Taking those first steps back into the office after a maternity leave filled with sleepless nights and baby cuddles can be weird. Add pumping to the mix and it gets even weirder. Here’s one mom’s take on her first day back.

It was the night before my return to work. My stomach was in a twisted knot of nerves. The idea of leaving my baby and acting like a functional adult (and wearing real clothes?!) was daunting.

On top of that, I needed to figure out how on earth I was supposed to fit pumping into my work schedule, figure out my new role as a working mom, and bring home enough breast milk to sustain my daughter’s existence. It was terrifying.

I laid in bed (thinking I would go to sleep — ha, what’s sleep?) and anxious thoughts raced through my mind:

  • Would my baby reject the breast after I return to work? Would she even remember WHO I AM?
  • Would she take a bottle three to four times a day? WHAT IF SHE STARVES?!
  • Am I going to have to kick people out of our multi-purpose mother’s room three times a day?
  • Will people at work respect my 30-minute windows enough so I can maintain breastfeeding my daughter?
  • Will I pump enough milk?
  • Will pumping make me engorged?

My maternity leave was a 4-month emotional roller coaster. Breastfeeding, by far, the most challenging part. I was told that breastfeeding is a magical experience (cue visions of me sitting on a lily pad nursing my baby) so I was shocked that the first few weeks led me to believe my baby had seven rows of teeth beneath that little gummy grin.

Luckily, the planner in me was prepared. I set up appointments with a lactation consultant to come to my home the day after my daughter was born. (By the way, that may sound like a luxury, but some insurance covers lactation support, and there are organizations that help mothers for free like La Leche League, so look into what your insurance company offers.)

With my lactation consultant’s consistent support, and my stubborn commitment to the cause (all the while truly believing that fed is best), my baby and I made slow progress. Eventually, I grew to enjoy breastfeeding. And yes, it became pretty magical.

If I could overcome breastfeeding challenges, I could do anything! I was ready (sort of) for a new chapter. It was time for my return to work, on a mission to rediscover my identity and to use my brain again!

Little did I know, I was simply turning the page to a chapter all about pumping at work. And, like breastfeeding, that was not magical either.

But I planned. I felt ready. I blocked my online calendar every 3 hours with, “Please Do Not Book,” and hoped that it worked. How hard could this really be? (In retrospect: Ha! I had no idea how challenging, hilarious, painful, and emotionally exhausting pumping at work would eventually become.)

Do not cry, I tell myself.

I don’t cry. I keep my game face on. I go through the motions of getting everything ready for the day.

My mental checklist:

  • Bottles for baby – check
  • Pumping bra – check
  • Flanges – check
  • Duck bills – check
  • Ziploc bags to store pump parts in the fridge between uses – check
  • Cooler with ice packs – check

I do some deep breathing. I’m not sad. I’m not scared. I. AM. SO. ANXIOUS. I make a mental note to talk to someone about potential postpartum anxiety.

I tell my 4-month old daughter that I’m going to work. I tell her I promise to be home by 5 p.m. I tell her because it makes me feel better. I tell her because I think she understands. I give her a huge kiss. I grab my purse. I’m off to my first day as a working mom. I got this.

No I don’t. I’m 5 minutes from my house and realize I forgot my pump. I turn around. Walk back into my house to get my pumping bag, really trying not to make eye contact with my baby because that might be what sets off my tears, and I tiptoe back out of the house. Deep breath. I now got this.

I say my hellos to coworkers, I get settled at my desk, I check the Nest Cam for the 100th time to make sure my nanny was putting my baby girl down for a nap just like I asked — and realize it’s already time for my first pump.

Why didn’t anyone tell me how weird this is? I walk into my office’s lactation room that doubles as a meeting room and triples as a meditation room, I kick out two of my male colleagues who innocently joked, “But we have to pump too!” Super funny, guys.

I lock the door and set up. Before disrobing and putting on my pumping bra I go back to the door and make sure it’s locked. I do this three more times. Please, please, please, no one walk in to see me as the dairy cow I feel like I’ve become.

I start pumping. I feel weird being in such a vulnerable state at my place of work. I text my friend, also a lactating mom, and ask her why she didn’t tell me how weird it is to sit in a room, practically topless, expressing milk while my coworkers are galivanting right outside the door. She says she didn’t want to scare me.

Three minutes into the pump, someone knocks on the door. “Busy! Room is busy!”

More deep breathing eventually yields only 3 ounces after 20 minutes. Is this normal? I remember someone told me that stress might negatively affect milk supply. I have to relax. I take the pump off, twist off the flange, and spill milk all over my jeans. Not all 3 ounces of milk, but enough to have a massive stain on my pants. Will anyone notice? Do I even care? No, no I don’t.

What I do care about is getting through the day in this new role. Yes, it’s the same job I had 4 months ago. But now that I’m a parent, everything feels different. It’s better, it’s so much harder, it’s my new life. And I think I can do it.

I’ll leave you with a few things I wish someone told me (hey, friend I texted while sitting there naked in my meditation room, I’m looking at you!). Here’s hoping my tips will make your first day back, and those pumps in the “lactation room,” a little easier:

  1. Bring a reusable washable baggie to put your parts in. In between pumps, stash it in a fridge, so you’ll only need to wash everything once at the end of the day. (That said, the CDC recommends that you wash your parts after every pump, so do what feels right for you.)
  2. Give yourself a break, and ease into big projects or heavy-duty meetings. You probably won’t be able to think clearly about work for at least the first week. My mind was so focused on getting used to this new schedule, being away from my baby, and learning how not to spill milk on jeans that it was tough to focus on actual work tasks.
  3. Wear clothes that are easy to pump in. Dresses that only come off over your head will mean you need to sit there completely naked, which just increases the anxiety (but also calls for some laughs).
  4. If you’re not satisfied with your pumping space at work, speak up! It’s possible that your space can be improved if someone just asks (and if not, know your rights). After this experience, I talked to our human resources folks who deal with building issues. Since then, they’ve hooked lactating moms up with an amazing mother’s room.
  5. Bring water and snacks into the lactation room. I repeat, bring water and snacks. The thirst and hunger while lactating is no joke.
  6. Trust me, this will all start to feel normal. Just like becoming a mom takes some time, transitioning into a working mom does, too.

Renata Tanenbaum leads product marketing at Healthline. She has a baby girl named Raiya who rocked her world when she was born in 2018. Renata tries, and often struggles, to find balance through acupuncture, exercise, baby cuddles, and time with adults who speak in full sentences.