Returning To Work As A New Mother
Updated: May 3, 2022
In what is now being termed “The Fifth Trimester”, there is increasing recognition of just how incredibly difficult the transition back to work as a new mother is for so many.
Consider this: 25% of new mothers return to work when their baby is only 2 weeks old and on average, women who are eligible for FLMA only take 8 ½ weeks of the 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA available. Even more incredible is that only 56% of women even meet the requirements of the FMLA law and qualify.
The disconnect here is immense because realistically, new mothers do not begin to feel physically like themselves again until 22 weeks postpartum and emotionally like themselves until 24 weeks postpartum. Add to that, babies generally are not able to sleep for an extended period (say 7 hours straight) until they are approximately 29 weeks old. The math just does not add up in the favor of a working mom, but we are here to help you add a bit of balance to this unbalanced equation (source: "The Fifth Trimester: A Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity and Big Success After Baby")
Lets Talk Guilt
I begin here because guilt is probably the single most frequently described feeling of a working mom. But it looks different to different people. Some feel guilty for having to leave their baby with someone else, others feel guilty for enjoying their time at work. Still others feel bad as they return to the work their co-workers had to cover in their absence. You can insert your feelings of guilt here: _____________________.
Guilt creeps up is so many different situations. Reframing your mindset is incredibly important. I am sure if you think about it for a while, you can think of a time in your career where a co-worker had a hard time and you helped them out temporarily. Perhaps they had a death in the family, had to care for an ill family or were taking care of their own medical needs. The point is that life happens to all of us in various ways and having a baby is one life event that can cause your attention to be divided. Most don’t think less of their co-workers because of their personal situations, rather many think more highly of them as they see them persevere and overcome.
It is also entirely possible to both love your child while also looking forward to Monday morning at the office where you can have a distraction-free environment in which to be productive. For many moms, and I place myself squarely in this category, being able to contribute to the workplace and to society can do wonders for their mental health as a new mom. And the better you feel about yourself, the better mom you will be and the more likely you will be to also excel in your career.
If you are feeling like your bond with your baby is taking a hit because you are working during the day, consider that the quality of time you spend with your baby can easily be more important than the quantity. And there are small things you can do everyday to improve your bond with your baby that don’t take a lot of time, you just have to do them!
For many moms, leaving your child at daycare or with a nanny is difficult. And trust me, I know the agony that goes into picking the right childcare option for your situation. It may seem overwhelming but once you make the decision and test it out, you will know soon enough if it is right for your family or not. And if it is not right for you, then make some adjustments until you find what is right. It will not be the most fun process, but your future self will thank you. There can also be some fabulous benefits to having your child in a child development center, such as early social development and language development.
As a working mom, you will likely become really good at maximizing every minute of your day, and that includes time at work and time spent with your baby. One tip I had to finally implement (and was probably the hardest to do) was to leave my phone in the other room when I was with my child. That allowed me to draw a boundary and to be wholly present when I was with me child. It also allowed me to be wholly present when I was tending to the work task, rather than half present for both. This becomes even more important as your child gets into the older toddler stages and really needs your undivided attention (hint: This can help decrease some incidents of tantrums).
Finally, as you return to work, it may feel a bit odd that things kept operating without you, maybe even smoothly. And you may feel less needed as a result. But the fact of the matter may be that things ran smoothly because of processes you implemented before you left that allowed others to pick up in your absence. Our minds tend to lean to the negative in a situation, and in this time, really needs help refocusing to the positive.
The Workplace Environment
It is important to try to anticipate what changes you may need in terms of your role responsibilities as a new mom. If your role previously required a lot of travel or meetings in the early morning or late afternoons, start the conversation with your boss as early as possible to see what can be worked out. It may be that returning from maternity leave it is a good time to transition to a slightly different role and to allow other co-workers to start doing some of the work you did. This can be a great opportunity to frame your own narrative and ask for the flexibility to do your best work given your new situation. And could be a opportunity for you to begin mentoring others and progress yourself forward.
I also recommend that all new moms about to go back to work make a plan for how to handle unexpected time off when your child falls ill. It will happen, I guarantee it, so plan for it now. And that plan can look very different from family to family. But have that back up plan in place so you can pull it off the shelf quickly when you need it. Some larger corporations also offer back-up care options you can utilize as a benefit that can allow you to keep working when your normal childcare arrangements fall apart temporarily.
Finally, and I think it is very important (not only for you personally but also for helping to shift the workplace narrative as a whole) to broadcast that you are going to pump and are taking your laptop with you to answer emails. Announce to your closest co-workers that you are logging off at 5pm to make it to your son’s daycare pick up time and that you have still met all your deadlines. Or that you will be back online at 9pm when you child is fast asleep to finish off your day (while everyone else is enjoying a cold beer/glass of wine or Monday Night Football).
Obviously, this requires a little bit of finesse and tact but that point is to not sulk away quietly, leaving others to wonder where they heck you are. The more you can be your own advocate the better you will feel and the more likely it is that others will realize just how hard you are working to make both areas of your life successful and operate smoothly.
Overcoming Sleep Deprivation
When I begin to talk about sleep, I always begin with a little perspective. And that perspective for new moms is this: You now have a new little one to care for and make sure their needs are met. But that doesn’t mean your needs go out the window. You still have basic needs as well. For those that have flown on an airplane, before takeoff, the air host/hostess will come around, usually look you straight in the eyes and say, “If the oxygen masks drop down, put yours on first then put the mask on the child.”
Why is this? Because what good is it if your child has their oxygen mask on but you pass out from lack of oxygen in the mean time? Your infant is not going to put your mask on. But if you have yours on, you can then get theirs on and everyone will have oxygen flowing. The same principle applies when you are caring for a newborn infant.
I have said it before and I will continue to say it here for new moms: Sleep hygiene is paramount to your mental health as a mother and especially to your mental health as a new, working mother. And the problem is that most working moms return to work months before their baby is developmentally able to sleep 7 hours straight at a time (generally around 7 months old). So for the working mom, that means you need to develop a plan with your partner, spouse, family, friends or childcare arrangements that will allow you to get better sleep throughout the week.
What you want to avoid is having many nights in a row where your sleep is constantly interrupted. We know from research that repeated sleep impairment mimics the impairments of being drunk. It also can lead to the development of a Perinatal Mood or Anxiety Disorder like postpartum depression, anxiety or OCD. If you find you are not getting at lease 5-6 hours of sleep for many nights in a row, it is probably time to have an honest conversation with those around you about how they can help you.
Getting proper sleep will help you feel better emotionally and help you be more able to tackle the work day and be more emotionally available to your child when you are with them. It really is like putting your oxygen mask on first. If you take care of yourself first, you will then be able to take care of your baby and also tend to your responsibilities as an employee.
Putting your best self forward – with confidence
I often recommend to new moms that they begin their child care arrangements 1-2 weeks early and many look at me confused. I recommend this because it will help in a few ways. To begin, if your child is going to have a negative reaction to being in the care of someone else, you are able to work through that with a bit of breathing room, not sitting at your desk or in the middle of a meeting. It also helps you prepare your morning route out the door, which will take some time to get used to.
This also gives you a few spare hours to pamper yourself, ideally with a mani/pedi, haircut, or mini-shopping trip to find clothes that fit properly. Speaking of which, many new moms are just not comfortable with their bodies during this postpartum period and feel like nothing fits. My suggestion is to pick out 6 outfits that do fit and reorganize your closet/dresser so these items are first in your line of sight.
This all leads into one major key component of returning to work which is this: Your self-confidence and how you project yourself to others does matter. In a work setting, it always has mattered and probably always will. Start your day off with some simple self-affirmations, such as telling yourself “I can do this”, “I am capable and able” and “I am an asset, not a liability”. If it is hard to keep these affirmations top of mind, I tell my clients to write it on a sticky note and stick to their bathroom mirror. And never sell short that you have developed a whole new set of skills during your maternity leave that include the ability to keep another human alive who is totally dependent on you and the ability to respond to the demands of another at a moment’s notice.
Finally, if you are feeling like you used to be able to do ten things simultaneously and now struggle to make a grocery list, please know that many new moms experience this and as you start to get better sleep along with your baby, this “mom fog” generally clears up. The truth of the matter is that you are more capable than you feel.
To Sum It All Up
There is so much that can be said on this topic that one post is simply not enough, so rest assured we will return to this soon. But if you take away anything from this short post, please take away these 3 main points:
1.) Working moms are expected to return to work before their baby is developmentally able to sleep through the night and this will cause some initial difficulties – these generally get better with time. If after 3-6 months of being back to work you feel like things are just not how they should be, then you can begin to re-evaluate.
2.) Be your own advocate – ask for what you need from your boss, co-workers and family.
3.) Please, prioritize sleep as if it were oxygen – because it kind of is, and getting some rest will help you get sick less often and be better prepared to tackle the curve balls thrown at you day in and day out, both at the office and at home.
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Jennifer Perera is a mom, spouse and Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has over a decade’s worth of experience in mental health. She has a private practice in New Jersey, with locations in Cranford and Princeton. Her passion is helping new moms and dads find their joy again in parenthood through individual, group and couples counseling. Jennifer specializes in working with parents during the prenatal and postpartum periods and those coping with a pregnancy loss or infertility. Her other passion is travelling to different parts of the world and her goal is to vacation in a different locale every time. She also has a great fondness for cats!