Many mothers struggle to return to work after having a baby, leaving them feeling overwhelmed, stressed, doubting their ability, and torn between work and family life. Mothers need support to help them honour how they feel and ways to ease their transition.

The time has come and you’re returning to work after having your baby. Perhaps you’re excited and have been looking forward to branching out from the Groundhog Day of baby care and reconnecting with a part of your ‘pre-baby’ self. Or maybe you’re feeling distressed about spending time away from your precious little one and the thought of juggling work and mum life simultaneously leaves you feeling overwhelmed.

No matter where you sit on the continuum of back to work emotions, this stage of your parenthood journey is a big change and a challenge for many parents – both individually and for the relationship with their partner.

Below are 5 reasons why mothers struggle to return to work after having a baby and how to ease the transition.

  1. You’ve Changed

Many parents go into parenthood realising that their life is going to look a little different but what you’re not told about is how becoming a parent will change you as a person. Parenthood is as much about raising yourself as it is about raising your baby. “For some people parenthood can feel like a midlife crisis – a time to re-evaluate yourself, or even discover who you really are for the first time” (Elly Taylor).

Parenthood is an opportunity to go to your innermost core and ask big questions like “What’s important to me?”, “what do I want out of life?”. You might find yourself being interested in things that previously weren’t important to (e.g. environmental changes, socio-political matters). Then when it comes time to return to work you might find that your previous job doesn’t align with your interests, your values and your new take on life. But in our society your job is a huge component of your identity. So, the seemingly innocuous task of deciding when you’ll be going back to work becomes fraught with deeper, more complex, identity re-evaluation and uncertainty.

How to ease your transition
  • Acknowledge that you have changed and embrace parenthood as an opportunity for personal growth. This can be confronting, especially if you weren’t expecting it, but even great changes are challenging in the beginning.
  • Take the time for personal reflection and self-discovery– start journaling about it, talk with those you trust about your experience and changing self. Include your partner in how you’re changing and your journey as this helps you maintain your relationship connection.
  • Your new parent self might not want to return to your job as it doesn’t align with your interests, values or how you see your role in the family. If possible, this is a time to reconsider your options – is there scope for a career change, return to study, negotiate a flexible working arrangement so that you can be more available for your family?

2. Conflicting Demands

Returning to work after having a baby can been difficult because of unrealistic expectations that you either place on yourself or are imposed by others. You might feel like you need to be ‘bright-eyed and ready-to-go’, be as effective, productive and ‘on top of everything’ as you were before having your baby. As if nothing has changed. But your priorities may have changed, you’re probably functioning on less sleep and each day after work you’re going home to care for your family and maintain a household. As a result, you may find yourself working extra unpaid hours to make up for what you couldn’t get done or frustrated because you aren’t able to meet your high standards.

Our undercurrent social rhetoric of mothers needing to “do it all” is failing woman. It’s resulting in mothers feeling like they have to be able to effectively juggle work and family life in order to be successful. But work and home are often in opposition to each other. The corporate world often requires women to be competitive, efficient, and output focused, whereas motherhood requires you to be compassionate, self-sacrificing, patient, and slow. This dichotomous nature places additional mental and emotional load on mothers making returning to work after maternity leave extra challenging.

While we have made impressive advances in woman’s and mothers involvement in the workplace, there still remains a lag in the uptake of equality in the division of household tasks. Research shows that even if both parents are involved in full time employment, the woman will complete 13 hours more in household chores (including child care) than her male partner (HILDA). As a result, when a mother goes back to work she is expected to continue completing the majority of work inside the home as well, placing additional demands on her.

How to ease your transition
  • Get curious about your own expectations and those placed upon you by others. Are they realistic? Do they support you? If not, let go of them to reduce the pressure on yourself.
  • Being aware of the conflicting demands of work and family life can help you cope. Furthermore, allow time for transitioning between work and family commitments to minimise the overlap of responsibilities. When you’ve had a challenging day at work, coming home and needing to be patient, engaged and empathetic to your family can be difficult.
  • Simplify or outsource where you can to reduce your workload either at home or at work.

3. Changes to your Relationship (again)

Becoming parents places many changes, challenges, and demands on the relationship with your partner. Early on in your parenthood journey you likely gravitated towards gender stereotypical roles (mum at home with baby and dad/partner working) resulting in you having relatively clearly defined responsibilities. However, when the primary carer also returns to work, the roles and responsibilities for parents often become more ambiguous, resulting in the need for further discussion and negotiation. When parents aren’t in agreement on their responsibilities for the family, it is likely to lead to frustration, resentment and conflict.

Another challenge for parents relationships when they both have returned to work is that there is even less time and energy available for their relationship. Parents can feel like “ships passing in the night” as they go about juggling both the family and work responsibilities with limited opportunities for relationship connection.

How to ease your transition
  • As much as possible strive for clarity over roles and responsibilities by discussing this with your partner. For example who will prepare lunches, do drop off and pick up, cook dinner, house cleaning, family administration? When you have a clear understanding of who is responsible for what tasks it is less likely to lead to conflict.
  • Even though you’re both busy and tired it is fundamental that you make time for connecting with your partner. It doesn’t have to be extravagant or take a lot of time. Simple things such as: a message during the day to ask how they’re going, a cute note stuck on the bathroom mirror or a tender touch as you cook dinner all make a world of difference.
  • Times of transition such as saying good-bye or greeting each other after time apart are critical points in your day for maximising your relationship connection. Try to make it a priority to devote care and attention to each other at these times as connection here will cascade out smoothing over other relationship challenges during the day.

4. Push/Pull Emotional Conflict

Returning to work after having a baby is an emotional time for mothers fraught with mixed feelings and internal struggles. Perhaps you’re wanting to stay at home for longer with your baby but feel pressure to go back to work to maintain your career. Or maybe you’re looking forward to going back to work to rekindle that independent part of yourself but at the same time feeling pulled to be at home with your baby. Alternatively, it’s common for mothers to desire a change in job or career but due to financial reasons they need to return to their old job. This push/pull emotional conflict can leave you feeling the need to be in two places at once and like you’re not being successful in either of them.

How to ease your transition
  • Become aware of this struggle or internal conflict. Shining a light on your thoughts and emotions and giving them a voice can sometimes be enough to quell your struggle.
  • Have strong boundaries between your work and home life so that you can devote yourself to the space that you’re in. Trying to check emails while at home with your baby will leave you feeling frustrated because you’re unable to effectively meet work demands and your family’s needs for connection.
  • Practice mindfulness & acceptance techniques – become aware of your inner voice which might be overly critical and placing unnecessary stress on you (e.g. I’m a bad employee – I’m not giving enough to work and I’m failing as a mum – I need to do more with my baby). When you start telling yourself your ‘inner story’, detach from it and let it pass. For great exercise on how to do this click HERE. Be mindful wherever you are – when at work try to focus on work and when you’re at home focus on your family. Attempting to juggle both all of the time is likely to lead to frustration, impatience and burnout.

5. You’re Out of Practice

You’ve been at home with your little one and odds are you’re now well versed in peek-a-boo, nursery rhymes, laundry and your baby’s routine. But as you’re going back to work you’re needing to hold conversations with other adults (about things other than poo, teething and sleep regressions). A skill that you took for granted before baby will now take practice to pick up again.

Becoming mum changes you in many ways and one way that many woman notice is changes in their memory, concentration, problem solving or the ability to change between tasks or ideas. In fact, scientists have shown that the brain structure and activation in a mothers brain changes to help her be more compassionate, empathetic, responsive to her baby and understand the intentions of others (Zhang). These changes can become particularly noticeable when you first return to work and leave you doubting yourself (e.g. am I capable of doing my job now) and embarrassed (e.g. will people notice if I zone out during a meeting).

How to ease your transition
  • Like any change or transition it will take time for you to settle into a groove. So treat yourself with kindness and compassion (e.g. speak to yourself as you would a close friend going through the same experience).
  • Be realistic – becoming a parent changes you so it’s not so much about trying to ‘get back to normal’ but finding your new normal and what works best for you now. Try to not benchmark and compare against your work achievements pre-baby as this is likely to place additional stress and pressure on yourself.
  • Take time to transition between family life and work life – grab a coffee, listen to a podcast or read a related blog to help you mentally prepare.

 

Many mothers are struggling to return to work after having a baby and need guidance to help them honour how they feel and ways to ease their transition. The challenges are varied and multidimensional – ranging from her own psychological and cognitive changes, challenges for the relationship with her partner, conflicting demands between work and family life as well as broader socio-cultural matters.

As a Psychologist and owner of Enlightened Parenthood I am passionate about nurturing Mums and Dads/Partners to navigate their parenthood journey. Work is a large component of parents lives and it is important to support them to maintain their health and well-being while juggling work and family life.

For more information on parenthood and work or insight on navigating your parenthood journey head over to our Facebook page or visit HERE.