Reality can strike hard when you go back to work after maternity leave. With a new baby to care for, there's no time to mull over makeup, debate outfits, even repair a nicked nail. You're not getting enough sleep, and your body may not even feel like yours yet.
But be reassured: Thousands of new moms get out the door every day looking, if not perfect, then perfectly presentable. You'll probably need to look for shortcuts and may have to adapt your routine to the physical changes motherhood brings. Here's how:
BEFORE YOU RETURN...
Reassess your before-baby beauty and style choices. Must you really shampoo every day? Are concealer and foundation essential?
"Adjust to wearing less makeup," says New York City cosmetics entrepreneur Bobbi Brown, who's expecting her third child this summer. "Having a baby teaches a woman to be more forgiving of herself." But that doesn't mean being neglectful. At least two weeks before you're due back at work, reserve a baby-sitter for a couple of hours on a few days and:
Get a good, easy-care haircut. A cropped style looks chic and (even better) instantly "done" in the morning. Above-chin haircuts do require frequent trims, typically every four to six weeks. Longer hair can go eight weeks between trims, but may need blow-drying after you wash it.
If you want the convenience of short hair but like the feeling of long, try a layered shoulder- or chin-length cut, says Lisa Baltazar, a mother of two preschoolers and a stylist at Nubest & Co. Salon in Manhasset, NY. "If it's long on top, even short hair will move and feel longer," she says.
Baltazar recommends color as a postpartum pep-up. "Hair can lose some of its luster after pregnancy," she says. Highlights take an hour or so in the salon, but should last for several months. They won't cover gray; for that, you need semipermanent color. It's faster -- about 30 minutes to process in a salon -- but roots may begin to show in four to six weeks.
Baltazar advises against a radical haircut now: "If you're still feeling a bit heavy, a short cut can make you feel more exposed."
Get your makeup done. Department-store cosmetics counters offer this service free. Choose a company with a realistic approach, such as Prescriptives or Clinique. Tell the beauty adviser you want a look you can do in five minutes, and time her as she works.
You are under no obligation to buy anything, but you might want to splurge on a "treat," something that gives you an instant lift. For spring, Brown suggests a dewy cream blush or one of the new pink lipsticks.
Then have your brows shaped at a nearby salon. It'll brighten your eyes and open up your face, so you look more polished even without eye makeup. You can maintain the shape with occasional tweezing.
Get some new clothes. While some new mothers fit into all their prebaby work clothes, most need interim pieces. First, check your maternity wardrobe; early-pregnancy clothes might come in handy, assuming you can stand to wear them again. Second, if you can, pick up one or two style-conscious pieces. They'll help you feel up to date and boost your self-esteem.
Shop by yourself or with a friend, advises Catherine Woods, a New York textbook-publishing executive: "I shopped while on maternity leave, but took the baby with me, so I couldn't try anything on." She ended up compromising on "matronly" clothes. For a while her back-to-work mantra was, "I hate this, but it's clean and it fits."
Use a shampoo and a conditioner that treat your hair needs: Some smooth split ends, add volume, or de-frizz. In effect, they make it easier to style your hair.
The speediest blow-dry for chin- or shoulder-length hair, from Lisa Baltazar: Using a big round brush, blow out the front toward your face; then lift hair at crown and blow through to ends. Finally, flip head upside down and run brush and dryer through ends to shape and lift.
No time to blow-dry? Sweep hair into a low ponytail. Or do an up-do: Turn head upside down, twist hair around index and middle fingers. Flip upright; secure with comb or clasp.
If your hair is too short for those, finger-comb gel through hair to give it a softly imperfect air; tuck behind ears. A skinny headband or a wide black stretchy one is a fail-safe help.
Streamline skin care with multibenefit products, such as Eucerin Plus for the Face, an alpha-hydroxy moisturizer with SPF 15.
Pare down to three makeup items, advises Bobbi Brown -- whatever you think has the most impact: say, concealer, blush, and lipstick.
Timesaving and two-in-one makeup formulations also help. Prescriptives' Exact Matchstick long-wear foundation is a new swipe-on stick. For a matte finish, try foundation and powder in one product, such as L'Oreal Visuelle Invisible Coverage Creme-Powder Makeup.
For lips, Maybelline's Lip Express Lipstick N' Liner In One is a combo pencil. Or try stains or glosses you can finger-apply without a mirror, like Blistex's Lip Tone.
Sleep deprivation showing? Pat on an eye brightener: Ultima II Brighten Up, Tighten Up is designed to diminish the appearance of dark circles and puffiness. BeneFit's High Beam adds a glow to brow bone, cheeks, or nose (for information call 800-781-2336).
Besides control pantyhose, shapewear can be a true ally. New fabric technology has made bike shorts, control briefs, and butt-shapers quite comfortable. Victoria's Secret catalog and Bodyslimmers by Nancy Ganz have good selections.
Count on knits' forgiving, comfortable chic in skirts, tunics, and jackets (knit pants may be too casual). Tailored clothes give you sleeker lines: a fingertip-length jacket with defined shoulders and lean torso; an A-line skirt. Keep one piece of your outfit body-skimming, like a short-sleeve knit top over wide-leg pants. All-over billowing only makes you look bigger.
After you're dressed, throw on a robe to protect work clothes from the baby's glurps. Give yourself a once-over before you leave, for spit-up stains, leaky breasts, and mismatched earrings, shoes, or socks.
BACK TO WORK
If possible, return on a Friday, and treat it as a dress rehearsal, with hair, makeup, and outfit done in the time limit you'll face on your first "official" morning. (If you can't, at least rehearse your routine once.)
At work, ease rushed feelings with a dab of a calming fragrance on temples; try Origins Sensory Therapy Peace of Mind On-The-Spot Relief.
Finally, be kind to yourself. "New mothers put pressure on themselves at work to pretend everything's the same," says Julie Noorigian, a faculty member at California State University, Long Beach, who works with toddlers and their parents. "Your energy level and work appearance won't be the same. Give yourself a year to feel 'normal' again."