How to Cope with the Emotions of Going Back to Work After Baby
There can be many challenges when the time comes to return to work. On top of figuring out childcare, feeding logistics, and how to get enough sleep, you might be nervous about diving back into the work routine. And chances are that you may be experiencing some tough emotions about this new phase.
“More commonly expressed emotions are anger, frustration, sadness, fear, relief, guilt, happiness, and numbness,” says Bethany Cook, Psy.D., a psychotherapist in Chicago and author of For What It's Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0–2.
Whether you’re feeling negative emotions, positive ones, or a mix, there are ways that you can transition back and fulfill your responsibilities as an employee while still being a good parent.
Here’s what mental health and career experts have to say about managing your emotions while easing yourself back into the swing of things at work.
Accept Your Emotions
“Any emotion a parent may experience heading back to work after parental leave is valid in my book,” Cook says. Give yourself permission to feel how you’re feeling, whether it’s excited to start feeling like your “old self” or a sense of loss over time away from your baby.
You might even find that your feelings are complicated. “Many people experience mixed emotions in returning to work following parental leave,” says Wayne Pernell, Ph.D., a career coach with a degree in clinical psychology who splits his time between San Francisco and New York City. “From relief to guilt to pangs of longing—a parent returning to work could feel them all.”
As you acknowledge your own emotions, try to tune out any preconceived ideas of what you think working parents should feel. One example is guilt. While it’s common for parents to feel guilty as they head back to work, not everyone feels that way—and that’s perfectly okay. "Acknowledging that what you're feeling is normal and not letting other people tell you how you should be feeling is the true path to coping," Pernell says.
Communicate with Your Manager
Not everyone feels comfortable talking with their manager about their feelings about the transition, but it can be helpful to learn and set expectations before you go back. "If you're nervous about starting the conversation, you might give your manager a heads-up by sending them an email in advance with notes about what you want to discuss," suggests Annie Rosencrans, people and culture director for HiBob, a human resources platform for businesses in New York City.
It’s a good idea to keep it professional but also to be authentic about your concerns. The more your manager knows and understands your feelings upfront, the better they can support you in managing the transition back.
"As an employer, it's our responsibility to create an environment where open communication about personal challenges is welcomed, and empathy and flexibility are emphasized," Rosencrans says. You can prepare for these conversations with your employer by reminding yourself that your thoughts and feelings are valid, understandable, and important to bring up.
Ask for What You Need
There will be decisions to be made about how to best feed your baby after you go back to work and what accommodations you’ll need.
"The first thing I recommend is talking to other working parents in your network to learn best practices," Rosencrans says. Once you know what's worked for others, speak with your employer’s human resources department and/or your manager about your needs.
For example, if you’re breastfeeding or chestfeeding and want to continue, you may feel a bit anxious about the logistics of pumping at work. Or you might feel stressed about ending your workday in time to pick up your baby at daycare.
"Share with your boss only what you feel comfortable sharing and what they need to know for logistical reasons if they need to provide coverage," Cook says. "You can send an email [similar to this]: "I am writing to let you know that I will start back to work soon after parental leave and wanted to ask a few logistical questions,” she suggests.
Use that opportunity to discuss things you may be worried about such as work hours, break time, and using the pump room—if there is one—and what you may be able to do if there isn’t.
Consider Therapy and a Support Group
"Talking to someone whose job it is to listen, understand, validate, and offer guidance [like a therapist] for your own unique personal life journey is worth its weight in gold," Cook says.
That might sound like too much to add to your schedule right now, but it can make a huge, positive difference during a time in your life when you may feel especially vulnerable.
"Remember, therapy is not forever,” Cook says. “It's an opportunity to develop positive coping strategies for managing the feelings that come with the complexities of living a life that fulfills your emotional needs in healthy and pro-social ways."
If it’s too difficult to travel to a therapist’s office, you might consider a virtual session instead. And if cost is a concern, look into what company benefits could help. Some employers have employee assistance programs (EAPs), which typically offer free mental health services to employees in need of support.
You can find a mental health provider with experience working with postpartum parents using Postpartum Support International's directory.
Another helpful option is to connect with others who are experiencing some of the same challenges. Here in our pregnancy community, you can talk to others about their experiences going back to work. In addition, you can attend an in-person support group.
"Consider joining a working-parents' group that can help you manage the emotions related to returning to work after the arrival of a new child," Rosencrans says.
Lean on Friends and Family
Don’t be shy about asking the trustworthy people in your life to lend a hand. This can give you time to reset and also help you manage your emotions, since that’s more difficult when you’re overwhelmed, stressed, or sleep-deprived.
“Speak to your partner or family or friends and ask them for specific things like dropping off meals,” Cook says. “Often, people want to help. They just don’t know what to do, so they don’t do anything,” she continues. For example, Cook suggests asking questions like:
- Would you mind picking me up these items from the store the next time you go? Great! Once you check out, send me a photo of the total, and I will pay you the money.
- Is there any way you could stop by sometime this week for two hours and watch the baby while I get some rest?
Be Kind to Yourself
Remember to exercise self-compassion and ongoing reflection on your needs as you make this major transition. Give yourself permission to change the plan if things aren’t working well for you or your family.
"Adjusting to your new role as a parent may mean that you speak with your [employer] about getting some additional time off," Pernell says. "The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows for an extended and/or intermittent leave as long as your doctor signs off on that," he adds.
According to the Department of Labor, the FMLA allows those who are eligible up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a year, and group health benefits must remain intact during your time away. Talk to your employer about your eligibility and/or get more information at DOL.gov.
Keep in mind that you may not experience your return to work as other parents have, or even as you have in the past if this isn’t your first child.
"There's no right or wrong emotion," Pernell says. So, pay attention to how you feel, adjust accordingly, and be gentle with yourself.
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