I recently had the opportunity to interview Rachel Thomas, the President of Lean In and an awesome executive, entrepreneur, Posseand mom of two.  She provided some fantastic insights that really resonated with me, on how to make that transition from working woman to working mother – all based on her own experiences.  One of my favorite pieces of her advice is to “form a working moms posse,” by asking other women in your office who have kids out to lunch and setting up a regular rotation to share your experiences.

We all know how important it is not to get isolated and to form a supportive community for ourselves, especially early in parenthood.  But how do you actually do this when you’re so short on time and sleep-deprived?

Here’s my story.

When I went back to work from maternity leave (twice), I worked at a pretty large association where plenty of women had previously gone out on and returned from maternity leave.  So I thought there would have been plenty of support around the topic.  Boy was I wrong.  No one seemed to be talking about the leave-and-return experience, and the conversations I did have were one-off moments of shared desperation that took place behind closed doors.

I knew I could learn a lot from my colleagues who became mothers before I did and thought my workplace would benefit from a parents’ group, but with two little kids who weren’t sleeping and a full time job, I didn’t feel like I had the time or energy to start one myself.  So I himmed and hawed a bit.  Grew more and more frustrated with the lack of coordinated support.  Finally said, “if not me, who?” And decided to do something about the problem.

The most important thing I’d like to convey here is that starting a working parents or working mothers group at your office doesn’t have to require a ton of time or effort, and it can have big rewards for you and your colleagues.

Here’s the formula I followed, once I decided to go for it and start a “Returning to Work Community” for new parents at my office:

  1. Brainstorm your target audience, and write a short plan of what you’d like to do. Take a few minutes to write out your vision for the group, then put together a short plan (a few paragraphs will do) to lay out what the group might look like.  My target audience was new parents – moms and dads – who were planning to go out on and would return from parental leave.
  2. Sit down with HR to ask for their blessing and see if you can get formal support from the organization.  I first talked to the head of my division to make sure she was on board and would support me with HR, and then I sat down with the HR manager who was responsible for parental benefits.  My HR department was not only supportive but thrilled with the idea and helped me to advertise the group to anyone who came forward with an announcement that they were expecting a baby.
  3. Get the word out.  HR asked me to create a one-page flier to put in their FMLA packets, and I wrote a short article for our internal employee newsletter about the group.  Also be sure to talk it up to your own friends within the company, as they’re likely to be your most ardent supporters.
  4. Find a time for the group to meet in-person. We did a once-a-month brown bag lunch in a conference room at the office.  I maintained the list of folks who were interested and sent out an Outlook appointment for our meetings.   It turned out that only women came to the lunches (a subject for another discussion), and it became a group that mainly consisted of moms with kids ages 5 and under.
  5. Consider a virtual component.  It was important to me that the group be able to connect between our in-person lunches, so I set up a Google+ group for us.  People used it to discuss pumping room issues and workplace policies, post photos of their kiddos, and offer up free baby stuff to colleagues.  From time to time, HR would even ask me to use this forum to take the pulse of the group on an HR-related issue.
  6. Consider including “experienced” parents.  Every third meeting or so, we’d invite folks who had volunteered to mentor us to come and share their experiences with the group.  We learned so much from working moms who had been around the block a few times already.

All of this is to say: yes, I know, you have no extra bandwidth at the moment.  But when you have a little – and all you need is a little – I’d urge you to take Rachel’s advice and consider making this investment in yourself and your workplace community.  You’ll be a happier, more connected mama and employee, with a mentor group you may not have considered, and you’ll change the lives of other new mamas in your workplace.

Have specific questions about starting a similar group?  E-mail me at lori@mindfulreturn.com.

Are you a new mama planning to head back to work after maternity leave?  Get advice, tips, and a community of awesome mama support by taking the Mindful Return E-Course.  Next session starts soon!

Note:  Rachel also urged new moms to consider starting a Lean In Circle, a small peer group that meets regularly to learn and grow together, and need not be limited to moms.  I started one of these about two years ago – for women in health policy in Washington, DC – and it has been one of the best things I’ve done for my own professional development.  E-mail me if you’d like advice on starting a Lean In Circle, too.

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