HAVING IT ALL
The Advice We Wish We'd Gotten About Going Back To Work After Baby
Going back to work post-baby is trickier than ever, and you're not alone if you’re struggling to figure it out.
Managing the transition back to work after having a kid is both a learned skill and an identity shift: You are becoming a working parent. And though we don’t have a lot of public conversations about this transition, you are absolutely not alone in struggling to figure it out.
Amanda Rauf, a child psychologist in Brookline, Massachusetts, returned to work last November, when her son was just over 2 months old, and ramped up to full-time in January. It was rocky in ways that will be familiar to anyone who has done this before: the logistics of getting herself ready for work and her baby ready for day care by 7:15 each morning, plus adjusting to long hours of work on little sleep, and long hours away from her baby, all while adapting to a new identity and all the emotions that come with it.
“The thing that I try to tell myself is that every challenging time is a phase,” she says.
Rauf is a single parent and needed to work for financial reasons. But her career was also an essential part of who she was. “I didn't want to lose myself and just be a mom,” Rauf told me. “Like, a mom is another identity that I have, including a professional, a friend.”
If having a baby means gaining a new identity (mother), then transitioning back to work after having a child means you now must weave together two important parts of who you are and how you spend your time. This is true whether or not you love your work, whether or not your job is important to your sense of self.
As we raise our own kids, we are growing and changing as parents too, so we have to figure out how to raise ourselves through it all.
I have two children myself, ages 4 and 7, and asking questions about this process is at the heart of the podcast that I host called Childproof. We focus on how to keep track of ourselves in the process of raising children, and I’m learning right alongside our listeners how to stay resilient in the face of stressors and how to identify what kind of support I need.
First, let’s just state the obvious: every person and every situation is different. But in thinking through some topics we’ve explored on our show, and in calling up other moms and experts, I’ve culled some perspectives and a few strategies that I wish someone had shared with me.
It’s OK to feel eager to work again.
You know this transition is going to be hard — but have you reminded yourself that it might feel good?
“I hear so many women struggle with the fact that they are not in fact conflicted or sad about returning to work — and trying to figure out how to best project the feeling without having their motherhood or parenting challenged in any way,” said Monique Dozier, a licensed clinical social worker based in Eastvale, California.
Dozier started a private practice during the pandemic focused on motherhood, and on working with Black mothers specifically. She said certainly there are moms who wish they could focus exclusively on parenting, or who choose to. But many of the mothers she encounters actively want to get back to work, and they’re concerned with how that enthusiasm in and of itself will be perceived.
Kat Pritchard, a first-time mother in Forest City, North Carolina, always envisioned herself as a full-time parent. But she enjoyed her job doing clerical work at a local Belk department store. It’s a position she started in the middle of the pandemic, after feeling burned out from her day care job.
“I ended up falling in love with it,” Pritchard said of her job at the store. “It's easy. But it's something I can be good at and something I love doing.” When her son was born in November, Pritchard was still on the fence about whether she would return to work. “The first couple of weeks I said, ‘There's no way I can go back. I can't leave him. I can't leave the couch. Like, I'm just so in love with him,’” she said.
Fast forward several weeks.
“I love him and I love being a mom and all of that. [But] I was like, I need some grown-up time. You know, I need to not be with the baby for a minute. I love my husband. I need another grown-up that's not my husband.”
The couple cannot afford child care, so Pritchard currently works one and a half days per week, during times that her husband can stay home with the baby. If she wants to increase her hours in the future, she’ll have to consider the potential loss of the government benefits the family currently relies on, including Medicaid and SNAP.
But for now, the slim schedule feels just right.
“I thought I was going to be the one worrying all day, and I was going to make my husband send me all these pictures,” said Pritchard. “And I just really wasn't. And in a way that was really comforting too — that I really could separate myself.”
Structure is your friend.
Give yourself as much of an on-ramp returning to work as you can. Rauf, the child psychologist, worked part time for about two months before increasing to full time. Not everyone may be able to do that, but there are ways you can get your mind ready, gradually, for the first day back.
First, if possible, introduce child care at least a couple of weeks in advance. Then, just practice getting ready for a workday. “Wake up at the time you would normally get up, even if you don't have to be at work, and go through the motions of what a routine would look like,” Dozier said.
Get dressed. Go through a skin care routine. Leave the house for a few hours. Practice being away from your child. Practice prepping the baby’s things or your own things the night before. In other words, get comfy in the mechanics of returning to work so that you can leave space to process the other stuff (such as emotions or your actual job).
And for parents working from home, try adding in a “commute” to transition in and out of your workday, said Yael Shy, a meditation coach and CEO of Mindfulness Consulting in New York. One freelancer I know walks around the block and grabs a cup of coffee before she sits down to work at home.
“If you can, do five minutes where you ‘arrive’ and you settle into your space,” said Shy. “Even if you're not a meditator, like, you take a few breaths before you launch into the day.”
Follow the same practice at the end of the day, she said. Before you relieve a sitter or pick your child up from day care, give yourself a few minutes to reset. You can think about what went well during the workday, and what didn’t. You can think about how to put your best foot forward for the rest of the evening.
“Draw as much boundary as you can between the kid and your work life,” said Shy. “Structure is your friend.”
Tune into yourself like you would your own kid.
I’ve been a parent for more than seven years, but I’m absolutely still learning how to balance my job and family life. Until recently I was a news reporter at a public radio station. I remember working hard to table thoughts about my kids or my to-do list for home so that I could get my work done on a deadline. I’d push thoughts about home so far away that by the time I was ready to switch back to parent mode, I felt like I had been split in two. And then I felt frustrated with myself for coming apart at the seams (um, see Episode 2 of our show about my trying not to lose it with my kids).
That’s when I started learning about mindfulness practices and meditation. I’m still a beginner in all of it, but it’s helping. (Also, I don’t work in a newsroom anymore. That helps me too.)
The first step is to acknowledge that you’re going to feel a lot of things, and those emotions will bubble to the surface. Shy calls this mindfulness 101. Once you acknowledge the roller coaster of emotions you feel, think about how to address them without judgment.
Just as we wouldn’t neglect our children in moments when they are having a hard time or even bursting with joy, we should turn toward ourselves in the same way.
“Sometimes I like to say to myself that there’s more than one baby in the room,” Shy said during an interview for the very first episode of our show. “You know, including if you have other kids. But the other baby, like, the other one that's struggling, is you and the part of you that's overwhelmed and dysregulated or just having a hard time.”
As we raise our own kids, we are growing and changing as parents too, so we have to figure out how to raise ourselves through it all. Just as we wouldn’t neglect our children in moments when they are having a hard time or even bursting with joy, Shy says we should turn toward ourselves in the same way.
And a change as big as returning to your job, whether you are eager to or not, requires giving yourself some attention. In a recent follow-up call, Shy suggested finding moments to do these little check-ins at the start or end of our workdays, as we switch modes from parent to working person, and back again. “Being a parent is so consuming and it feels, often, like you belong so much to your kids, especially babies,” said Shy. “And then when you're at work, you kind of feel like you belong to the work. And so it's just a moment of sort of just belonging to yourself.”
Dozier, the California social worker, suggests paying attention to how you feel in certain spaces. Is your jaw clenched walking into the office every day? Do you feel at ease with co-workers, either in person or in online meetings?
“When are you smiling the most? When are you laughing the most? When do you feel carefree?” said Dozier. “And the opposite — when do you feel the most stress? Anxiety? Overwhelmed? And start seeing if there's patterns anywhere.”
Dozier acknowledged that some parents may not have the emotional capacity to take inventory of themselves on any given day or week. When that happens, it’s crucial to have people you trust who can offer a read on you. “I always think it’s important — we talk about village and community — of having people around you who know you very well,” Dozier said. “And hopefully have a relationship where they're able to see a difference or a change in you.”
Believe me when I say that I know that you’re tired, and I’m tired too. Obviously we would get more sleep if we could. But I found it helpful to understand what happens to us when we don’t get enough rest.
Carla Naumburg, a licensed clinical social worker near Boston, gave an analogy on a recent Childproof episode that I found pretty sticky: Imagine you walk out one morning and see that your car has a flat tire. Totally flat. Either you fix it. Or, you drive around on the flat tire. If you do the latter, you might still get to where you’re going — but it would be really bumpy. And uncomfortable. And inefficient.
Naumburg’s willing to gamble that no one would get in a car and drive off with three functioning tires. “And yet that's essentially what all of us are doing every single day when we're trying to function when we're exhausted,” she said.
If you are totally lacking in sleep, start by having compassion for yourself. Then, plan for how you are going to catch up on rest. Think about the conditions you need to get more sleep — or at least more meaningful sleep.
Dozier suggests building in 30 minutes of quiet time for yourself before going to bed, and filling it with something that you actually want to be doing, never something you feel like you should be doing.
Also, have you considered naps?
I called up my friend, Dana Goldstein, who’s a reporter for The New York Times. She had her second child during the pandemic and returned to a busy job from home. She misses working in an office, but there is one major perk of remote work: the ability to nap.
“Sometimes after lunch I will get in bed for an hour,” she said. “It allows me to sort of catch up.”
Clear your calendar for some time to sleep or zone out. Ask for help or for someone to take something off of your plate. (And take help when offered! We can be kind of bad at this!)
Know you’ll be doing your job differently.
When you were last at work, you did not have a baby (or, at least, the additional child that you have now). Things have changed, and the way you do your work will likely need to change — at least for now. So adjust your expectations accordingly.
“I have struggled with the feeling that I'm not excelling at either job,” said Goldstein. “And I think that is really common to moms. That you're not doing your best work either at work or at home.”
It gets easier over time, says Goldstein, but returning to work after having a kid means first learning how to do things differently. “My first year back from my first maternity leave, I saw it as my job to learn how to be a working parent. And then in the second year, after that, I actually had a great year at work where I feel like I met goals that I had set for myself.”
Shy, who has two children ages 3 and 4, also finds that things get easier. Because you’ll make sure that they do. “If it's untenable in the beginning, you can roll with that and adjust things and tweak things. You're going to find a rhythm and a way to make it happen.”
You will. Just be patient with yourself.