Person holding baby with computer.

7 Stories of Returning to Work After Having a Baby

By Lauren Krouse
March 29, 2024

Returning to work after childbirth when you may be financially strained, unsure of how to manage childcare, or just wishing for more time to heal and bond with your baby can make for an immensely difficult transition.

In the United States, the majority of workers don’t qualify for paid family leave, and women with lower-income jobs are less likely to have access to family leave than those in higher-paying positions. Only about 1 in 4 people have access to paid leave after the birth of a child, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median length of time off for American parents is 11 weeks for new moms, and only one week for dads.

Most parents look back and say they didn’t get enough time with their new child, and many suffer financially from a lack of support, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. The impacts of a drastically short parental leave aren’t just emotionally difficult. Short leave can also deprive parents and newborns of the many potential benefits associated with paid time off, such as more opportunities to breastfeed, healthier babies, better postpartum mental health, and higher-achieving children.

Here, seven parents share what surprised them most about returning to work after having a baby, how they coped with the issues that arose, and ultimately, how they navigated this change with strength and grace.

1. I turned to my support system more than ever.

Fallyn Schwab, 21, night shift worker at Lowe’s in Jacksonville, North Carolina

“After about a year off, I’ve been back to work part time for about three weeks now unloading trucks. The biggest challenge has been summoning the strength to go to work—pumping [breast milk] in the middle of my shift, missing my baby.

“My husband’s been a big help, as have online support groups for breastfeeding and pumping. Sometimes, I’ll scroll through, ask questions, help other women, or say I need a lift. We tell each other: You do have that mental strength. You just have to dig a little deeper down to find it.”

2. I craved more flexibility.

Sanda Amarasinghe, 35, operations leader for a charter school network in New York City

“The first time [I had a baby,] I went back to work after eight weeks off at partial pay. I struggled to balance my new job and my new role as a mom. I felt like I was failing at both. Because of my commute, I had to be away from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. It was exhausting.

“When I had my second child, I decided to find a new job with more flexibility. My [new] boss cares more about my commitment, work ethic, and quality of work as opposed to whether I’m there physically or working late. For me, that was the deciding factor.”

3. I learned to ask for the help I needed.

Tianna Tye, 27, team dynamics consultant in Atlanta

“Asking for help—from my mother, grandparents, and husband—was the single most powerful thing I could do. My weekly schedule shifted to mirror my husband’s. He’s a firefighter, so that means I have two consecutive workdays followed by one day off when he’s on duty. On my workdays, he’s the primary parent and only brings the little guy in (to my office) for feedings. It’s not the standard workweek, but we love it.”

4. I pushed for a slow transition to ease my way back.

Anna Ibrahim, 29, trauma therapist for a nonprofit organization in Knoxville, Tennessee

“I took 10 weeks off for maternity leave before returning to work with a ‘soft return.’ I only worked two days a week (in office) my first week back, then worked from home (the other) three days. It was hard to switch from breastfeeding to pumping, but my employer made sure I had accommodations like breaks between clients and a refrigerator.

“I’m not a super emotional person, but I was surprised by how difficult it was to leave my daughter. A slower transition made it easier.”

5. I allowed myself to make a hard choice.

Maria Beck, 35, stay-at-home parent in Chicago

“After having triplets, I took maternity leave from my job as a senior executive assistant for six months. When I went back, I worked remotely—a blessing that made it doable. But coordinating the babies’ care, checking emails on the way to doctor’s appointments, and rushing back home was still a lot to keep up with.

“After a year, I decided to [quit my job and] stay home full time. I’m glad I went back before I made this decision because then it became my choice, and I didn’t feel trapped. Even though some days are challenging, you have those days with any job.”

6. I prioritized small mental health breaks.

Sabrina Comeaux, 27, resource coordinator for children in foster care in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

“I just returned to work after five weeks of unpaid maternity leave. It’s rough because I’m still healing physically. I also have anxiety and depression, and I can’t start taking medication again until I’m finished breastfeeding. I’m so joyful and grateful, and I’m also sad. Your body’s different, your relationship with your spouse is different, everything is different—and you have no time to process it.

“To cope, I often go on walks and try to take time to rest when I feel overwhelmed or need a break. I’m really thankful for support from my family.”

7. I learned to accept my whole self.

Lindsay Tigar, 33, freelance journalist in Asheville, North Carolina

“After three months off, I eased back to work with a ‘slow start’ with a part-time babysitter for a few hours four days a week. The most difficult part has been the shift in identity. I’m still me, but I’m a mom, and my focus and priorities have changed dramatically. I’m already harboring and trying to release some guilt for looking forward to working again.

“I have to remember that many truths can coexist: You can love to work and love your child. They aren’t mutually exclusive. And you’re not a bad parent because other things fulfill you.”

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