In the five years I've been a mother, I've dealt with a lot of really tough situations. Above and beyond the everyday difficulties of raising a child, there's been illness, miscarriage, emergency room visits, potentially risky medical procedures, and that one time my 4-year-old toddler went missing at Disneyland for 45 seconds. However, I truly don't think anything I've had to do is as difficult as going back to work after the birth of my first child. So I asked other moms to reveal the hardest thing about returning to work after baby, because I know I'm not alone in this.
Anyone who has gone through the process of becoming a parent knows that every step to get there is a giant cosmic test to prepare us for the rigors of parenthood. First you have to muddle your way through the all-consuming, tedious, and often painful process of pregnancy or adoption. Then the pregnant ones have to go through childbirth, while the adoptive parents have to go through yet another barrage of paperwork and uncertainty. After all that is said and done, you may be tempted to think, "I can handle literally anything now." That's usually when the sh*t will really hit the fan and, in the case of infants, sometimes that's not a metaphor but a statement of fact.
Actual feces aside, there is no doubt that preparing for baby and those first days/weeks/months after birth are terrifically difficult. But the challenge of going back to work after welcoming a child into your life presents a slew of literally impossible challenges and a complicated volley of emotions crashing into you, upending all the systems and axioms that had been holding your world in place up until then. Everything has to be re-examined and relearned and, sometimes, even victory feels awkward or dubious.
Am I being a total bummer? I'm sorry. I'm being a bummer. But I want to keep it very real. And let's be clear: I'm not bemoaning the idea of being a working mom, truly. I know countless moms who relish their careers and wouldn't give them up even if they could (including yours truly). But I don't know anyone who thought the transition back to work after motherhood was easy and few who didn't find it painful and emotionally difficult.
I'll let them explain in their own words.
"Feeling constantly inadequate and like I was failing everything and everyone. I was less effective at my job and I had to leave my baby all day with someone else only to come home and be exhausted. I felt, and sometimes still do feel, like there aren't enough parts of me to go around. I'm proud of my job and proud of my children but I almost always feel like I'm failing or like I'm superwoman."
"Only one? Here are my Top Five!
2) Feeling guilty and judged by every random person you've ever heard saying things like, 'I could never leave my child in daycare!' (Fortunately, you eventually realize those people don't matter.)
3) Being so tired and having to completely re-learn how to function at work while having a second round the clock job (i.e. parenting).
4) Not being able to look as cute as you used to. (Not impossible but really hard to do when you factor in not only fusing the time to get ready but how incredibly difficult it is to avoid bodily fluids and food stains all over your work clothes.)
5) To the minute scheduling and the art of saying, 'No.' Because you will no longer have the resources to say 'Yes' to everything everyone asks you to do. 'No' becomes crucial and if you don't realize this at first your work and home lives can be very stressful and chaotic."
[Writer's note: Courtney adds "With time all of these get a lot better. Pumping is temporary; You stop caring what everyone thinks and trying to please everyone; You figure out how to get sleep and babies start sleeping better eventually; You find a new normal for work style (or develop a routine that allows you to continue looking like Beyoncé daily); You become a scheduling ninja and get much better control of your time, and laugh at how much time you used to waste doing stuff people asked you to do for no reason!"]
Finding time to pump was my biggest difficulty. My work schedule is all over the place, and my break times are very random and there's basically no way to establish a routine.
"The beginning is so hard. I felt like I had sweat and cried and lost sleep and helped him become this tiny human that was starting to be a person and then I just had to hand him over to someone to reap the fruits of my labor — the smiles and laughs and tiny bits of his personality that were going to start shining through. I was also very unhappy at work, so leaving him every day to go do a job I didn't like was torturous. I cried a lot on my way from daycare to work. Now I have a job I like and part of me feels guilty because I'm leaving him because I want to go to work. It's a completely different sense of guilt."
[Writer's Note: Kelly adds, "I feel like I should add that I like this guilt significantly more than the other guilt. It usually dissipates by the time I walk into my office and think about how much I like my job now." Good for you, Kelly!]
"Pumping. I loved nursing, but I hated pumping. It wasn't so much the hooking myself up to a pump twice a day — although that was not much fun and occasionally gave me blocked ducts — it was that initially my employer didn't have space for all of us women who needed to pump. You'd think in a company that's 75 percent female, someone would have thought of this when we moved to the dreaded open floor plan. But no.
So, the first few weeks back to work were chaotic, unproductive, and painful, as I desperately tried to find a spot where I could hole up and pump for 20-30 minutes. It got so that the largest part of my headspace was devoted to figuring out how bad my boobs hurt right now, how much were they going to hurt if I couldn't pump in an hour, OMIGOD THEY HURT SO MUCH GOTTA PUMP NOW, and where am I going to pump next time?
I'm lucky that I'm executive-level and confrontational, because I wound up having to go to our CEO ... [who] took my side because he's basically a good guy and because I used a lot of phrases like 'institutional sexism' and 'labor-law compliant' and reminded him that I'd worked for our company's two biggest competitors and they all had fully-equipped lactation rooms for their female employees. ... I realized how lucky I am to be white-collar, senior, and confrontational, because if I'd been working a retail job or hospitality or factory job, or hadn't been able to get the ear of the guy in charge or whatever, I would have been unable to pump and basically would have had to give up breastfeeding, or at least switch the kid to formula for part of the day."
I'm two months back and still doing 'clean up' on stuff I thought was being covered while I was out, or was covered, but not up to my standards.
"Figuring out the balance — in so many ways. The balance between heart and responsibility. The balance between work-work and house-work. The balance between parents: who has the more important job on this particular day that the baby has a cough and can't go to daycare? It took us a good 4 years to figure this all out. Well, mostly."
"With my first, I returned to work full-time after six weeks and what killed me the most was feeling as if I was missing the chance of raising my daughter. I couldn't ever get that chance back either. I felt that I was simply providing for her at that point. The idea of someone possibly knowing her better than myself or that I could potentially miss her 'firsts' killed me. I had to constantly talk myself off the ledge that I was her mother and nobody would ever fill that spot and to try and let go of that overwhelming insecurity. I never really let go of that feeling. When I gave birth to my third child, I stopped working because I couldn't live with those feelings a third time around and never get the chance again as I knew our third was our last."
Just the feeling like there isn't enough time. I feel like I'm missing so much of her life when I'm at work, and when I'm with her it's not for long enough.
"I have my own business, so I had no time off after either of my deliveries. With my daughter I delivered on Thursday and was working on Saturday. With my son, I quite literally was working in the delivery room and in the recovery room and was back to work relatively full-time within two days (luckily I work from home and my mother recently moved in with us, so childcare was in-home, which I know not everyone has).
While going back to work so quickly was obviously a huge bummer, it also eased the transition in that I didn't have months and months of just being with my kids — we didn't have to readjust to a new normal. In a way, being able to work helped with the baby blues — I was continuing to interact with the real world in a normal way and wasn't quite locked in "mommy mode."
"One of the hardest things was actually returning to work. With both of my babies, I knew the moment I went into labor I didn't want to return to work. It would be so hard. And it was. I dreaded it the whole time I was on leave, which wasn't paid but I took a full 12 weeks each time. I knew I needed that time to bond, to spend some time with them and to try to get some sort of routine. With my second baby, health concerns/procedures/surgery I was sure glad I had the time off, though financially now I'm paying for it. ... [And] the moment I leave my work job, I am heading home to do the Mom job. Yes it's a job, but one I love. It's a full '24/7 on call job,' which makes it difficult since my other job is a rotating shift work job. I never sleep."
The sleep deprivation was brutal. My daughter didn't sleep through the night until she was 11 months old.
"Coming home. Leaving was OK because I could distract myself with the things I had to do, but when I came home that first day and held him and put him to bed for the night I was like, 'That wasn't nearly enough time with him!' and sobbed. The good news is that eventually I found a routine that I loved and worked really great for everyone. When you have less time, I find, you treasure every minute of it, so in the end I really don't think I was spending any less 'quality time' with my baby than I had been."
"Literally being away from him was the hardest. It felt so wrong. Puppies aren't supposed to be away from their mothers until 8 weeks, but some moms have to go back sooner to work sooner than that? I was 'lucky' to get 13 weeks at home before having to go back.
The bond between a mother and child is unlike any other. It's biological, physiological, emotional, spiritual. It's insane. Every part of my being was screaming for baby when I had to return to work. There was lots of crying — my tears, not baby's — the first week, but it got better. Thankfully he's done phenomenally well at daycare, and we've settled into our new routine. Sure having to function at work while being sleep deprived sucks. Drying up a month after going back to work because I was never able to successfully pump sucks. Balancing everything sucks. But nothing sucked as much as simply being away from my baby."
I feel like I'm missing the important moments.
"Guilt about everything, missing so many firsts, dealing with the judgement. Sleep deprivation while having to be a productive employee is so so hard. The only thing I found easy was pumping, but that is thanks to my super supportive employer."
"The hardest thing was dropping her at daycare and having to peel her off me and walk away as she was reaching for me with all she had, crying hysterically, 'Mommy no!' As I walked out of the building I could still hear, 'Mommy! Mommy!' It was physically painful to try to hold back tears (and often unsuccessful), but as my work was literally less than a minute down the road, there was no time to cry and recover before walking in.
After about 2 months, she stopped crying at drop off, but oh my God, I think we both equally felt our worlds were falling apart in those moments! And then I'd get to work (teacher) and struggle with trying not to resent my students for making me have to go through that every morning, as ridiculous as that sounds. I never felt 100 percent good at anything. I wasn't being a good mom because I'd only see my daughter about three hours a day, and I wasn't being a good teacher because I wasn't putting in the extra hours anymore. I was too tired to care much about household chores, or paying much attention to my husband. I had nothing left by the end of the day. I felt I was barely mediocre in every role I had. I'm writing all this in past tense because after one school year, I couldn't do it anymore and was lucky enough to be able to stay home (though it's way harder than I thought, and money is super tight now)."
Having to prove that I was just as committed to work as I was before the baby... and realizing I would never really be able to prove that from the looks I get from non-moms when I rush out the door to pick up the kid.
"Saving my precious eight sick days a year for my child. I never have the luxury of taking a sick day, because what if I really need it for the baby?"
"The first day handing your 3-week-old newborn over to someone else to care for is heart-wrenching. You just bond and now the baby gets more time with the caregiver."