8 big things I wish I'd known about going back to work after maternity leave

Right around the time I packed my bag for the hospital — a full two months before I was due, mind you — I set about achieving that same level of "ready" at work. For the first time in my life, my computer desktop, instead of being littered with docs and pics and sticky notes, had organized folders and one important Word doc: what I called my hand-off memo, just in case baby came early.

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This is nesting, I thought! I am ready! If you are a parent, I hope you're laughing already. Because I was not! But everything I learned the hard way served me well... eventually. Here's what I wish I'd had a clue about.

1. The special treatment of pregnancy doesn't quite apply once you're back. Here's how meetings went when I was pregnant: "Do you want some water? Need a chair? Here, take this one, it's comfier." And in line at the grocery, unsolicited: "Oh, Honey, you look tired…you make that husband of yours cook you dinner tonight." There's a magic to pregnancy, an optimism that everyone wants to share in, to literally touch, hand to belly.

So, it can feel like a slap in the face by that same hand, when, after a week back at work, people just kind of stop asking you how you're feeling (conflicted), or how you're sleeping (not at all), or how they can help (OMG, so many ways, am I really allowed to take you up on that?! Yes! Yes you are–and you're also allowed to straight-up ask for help.).

I wish I'd realized back then that everyone in my life was taking their cues from me. My colleagues and friends assumed that when I said, "I'm fine" I meant it. There was no big belly to do the talking for me. But I know now that I had a responsibility to myself, and to my workplace culture, to be more transparent about my needs — for flexibility, for compassion, for an adjustment of duties, for an understanding that there was really a whole finite transition when the working mom is born. It's what I now call the Fifth Trimester.

2. The simple joy of a cup of free coffee, sipped while still piping hot and without the anxiety of spilling on a baby, might just be motivation enough to get through a day. Equally motivating: The fact that the bathroom stalls in the ladies' room are meant to be enjoyed by one privacy-seeking human at a time. Not a human with another smaller human in a bouncy seat at her feet.

3. Colleagues with "I'm sooooo tired" Friday morning hangovers become pretty much intolerable. (Unless their drinking is possibly an addiction. Because everyone is someone's baby and how did that never occur to you before? Cindy in accounting has a mother! Who loves her, infinitely. And should probably march her right off to rehab.)

4. The term "work/life" balance should just lose that dumb little slash in the middle. During pregnancy, I imagined that my eventual goal — lofty, but achievable — would be something called "work/life" balance, a seesaw of epic proportions with all of my "life" stuff on one side and all of my work on the other. Then I had a baby, went back to work, and really started to resent whatever marketing guru stuck that slash in the middle there between "work" and "life."

Because in reality, I was sitting at my desk doing something incredibly personal three times a day, pumping breast milk for my baby. And at home, at night, my husband and I sat side by side, faces romantically aglow… with light from our laptops, doing work. There was no slash! Life seeped into work, and work crashed right into life, and it really wasn't anyone's fault that the pediatrician's office was only open during daylight hours, or that a contract needed to be delivered on a Saturday by noon. Certainly, it wasn't my fault, but it took me too long, months and months, to figure that out.

But here's the kicker: Once I did, I was actually able to see the benefit of that lack-of-slash. Suddenly, I found myself pitching ideas at work that were inspired by my family, or fueled by their love and the complicated mash-up of it all. Because if I was going to work and spend all those hours away from my child, I wanted them to mean something.

5. Every single bit of baby-care I'd insisted on doing myself on leave was something I had to teach my husband to do once I was back at work. But not before resenting him and realizing three arguments too late how much he actually wanted to know how to help. When your partner takes much less parental leave than you do, it's hard to remember: One day soon I will need more of his participation... so better to ask now, so we both get in the habit.

6. Pumping time could — miracle of miracles! — be working time. Granted, there are mothers who need Zen and the art of Medela maintenance in order to make enough milk. Not me. My version of that peaceful easy feeling was putting a charmingly threatening "do not disturb" sign up while getting through 52 emails and an inch-high stack of paperwork, almost entirely undisturbed. This was a revelation — and an opportunity to debunk any assumptions my colleagues may have had about my milk-making "breaks."

7. Maternity leave was like Crossfit for my work muscles. My body was still mushy. And my mind was blotto with lack of sleep. But, it dawned on me, as I got through my day's work at a faster clip than ever before: That baby was the best personal trainer I'd ever (or, OK, never) had.

At home on maternity leave, I'd had to pivot from task to task on a moment's — or a scream's — notice. I'd called upon depths of patience I had no idea I possessed. I'd been firm about scheduling, but also flexible when a re-org was needed. And whenever I'd left the house, it with a bag that could have kept a whole village clean and alive for days.

At work, all of that translated. It was a miracle of motherhood how efficient, decisive, and determined I became. I only wish I'd noticed it sooner… and bragged a little more.

8. All of this, even the hardest parts, would inspire me one day. The greatest joy of those first few months back at work — besides snuggling my baby boy each evening when I got home — was getting to the other side of the adjustment period and being able to say: That was ridiculously hard, and yet, here I am. I did it. The transition was finite and fruitful.

It took me years — and a whole second kid! — to be able to articulate that feeling, but the minute I did, I was certain that I had to share it. I surveyed and interviewed hundreds of new working moms — teachers, lawyers, police officers, doctors, waitresses, CEOs — and dug deep into the scientific research about career and new motherhood to find real, actionable advice to help moms have all of the choices they deserve. The result is my true labor of love (pun 100 percent intended), my book, "The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby." And it's proof that, for me at least, there is no "slash" anymore. A better life is my work. And my work is all about living a satisfied life.

This article originally appeared on TODAY.

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