On a beautiful September morning, I put on my professional face and ran out the door without saying goodbye to my baby. It was 12 weeks and one day since I had given birth to him and also the date I had to return to work or forfeit my job. I cried for hours the night before and was determined to make it through the morning tear-free. But the second I walked into my office, they rolled down my face.
Returning to work was the most difficult part of my entire childbirth experience. Scarier than when my amniotic fluid became dangerously low, worse than the sleepless nights rocking a crying baby, and more challenging than breastfeeding. But the funny thing is, staying home was never part of my plan. I didn't even like babies and figured going back to the office would be a relief after three months at home with one. Maybe that is why my sadness that September day felt so intense – I was shocked I was even feeling it.
Your feelings about returning to work may surprise you
Like me, you may be sad to be away from home, worried you're missing milestones or other important moments. One of my coworkers surprised herself in another way when she cut her planned 6-month maternity leave short and gleefully returned to her job. As with many emotions related to parenting, it's hard to know how you will feel about it until you experience it.
Other surprising emotions may include envy of your child's caregiver. When I come home and our sitter tells me about my son's day, I feel I've missed out. I'm jealous that she gets to share these joyful moments with him five days a week.
Another emotion many new moms feel is guilt. Even though my own mom worked and I never felt abandoned, part of me still feels guilty that I couldn't find a way to stay with Brandon. And still more emotions may bubble up a few months later when you realize work is not a priority the same way it was before you were a mom, or when you feel the stress of splitting your time, thoughts, and energy between work and family.
If you are lucky enough to have a satisfying career you feel passionate about, going back to the office may feel exciting, comforting, and stimulating. And that can lead to a different kind of guilt: Shouldn't this be more difficult? Just remember that feeling happy to return to a place where you were something other than a mom is ok.
The transition from spending 24 hours a day smelling like diapers and burp cloths to being a professional might feel energizing and rejuvenating, especially because you don't get much feedback from your baby during the first few months of parenting. At work, you may get positive reinforcement and regular reminders of who you are outside of parenting.
No matter what form your feelings take. They are all normal. Returning to work is a major transition filled with many emotions. It's ok to be both sad to leave your baby but also happy to get back to your desk. During this confusing and emotional time, here are some tips I found helpful:
Go back to work midweek if possible. That way, your first week back is a short one, giving you time to get used to being away from your baby and adjust to the demands of the office and your new schedule.
Bring a little bit of home with you. I created a collage of pictures of my baby for my desk.
Ask for pictures and videos from your childcare provider(s) to help you feel present in your baby's day.
Talk to coworkers who are also parents. Whatever you may be feeling, take comfort in knowing you are not alone.
Allow yourself to feel all your emotions, and don't judge yourself for any of them.
Be patient. Your feelings about going back to work are likely to change over time. The decision you make when your baby is 12 weeks does not have to be the same decision you make when your baby is 1 year old.
Wait before making big changes. My father once told me not to make decisions in the heat of the moment, and that advice applies here. You may re-examine your career goals after becoming a parent, and you should take some time to figure out what is important for you and your family. You may have been relieved to go back to work at first but want to have more time at home after a few months. You may want to switch positions in your company for more flexibility, or you may find a new job that is more stimulating and fulfilling. Or you may find yourself happy at a job that was at first hard to return to.
Whether you are looking forward to returning to work or can't even read this article without crying, take care of yourself emotionally, physically, and mentally. If you are feeling alone or want to meet other women sharing similar experiences, join a support group for working moms in your area.
It's also important to find activities that make you feel balanced in your new life as a mom and a professional, whether that means having monthly dinners with girlfriends, going out for drinks with colleagues, or scheduling date nights with your partner.
My baby is now 10 months and I sometimes still struggle with my decision to work full time, but I find comfort knowing that it is the best decision for my family right now. For those of you who are returning to work soon or have just returned, it does get better. I promise.