The Emotional Journey of Going Back to Work

It was my first day back to work after maternity leave, and I was as ready as I’d ever be.

I placed my 10-week-old son in the unfamiliar arms of a woman at the day care center, turned around, and walked away. It was a moment I’d mentally rehearsed time and time again, and it was best, I thought, done fast and clean like the ripping off of a bandage on a wound.

I walked through the double doors into the thick August air, through the parking lot and sat down in the driver’s seat. It wasn’t until I turned the corner that the tears welled up and mingled with the mascara I’d so meticulously applied just an hour before.

I still don’t know what the tears represented: exhaustion, guilt, relief, or all three.

Going back to work after maternity leave brings with it a mix of emotions. For those whose lives have up to then been focused around a career, a return to work can mean a refocusing of energy and productivity. For others, returning to work is a “necessary evil” when they’d rather be at home. I know many are surprised at the feelings that surface.

For all women, I suspect, it’s a complicated jumble of bittersweet and ambivalence, and conflicting emotions that can change every day. And no matter how you approach it— easing into the transition slowly or “ripping off the bandaid” as I did— it can sting.

I’ve listed some things to keep in mind as you make the leap back to the workplace after maternity leave. You’re likely to experience a range of emotions about the transition, all of which are normal and understandable given the enormous changes in your life. Add in those post-baby hormones and lack of sleep and it’s no wonder this is one of the most difficult milestones in motherhood.

Here are some tips to make it easier.

1. Soak it in. One of the unexpected surprises of returning to work was the joy I felt when bonding with my baby back at home. Soak in all the time you have with your little one— it’s priceless! The evenings may be rushed and your child will likely go to sleep early in the evening, but make bedtime and night feedings a special time for you to bond with your baby.

2. Keep a journal. It may be helpful to you to keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings during this time of transition. Another idea is to keep your journal with you at the office so that you can record messages to your baby while you’re apart. It would make a wonderful keepsake!

3. Be kind to yourself. The guilt we feel as mothers is unavoidable. No matter what choice we make, we’ll kick ourselves for not making the other one. We only have two hands. We can only be in one place at a time. We’re constantly trying to meet the needs of others and still manage to be personally fulfilled. But realizing this leads to the understanding that we’ve all felt guilt at one time or another. All we can do for our children is our best, and sometimes that means doing things for ourselves— including going back to work.

4. Connect with other moms. I was lucky to be part of a large group of friends who were all having babies around the same time. Only my mommy friends understood the feelings I was experiencing as I headed back to work after maternity leave. They’d been through the same things and were there for me when I needed them. More than anything, they let me know that what I was feeling was normal. We got together regularly, sometimes with our kids and sometimes without, just to laugh, vent, and support each other.

5. Lean on your partner. Talk with your partner about how you’re feeling about going back to work. Let him or her know what you need to feel supported and understood.

6. Most importantly, be patient with yourself— at work and at home. It’s likely that you’ll be distracted and somewhat stressed during the transition, so set reasonable expectations for yourself. Some women “ease into” maternity leave, opting to work a few hours a day or a few days a week. No matter what you decide, relax your expectations and standard until you’ve had some time to adjust to this “new normal.”

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