After having a baby, stepping back into the office might feel entirely different. Emotions might be running high, and your day might feel more rushed than ever. Learn what to expect and ways to prepare for the transition back to work.
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Parental pivot: navigating change with 5 transition-easing strategies
Beyond 9-to-5: practical steps to attaining work-life balance
How do parents feel about getting back to work?
No matter how you feel about returning to work, you can expect an emotional rollercoaster. The emotions often range from guilt and excitement to anxiety and anger.
You might feel frustrated that you have to go back when you’re not ready and even experience resentment toward your workplace or family. Sadness can also feel overwhelming, and bouts of crying are completely normal. Of course, guilt is famously felt by parents for leaving their children while they go to work — even guilt for feeling excited to go back to work. Anxiety can also mix in with worry about leaving your baby in childcare.
In the end, you might feel everything all at once or in stages as you go through the prep and full return. It’s hard to say exactly what you’ll feel as it’s different for everyone. Also, for parents who suffer from mental health challenges, like postpartum depression, going back can add another level of complex emotions.
Managing everything that comes with going back takes planning — that includes asking for support from friends, family, and your workplace. The more you acknowledge the emotions and practice healthy coping tools, the easier it may become to allow them to pass.
Factors that contribute to mental well-being after returning to work
How you’ll manage life after parental leave depends on various factors that impact your well-being, such as:
- Support. Family and coworker support can reduce anxiety and depression.
- Workload. Adjusting your workload is often best to reduce overwhelm.
- Job flexibility. Having adjustability to meet your and your baby's needs can dramatically reduce stress.
- Work content and security. Feeling satisfied and secure at work has a strong impact on mental health.
- Finances. Going back to work for financial reasons before you’re emotionally ready can be difficult, making self-care and support all the more needed.
- Length of leave. The attitude toward the length of leave and individual reasons change how it affects parents returning to work. For example, longer leaves are associated with increased depressive symptoms for those who miss their work life.
- Expectations. It’s unlikely to have the same emotional and mental capacity to work exactly as you did before having a baby — expect needing time to readjust.
- Emotional well-being. If you struggled with your mental health before, during, or after pregnancy, going back to work can add stress. Making sure to set up support, along with healthy coping strategies, can help.
- Medical complications. Women who experience medical issues during pregnancy may experience mental health symptoms if reentry to work is too soon.
5 strategies to ease the transition
Going back to work after having a baby isn’t easy, but with a bit of planning, it can become more manageable.
1. Speak to managers before going back
Ask any questions on your mind, such as what to expect and any new people you might have to work with. You can dive into negotiations about your hours and flexibility, all the while being clear about what you’re able to manage. See what their expectations are for your return and how you can work together to make the transition back as smooth as possible.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find out what options are available to you, especially if you’re a breastfeeding parent who needs a safe space for pumping. Workplaces are becoming more parent-friendly with increasing rights. For example, the PUMP Act allows nursing employees reasonable breaks and a private space other than a bathroom to pump breast milk.
2. Get into the work routine before work starts
A few weeks beforehand, give going back to work a full trial run. Allow enough time for a baby to get accustomed to their daycare or being left with caregivers, so the transition is gradual for both the baby and you. Also, this way you can go through the range of emotions before the start day and feel better prepared. You’ll also learn more about whatever obstacles might be in your way, such as meal prep and commuting needs.
3. Create backup childcare plans
We all know how unpredictable life can get. Babies and caregivers get sick, so think ahead about how you can manage those days. Find out if there’s another daycare nearby, a babysitter you can call last minute, or the option to work from home or take a day off.
4. Set your priorities
Think about the potential outcomes of heading back and what is and isn’t currently negotiable while allowing yourself the wiggle room to change your mind as you go.
For example, will you say no to more projects or leave meetings early to get more bonding time? Think about what you'll have to do to manage your priorities. They might have changed since you became a parent, so try to identify what is really important to you at this stage in life.
5. Don’t forget self-care
It’s hard to find time for self-care even before having children, and carving out some non-negotiable 'me-time' can feel even more essential when heading back to work. Sleep may also be lacking, making everything all the harder. So think about ways to still get some peace and fun out of life, like meeting friends or joining parenting groups once a week to socialize.
Even if you don’t have much time, look for ways to get a few minutes in, like a 2-minute meditation when you first wake up or a little walk on your lunch break. Finally, amidst all the parental guilt and emotions running wild, work on a little self-compassion. Research shows it boosts your mental health, and one compassionate exercise a day can go a long way.
How to find work-life balance
Finding a work-life balance is something we all struggle with, but with some trial and error, we can find ways to make it work. Some ideas include:
- Prioritize quality time. Schedule daily bonding time with your baby and family.
- Dedicate specific hours. Keep work and family time as separate as possible.
- Set boundaries. Say no to extra work or house tasks when you can.
- Practice self-care. Carve out a few non-negotiable moments throughout the day for yourself.
- Ask for help. Whether it’s from your partner, other family members, or hired professionals, ask for help.
In the end, it’s hard to know exactly how you’ll feel after returning to work. Fortunately, preparing and gathering as much support (and self-compassion) as possible can make a difference.
How soon should I start preparing for my return to work?
Start preparing at least a few weeks in advance to work on both the practical and emotional adjustments needed. Take into consideration your individual circumstances, allowing both yourself and the baby plenty of time to adjust.
Why is it so hard to go back to work after having a baby?
It’s a combination of emotional attachment, changes in priorities, and more challenges of balancing work and family life.
How do babies feel when their parents go back to work?
Babies might initially experience some emotional distress with the change in routine and caregiving. However, with consistent care and bonding time, they can adjust to the change.
Expect to feel all the emotions, and maybe all at once — it’s normal and healthy to let them all out.
Your mental health will depend on your support system, finances, work flexibility, expectations, workload, coping tools, and more.
Ease back slowly, giving it a trial run and negotiating work expectations with your company beforehand.
- Lancet Psychiatry. Postpartum depression or psychosis and return to work.
- Family Matters. The role of planning, support, and maternal and infant factors in women’s return to work after maternity leave.
- The Journal of Perinatal Education. Social support, postpartum depression, and professional assistance: a survey of mothers in the midwestern United States.
- Work and Occupations. Job satisfaction and women's timing of return to work after childbirth in the UK.
- Archives of Women’s Mental Health. One size doesn’t fit all: attitudes towards work modify the relation between parental leave length and postpartum depression.
- Safety and Health at Work. Work reentry after childbirth: predictors of self-rated health in month one among a sample of university faculty and staff.
- U.S. Department of Labor. Pumping breast milk at work.
- Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Mechanisms of change in the relationship between self-compassion, emotion regulation, and mental health: a systematic review.