Or that I had changed and grown as a person and employee. There were plenty of other women in my office who had gone on maternity leave and returned, and yet I felt isolated. Then, one day after my second return to work, I sat down with a colleague who had just recently come back herself after maternity leave. We shut the door and found so much power in talking about our shared experiences. It was from that exchange that I was inspired to form a "Returning to Work Community" at my office that meets monthly for lunch and has a Google+ page for sharing experiences and advice. More than anything, it's been connecting to other returning-to-work mamas that has made the difference in my life. So my advice is to reach out. To connect. To find other women in your community who can say "me too."

Yes, parenthood comes with unknowns and overwhelm that can make going back to work after leave seem terrifying. But there are also ways to plan a thoughtful and mindful maternity leave and return. AND there are legions of new working mamas out there who are eager to support you through it.


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Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the author of "Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave." She is also a partner in the health care practice at Dentons US LLP, is the founder of Mindful Return, LLC (mindfulreturn.com) and is mom to two adorable redheaded boys.