Returning to Work After Maternity Leave

Returning to work after maternity leave is a difficult and emotional challenge. Here are some tips for navigating back into the working world after a baby.
Well, hi there – I’m Stephanie, and I’m new here. I’m also new to this whole working mom thing, and to being a mom in general. Our daughter, whom we lovingly refer to as Peachy, turned 8 months old this week. That means I’ve been back at work exactly 5 months. The scars of returning to work after maternity leave are pretty fresh for me and I’m still struggling with the transition.

When it came time to go back to work, I gave the evolution very little thought. To quote the singer-songwriter Rhett Miller: “This is what I do. For a living – this is what I do.” My whole life I’ve been a work-horse and have always found great satisfaction and passion in my career. So how could returning to it be that hard? Everyone warned me the first couple of days were difficult, so I came back preparing for the worst.

And you know what? Those first few days were surprisingly easy. Everyone told me how great I looked (last time they saw me I could have be mistaken for a double-wide trailer) and how cute my kid is (that never gets old). I was wearing something other than yoga pants and I didn’t smell like spoiled milk. And shoes…for the first time in months I was wearing shoes! I had a cup of coffee I could drink whenever I wanted, adults I could talk to all day about adult stuff, and I wasn’t getting spit-up on. It was awesome!

candleatbothends

But a few weeks in the allure of a quiet cup of coffee ended and the realization that I was leaving my child, my bear cub, every day…indefinitely…struck me. And by struck me I mean mowed me over. I felt like my world was crumbling. I knew from my maternity leave that being at home was not for me, it wasn’t enough for me. I craved the sense of self-worth I get from working, the thrill of solving work-related problems, the challenge of leading others.

But being back at work and away from Peachy left me feeling empty, vacant, deeply alone. Simply put: Being at work was stomping on my heart, but being at home wasn’t fulfilling enough for me. So what the heck was I supposed to do?

Well – here’s a combination of advice I got that was genuine and real and helpful, things I learned the hard way, and some stuff I wish someone would have told me. Here’s hoping it helps you or someone you know make the evolution to working mom with grace and confidence.

Be patient with yourself.

I wanted to walk back in the door as the firecracker that I was pre-kid. And that is profoundly unrealistic. You won’t be the employee you once were – and that’s OK. Sure – you’re not the first one in the office and the last one to leave anymore – but you’re a better leader, coworker, and employee now because you’re a mom. Your multitasking skills have gone through the roof. Your compassion and empathy are higher than ever before. And don’t even get me started on your time management skills! It might take you a few weeks to realize your new attributes, and it might take your employer a few weeks to recognize the value that the new-you brings to the table. Expecting to walk into work the same person you were when you left is the professional equivalent of expecting to wear your pre-pregnancy jeans out of the hospital after having the baby. Ain’t gonna happen.

Don’t make any big decisions.

When things got rocky for me I found myself wanting to fix it…immediately. I’d think: “I have to take a lesser role” or “I have to find a way to work from home” – but the reality is I didn’t know what I needed. Just like we shouldn’t make dramatic haircut decisions after a break up, no new mom should make a big decision about work in the first few weeks. Give yourself time to adapt. Take it day by day. Your heart will lead you to the right answer – don’t rush it. Nothing needs to be solved in those first few weeks. Just try to survive and settle into a routine.

Be kind to yourself.

The path you are on is not easy and you will need supporters to be successful. And the first supporter in line needs to be you! Don’t worry about what’s not getting done, what you wish you could do, what others have done. Don’t get caught up with the game of trying to compare yourself to other working moms. Find at least one positive thing in each day: (I wore shoes all day…I got out of the house in under 2 hours…). But overall be kind to yourself. Don’t allow yourself to flood your head or your heart with negative thoughts. “If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete.” Buddah

Know someone will say something stupid.

It’s inevitable: Just like someone said something stupid when you were pregnant, or right after you had the baby, or in your early post-partum months. Opinions are like Someecards on Facebook…everyone has them and they feel compelled to share them. I got a lot of “well it’s too bad you have to go to work” and a bit of “so – have you figured out how long you’re going to work” (like it’s a phase, or a rash, or a bad perm that will eventually go away). Brace yourself – it’s coming – and find the humor in it. Sometimes you have to laugh or you’ll cry your eyes out.

It’s not as glamorous as you remember it. 

I look back on my time at home with the Peach and remember the one time I slept with her warm little body snuggled on my chest. I remember the day I met a friend for lunch and Peachy slept through the whole meal – giving me some much needed mommy time. I remember that one three hour nap where I got so much accomplished around the house. But somehow I’ve forgotten about the day I left her screaming in her crib for a few minutes while I cried in the bathroom – literally having to work up the courage to face my child again. Sometimes we’ll have a great weekend where naps all go as planned, no diapers are blown out, and the smiles outweigh the cries and I’ll think “Gosh, I miss out on this every day.” But the reality is during the course of any given day she’s cranky, overtired, spitting up, pooping out of things, teething, and generally frustrated. It’s not all snuggles and ladies who lunch – being home all day is a different form of work.

Like I said, I’m still working through the transition. Some weeks are better than others. But most weeks I try to focus less on the fact that I’m burning the candle at both ends, and and more on just trying to enjoy the brilliant light.

What did I miss? What helped you make the transition back to work from maternity leave?


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Stephanie Tsales

Stephanie Tsales

Stephanie splits her time between a full-time gig in higher education, lots of crazy hobbies, and her family: husband Mr. Handsome, their new daughter Peachy, and a rescue pug named Meatball.
Stephanie Tsales

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Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this! My LO is 18 weeks (so I have been working for 6 weeks). Everything you wrote is true, especially about the “glamour” of staying home.

  2. Belinda Heys says:

    Very well said! My boys are 6 and 3 and still have a hard time leaving them some days!

  3. Great piece!!!! When I went back to work I was so happy to have a “real” conversation and wear “real” clothes…and then reality set in that I had to juggle four different hats all at once. I am glad with my decision but some days are harder than others. I think your last piece of advice rings really true for me. It is all about balance and knowing that each side has its own struggles and wins!

  4. I don’t think you missed anything. But as a mom of more years, I can say that it gets easier. You develop expectations of your time at work, and at home. You find what balance works best for you. And eventually, you really look forward to Mondays at work after a long weekend of quality time :)

  5. Thanks for sharing this Stephanie! Check out Care.com’s article about work after maternity leave: http://www.care.com/child-care-should-you-go-back-to-work-5-factors-to-consider-post-baby-p1017-q21288629.html

  6. Make sure you have new clothing instead of your maternity clothing!

    http://www.fashionsyourway.com

  7. Love it! I really needed to hear this today. I am struggling with my second week back to work post-baby. I hope it gets easier!

  8. I was a working single mom with a 2yr old and I went back to grad school. I was very lucky because my school program was available online so I could a lot of the work while my son was asleep. There were times when I thought there is no way I can do all of this, but I did. I think my biggest challenge was learning that not everything could get 100% of my attention 100% of the time. I always tried to remember that my son was the most important thing and then everything else got a time managed after him. Great information -thank you for the insight and sharing!!!

  9. bethanie says:

    Glad to know there are other women out there struggling with working. I go back to work in two days, and it is killing me. I had no idea it was going to be this hard leaving the baby.

    • Ok I’m down to two days left! Struggling! My baby is now ten weeks…..how did your return go. Any advice?

  10. WOW! I needed this today. My baby is almost 5 months now so I have been back to work for about 2 months. I struggle EVERYDAY with the guilt. It seems to consume me at times, like today. I just need to feel like I am not alone. this is all normal right??? Words of wisdom please?

    • Stephanie Tsales says:

      Becca – it’s completely normal. I feel guilty when I’m at work and not with my baby – but when I’m with her I feel guilty too…wondering if I’m neglecting work. Be kind to yourself and remember you’re doing a great job as an employee and as a mom!

  11. Thanks for sharing this. My daughter is 5 months and I’m starting a new job in a month. I’ve been thinking a lot about leaving baby to work and it’s really hurting me. I hope when the day come, it won’t be worst than now.

  12. I just read this…thank you for posting. I go back to work tomorrow (my son is 11 weeks old). This was just what I needed to read :)

  13. Great article ..made me cry actually at some point. I am going back to work next week. I was very fortunate to be able to stay with my baby for a over a year. The thought of going back just makes me so sad.

  14. I have 5 weeks left of maternity leave and already am emotional at leaving my lo. I am an older mum having built up a career I am passionate about but aside from struggling with guilt of having to leave lo, I am apprehensive of how I will manage. My work place is not notoriously supportive of working mums, the few who are there work late and there seems to be a culture of inflexibility. I want to work my 830-5 and finish up anything urgent at home but even leaving at 5 (still nursing so want to hit that 6pm feed) seems a big ask. How to stop feeling guilty and just walk out the door on time?

  15. I’m due to go back to work in 3 weeks (lo is 9 weeks) and really don’t want to. My job has been making me irritable and unhappy this year and I love being home with the baby, including all of the unglamorous parts! I’m also craving a real break from work as I’ve still been on several calls, email, etc during my leave. Problem is, my boss pretty much begged me to stay and I’m in a high level position where I feel I would be letting employees down if I don’t return, plus potentially discouraging the company from putting other women of my age in similar positions (maybe I’m flattering myself too much though!). My boss is being flexible and is happy for me to work 2-3 days a week for the first 3 months. Financially, I’m the main breadwinner but we would be able to survive fine on the hubby’s salary plus savings, although we’ll have to tone down spending quite a bit.

    I’m tempted to quit now but I think the sensible thing is to give it a go part time. Has anyone been in a similar situation? It’s a war between guilt about leaving the baby and guilt about disappointing everyone at work…

    • I am completely in the same boat! I go back 4 days a week starting Aug 5th. I have the double guilt and I am mulling over the part time option or changing jobs altogether. Do share how it goes and what you do!

      • I’ll definitely let you know how it goes – feeling a bit more positive about working as I’ve found a good in-home nanny (my part-time maid who raised 4 children and regularly babysits for young kids offered to do it) and I’m planning to have baby and nanny come into the office / on business trips with me every so often.

        Hope your first week back is going well!

        • Well, I went back……. Took my babe with me a couple days, left him with dad a couple. That was OK. Slowly getting back into things. Then this week daycare started and I was REALLY back to work. Sad to say that there are still issues that continue to make me verystressed at work. My team seams to think very little of my return. I feel like I am doing my best and my bosses are fine with my performance. So still contemplating choices, but going to take advice above- no major decisions right now. Give some more time to see if things settle. Guilt is a powerful feeling.
          Hopefully I will learn soon my best role to be in, the best compromise as a director and a mom!

          • Hi – I’ve been back at work for about a month and a half now, initially 2 days a week and now 3 days. It’s going pretty well – I feel like I’m doing the right thing by providing for our family and I enjoy my time with the little guy more. Even though I have back to back meetings and calls most days (minus pumping breaks!) I find being at work strangely relaxing – I don’t take adult conversation over a coffee for granted anymore!

            Of course there are times when I feel completely overwhelmed and almost resign on the spot…like when I had hours of budget calls in the evening last week plus friends staying with us (with a three year old) and I couldn’t get the little guy to sleep! But I always get through the hard times and it’s getting easier to cope.

            My first business trip away from the baby is coming up this week and I’m definitely nervous about how daddy will do on his own…

            Hope all is going well for you.

          • I am really glad your transition back to work is working out ok for the most part.
            I am not struggling with my work but more with my co-workers. I almost feel like they think I don’t “belong” anymore. I am really struggling with the 4 12 hour days and get really tired. But I seem to have the support of my employers.
            I had a three day conference out of state and I made dad take off from work to come along. It worked out amazingly well, I was able to step out and feed on breaks and he did really well with the hotel stay and long car ride.
            Hoping you continue to find relaxation and happiness at work and at home, as continue to work through the emotion and find the right balance!

  16. I will be going to work soon for the first time, leaving my 9 month old daughter, 3 year old daughter, and 5 year old son. I have been feeling guilty, especially with friends who get to stay home and spend all day with their kids and don’t mind flaunting that fact. I’m glad I found this site full of mothers who work and have to go through leaving their children. Glad to know I’m not alone. How do you deal with the guilty feelings on the more difficult days?

    • I struggle too, but on bad days I take a minute to look at pictures or videos, and remind myself that only have x hours until I pick him up and he is all mine for the evening.

  17. Great article! I really relate on feeling excited to return to work to have some “me time” and to feel productive on projects…but that glow has faded and I’m currently trying to figure out what’s best. I’ve been back to work for about 4 months. I’m actually working on developing an e course for moms returning to work, it’s such a tender time and connecting with other moms and knowing that there’s no one right answer really helped me get through, I want to be able to offer that to other mamas!

  18. Love this article. Although my son is not a baby anymore he’s 3 I’ve been in school for the past 9 months from Monday to Friday 4 hours a day. I can’t help but think that when I get out in the field I will miss my son terribly. I’ve worked part time since he was born but that was only for 3 days a week, now I’m getting into the medical field full time and I get depressed thinking about being away from not only my son but my husband. then on the other hand I’m ready to contribute in making an income so my husband is not stuck with the expenses all the time. I guess I’ll have to give it my all like I’ve been doing and see where it takes me from there.

  19. My LO has just turned two. I’m going back to full-time work early in Jan next year. I’m truly grateful I managed to be with him during the past two years as my sister and many other mothers don’t/didn’t have that luxury but I’m still sad about not being there when he learns new words and has new experiences. We enjoy each other’s company like we are best friends plus he prefers my garlic bread to our fave restaurant’s. I just don’t want him to forget me…

  20. Thank you for writing this. I love being on leave with my LO but I have to admit that I miss working – I like working and providing for my family. But when I tell others that Im excited to go back you’d think I have three heads. It makes me feel like I’m being shamed for feeling that way and it’s just not fair. I’m saving this article and reading it again when I go back in 6 weeks. It will remind me that I’m not alone in feeling this way and there is a way to have both.

  21. Brandi Balding says:

    It disturbs me a little that as you think of the tough mommy moments, such as when your baby is crying or spitting up or just generally fussy, it brings you happiness knowing that you get to escape that by being at work. That is your baby. And while you are at work having your adult time, someone else is drying your child’s tears, comforting & loving on your child with hugs. There are some women who have to work & leave their children every day due to financial circumstances that would love to stay home if they could. I am fortunate to stay home with my daughter & I thank God for those tough mommy moments because it means I am there to have them. Anyone that can afford to stay home & chooses not to is doing a great disservice to their child. It isn’t anyone else’s responsibility to raise your child. Children should feel they are more important than your career…if you’re stir crazy, find a hobby.

    • Your note above disturbs me as it lacks perspective. The best mommy is a happy mommy – for some, that means staying at home; for others, that means going back to work. Some women enjoy the personal fulfillment of having a career and contributing to the financial security of their family (in the current economy, there are many good reasons for having a dual income regardless of how much money your partner makes). Many women are happy in the knowledge that they are providing good care for their children while they are at work – which can have social and educational advantages for their children over home care – and feel they are personally ensuring that their children will have the best lives possible.

    • I loved your response Sabrina. It is really time to stop the mommy wars. Every child and every mother are different. Their needs are different and are met in different ways. If you are a stay at home mother, that is fantastic. If you are a working mom, that is fantastic. Being one or the other doesn’t determine how good of a mother you are or are going to be.

      My husband’s mother was a stay at home mom who found a whole host of hobbies which always took precedent over her entire family. He went without shoes and clothing to pay for her hobbies, he never had dinner before 9pm (if he had it at all), and he didn’t even have a bedtime. His childhood was chaotic and he lacked many other basic child care needs. You can find stories like from SAHM and WM alike because being a good mother only depends on what you put into your family, not where you pass the day.

      The most important thing is the child is being is well loved and cared for and both types of moms can achieve this. There are plenty of studies and facts that prove children of working moms (except in some cases where the mother has a very high stress job) do not have any detrimental effects compared to children of stay at home moms! And just because you have a career and are fortunate enough to love it, doesn’t mean you don’t love your child more. What a hurtful, untrue and rash thing to assume.

      Thank you so much for this post Stephanie! It is a wonderful support to all the mommies going or who are back at work! I enjoyed reading your article so much and felt great comfort from it. Wishing you and Peachy all the best! To all you mommies here: trust your heart and as Stephanie says “Be kind to yourself”! You are wonderful!

    • Stephanie Tsales says:

      Brandi – thanks for chiming in. I will say that your comment made me sad. Not because it made me second guess my decisions to be a working mom – I’m pretty confident there. But because our goal at WMAG is to provide a community of support and encouragement to working moms. Many of our moms are making the difficult transition back to work and struggling with that transition. So to come to our place of positivity and encouragement and say things that could hurt another mom’s feelings – well, in the words of my 19 month old…”not nice.”

      I’m glad that you enjoy staying home and that being a SAHM works for your family. Being a working mom works best for mine. That’s not a discussion, argument, or opinion. It’s simply a statement. There’s no need to weigh in on what you think about it – I assure you I won’t change my mind because of you.

      Sabrina and Mrs. Jo – thank you for your thoughtful comments. You reinforce why WMAG is such a great community of supportive women.

  22. Melissa Strutton says:

    I just had my first baby dec. 15, 2013. In a few weeks I go back to work as a preschool teacher. As an educator to a very important age group I can tell u that it is good to have that separation for both u and your baby. I know it won’t be easy not to be his full time caregiver, but I know he will thrive in the infant program at his preschool. So yes separation anxiety is completely normal, after all what kind of moms would we be if we didn’t miss our babies a little, but take comfort in knowing whatever decisions u make are always with your babies in mind. Good luck and treasure every moment.

  23. So glad this conversation is still ongoing-I am at a breaking point and really don’t know who to turn to for advice?? I literally googled ‘struggling with going back to work after baby,’ and here I am.
    My daughter is 10 months. I knew in my gut, even before returning to work that I just DIDN’T WANT TO GO! Pre-baby, I never knew that I would feel that way. I thought, I’ll just have this baby, give her over to child care when I work and voila, done! How naive I was!
    I do like my job (most days) and am fortunate to have a fairly “easy” schedule. I work 3-10 hour shifts and do have M & F with my LO. However, I find myself and my schedule spinning out of control. I spend my days off trying to catch up at home and feel like I’m ignoring my baby. When I’m at work, I feel like I cannot get my work done in 3 days as opposed to the 4 that I used to work. I am stressed to the max and do not want to go on feeling this way. I want to be able to commit fully to one part of my life or the other.
    If we really strapped down, we may be able to make it work on one salary but I just don’t see that being great for our marriage, house hunt, etc. Am I just stuck? I am indeed battling with all encompassing guilt. Any suggestions on how how to help me get through this? Thanks in advance!

  24. Wow, just as many already said – this is just what I needed to hear! Today is my third day back to work and while I feel at ease leaving my baby (since my mom is watching her) I couldn’t help but to wonder if I was doing the right thing. Since my baby was due early January I decided to leave work mid-December only giving me 8 weeks with my baby after she was born. I wish I could’ve had at least one more month with her but FMLA only allows for 12 wks off work. I was also very hopeful that my boss would offer me to work from home 1 or 2 days out the week but that wasn’t the case :(

  25. I returned to work in August, after trying really hard, I finally faced the facts; this situation isn’t working for us at all. Every day was a battle, if not multiple battles. I wore down fast. Then I started looking for another job. I luckily found one. I no longer have to commute, I have significantly less responsibility and stress. I have to work only 32 hours a week now. With the reduced hours and 10 minute drive instead of 1hour 10 minute commute, I have a minimum of 16 extra hours a week with my family. Oh the balance is so much closer now- I can work and support AND be a mom at home. So my advice is: don’t fight it, listen to your heart and momma gut instinct. Do what is right for you – right now. I am so much happier with more time as a mom and I don’t miss the director title at all!

  26. workinmamma says:

    This is all so very helpful!! I have been back to work for almost 3 months now and it hasn’t gotten any easier. I eased back into work by working 4 days a week the 1st month. Now I’m back to working 5 days a week, and the 5th day is always so hard for me! I find myself in tears on my drive into work on that 5th day. It just pushed me over the edge from feeling like I had a balance between motherhood and work – to now feeling like work is taking over. I can’t help but feel like my baby is bonding with my child care provider more than me! I keep calculating the idea of working only 4 days vs 5 but it doesn’t work financially. I never thought it would be this hard. I thought I could have a baby and be back to work with no issues – not the case at all! It’s very reassuring to know other working moms are feeling this way too. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one feeling so down. :(

  27. Jamie J says:

    I love this! My little guy is 2 & 1/2…there are still days I wish I could be home with him but I am grateful to have a full-time job that allows the flexibility for me to be (as you said) never the first in the office & usually the first out :) Finding the balance is tough, I love to spend time with my family as much as possible…its great to have support of other moms & an understanding of the struggle!

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  1. […] don’t even get me started on the reality that I have to relive the trauma of giving birth and returning to work after maternity leave again. Oh, and I get to lose the baby weight again and go through that post-partum funk? […]

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