For moms who work, the unavoidable reality of maternity leave is that, eventually, it ends. And now matter how meticulously you’ve planned your time away and mapped out your reentry to your workplace, transitioning out of maternity leave is…well, a time of transition — and those always bring up a wellspring of feelings. If you’ve recently given birth or welcomed a new kid into your family, your hormones and sleep schedule could be in a chaotic state. All of this adds up to: you might feel like a bit of a mess when you first go back to work, at least some of the time. You might feel out of the loop at work, or miss your baby, or feel guilty for not missing your baby enough, or fall asleep in your car or on the subway, or have your boobs start leaking in the middle of a meeting, or feel so tired you literally want to cry — and you might feel all of these things before lunch on any given day.

We can’t make any of that not happen. The all-over-the-place emotional disorientation and exhaustion of returning from mat leave is like an awful rite of passage that moms go through. What we can do is help you out with a handy list of things you can say to yourself as needed, anytime you need a reminder of the simple facts that you definitely know but maybe will need to hear over and over as you weather those first days out of the baby bubble and back in action with work.

“My baby is fine.”

Write it on a post-it and stick it to your computer screen, write it on your hand, tattoo it on your forehead so you see it every time you go look in a mirror: “My baby is fine while I’m working.” However you force yourself to get this message, tell yourself as often as you need to hear it. Because they are! We promise! You know this too. But when you’re newly back to work after maternity leave, every instinct in your body will be screaming at you that your baby needs you and only you and is surely suffering in your absence. This is just the biological curse of being a parent. It’s helpful for compelling us to take care of the fragile infants of our species, sure, but it’s not so helpful when you’re trying to focus on making a presentation while your 4-month old is elsewhere being cared for by someone who is very loving and qualified. 

“I’ve totally had enough sleep to get through this day.”

Fake it ‘til you make it, baby. Have you actually had enough sleep? Certainly not. Will you make it through the day in one piece anyway? Definitely. 

“It’s fine that I’m so happy to be back at work.”

It might feel like you’re “supposed” to prefer being at home and totally focused on your baby to working, but if going back from mat leave brings with it a sense of relief, freedom, or happiness, don’t let yourself feel guilty for a second. Feeling good about being back at work could mean a lot of things — maybe you deeply love what you do for a living or you just enjoy being out in the world exercising the non-mom parts of your personality — but it absolutely doesn’t mean you don’t love being a mom. You contain multitudes. And when you are just coming out of maternity leave where you were entirely focused on your baby, it makes perfect sense that your dominant feeling about going back to work is a positive one. 

“It’s okay to be absolutely miserable being away from my baby.”

So yes, going back to work might make you feel like you’re coming back to life after your mat leave hibernation, but it also might make you feel like you’re dying inside a little. Being a working mom is nothing if not an endless series of conflicting messages that are forced on us by society about what we should and shouldn’t do, and working when you have a baby is perhaps the point where this is the most punishing: if you love being at work, you’re a terrible mom; if you hate going back to work, you’re a feminist failure. 

The truth, of course, is that being a mom who works — especially right after maternity leave — almost always brings with it mixed feelings, and no combination of emotions makes you a bad mom or a bad feminist. Those are both imaginary concepts that are mostly used to make women feel bad about themselves. So feel anything you want, except for that. 

“It’s just a job.”

This is a surprisingly helpful thing to keep in mind. On the days when your job feels impossible, either because it’s being impossible all on its own or you’re simply worn too thin from the combination of working and parenting and existing as a human in the world, it can be considerably freeing to simply remind yourself that even the best job, even the job you’ve poured your heart and soul into, is still…just a job. Part of being a working mom means acknowledging that no one part of your life — not even being a parent — wholly identifies you. The same thing goes for your job. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of measuring our worth by our productivity or our professional success or job performance, but it’s worth the effort to actively engineer a better, healthier, less-pressured relationship to your career; one that doesn’t leave you feeling like a failure when you’re not having a great time at work. This is true at every point in your life, but it is particularly important to cultivate this “it’s just a job, it’s not my whole life” mindset when you’re coming back from maternity leave. 

“Nothing needs to be perfect.”

Why is it so important to keep some daylight between your sense of self and your job? Because when you’re reentering work after maternity leave, things are likely to be far from perfect. Will every single thing on your to-do list get accomplished and will it all be your very best work? Probably not but who cares. Unless you’re a brain surgeon or an engineer, nothing needs to be perfect. And if you are in a profession where precision is not optional, we have little to say that will ease the pressure of your job, but we’re happy to buy you a glass of wine after work.

“I am being a better mom by working.”

In the moments when you worry that your kids are suffering from your absence while you’re working, to any degree, remind yourself that you are setting so many important examples for them by working. Being an exemplary parent isn’t only about what you do for your children when you’re directly engaging in hands-on caretaking or interactions with them — it’s about the whole of who you are, the life you’re crafting for them, and the image of a mother, woman, and person you’re modeling for them. This is carried off as much in your “absence” as it is in your physical presence day to day. The time you spend at work is an investment in yourself and your family, and even though you know that, you’re still probably going to need to remind yourself of this fundamental truth every day when you’re going back from maternity leave. 

 

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