Try as you might; nothing can truly prepare you for the mind, body, and spiritual transformation of becoming a mother. Returning to work after the fourth trimester is another transition that many women find challenging. In addition to physical recovery, many experience ‘mom guilt’ of leaving their baby with a caretaker, and they fear missing important milestones. Getting your brain back into ‘work mode’ isn’t an easy task either, and on top of everything, you may also battle unrealistic goals about your performance.
Leanna Stockard, LMFT, says many women often put additional pressures on themselves due to a belief that they ‘should’ be able to do it all and do it all perfectly. “Women may feel the expectation to get back to the same performance level at work while balancing multiple other responsibilities at work and home,” she explains.
Rather than setting yourself up to fail, Stockard says it’s important to remind yourself that not only has a baby been born, but a new motherly role has been born. Try these tips from maternal health experts to ease into the office and give yourself lots of grace.
Meet the Experts
Leanna Stockard, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist at LifeStance Health.
Dr. Liz Simons PT, DPT, WCS is a board-certified women's health physical therapist.
Ivy Slater is an author and certified business coach.
Laura Erlich is a fertility and obstetric specialist and founder of Mother Nurture Wellness.
Johanna Allen is a certified nurse-midwife with Viva Eve.
Jessica Cisneros is the chief clinical officer at Family Houston.
Make time to breathe.
When you pour yourself a hot mug of coffee, log in to your work email, and attempt to dial into your duties, you may feel off-balance. After all, there’s a whole other human in your life that you’ve been used to tending to 24/7 for weeks, and now you’re trying on an old hat again. If you’re feeling like you can’t find balance, returning to the basics of the breath can ease stress and improve energy, mental clarity, and productiveness, says Dr. Liz Simons PT, DPT, WCS.
“During pregnancy, breathing becomes more difficult as the baby increases in size, taking up vital space in the mother’s abdominal cavity. Often post birth, women are still stuck in these shallow breathing patterns which cause activation of the sympathetic nervous system, your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response,” she says.
Re-learning how to breathe using your diaphragm can turn off this fight or flight response, drastically shifting your mood and mindset. Breathing also allows you to focus on yourself instead of the needs of others. It helps pull you into the present moment, too — rather than worrying how your little one’s nap is going mid-day. “Often, recognizing the enormity of this transition to motherhood can help the mother to take a deep breath — and with the help of her support system, she can persist,” Dr. Simons adds.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel.
Because you’re back in the office, part of your mind is likely elsewhere. And your body may not feel the same as it once did. In fact, everything could feel different. And not only is that okay, but it’s important to process those emotions, Stockard says. “If you find yourself missing your child, take a minute or two to scroll through your phone and look at pictures,” she says. “Utilize that time to reflect on your memories the day before, and look forward to seeing your child at the end of the day. Then, you can send a quick text to your childcare provider to check in with your child’s wellbeing at the time.”
From diaper blowouts and unexpected fevers to adjusting to (far!) less sleep, there’s nothing predictable about having a baby. And when you return to work, you’ll need to continue to be flexible since life will continue to throw you curve balls, says Ivy Slater. For example, you may be a week back from maternity leave, and your baby picks up a sickness from daycare, and you’ll have to care for them until they’re healthy to return. Nannies can quit or not be able to handle the responsibility. Whatever happens, will happen — your job is to push forward and focus on what’s important.
“Roll with the challenges and the joys. Learn and grow. Take deep breaths, try not to sweat the small stuff, and laugh if you can. This transition back to work will be tough, no matter the situation. Take one day at a time and always do what feels best for your family,” she says.
Get a nighttime plan in place.
Most babies don’t consistently connect several hours of sleep until about four months old. And even then, it’s still normal for them to wake up one to two times in the middle of the night. So if you’re returning to work after six, eight, or 12 weeks, you may be up more times than you can count. Lack of sleep is difficult for anyone, so it’s essential to divide and conquer with your partner to ease the deprivation, says Laura Erlich.
“Plan ahead and get into a nighttime routine that ensures each of you at least one long stretch of sleep for at least a week before you return to work. While the parent on leave may have been taking the brunt of the sleep loss, it’s time to redistribute the load. In addition, getting into a new routine ahead of returning to work will allow both parents to get used to their new schedule and to make adjustments as needed,” she adds.
Prep your meals…
Mothers often deprioritize themselves, resulting in missed meals and dehydration. Giving yourself adequate nutrition and water is vital to recovering your body — and boosting your brain power. As you prepare to return to work, Erlich says it can be helpful to set up a meal train for friends to contribute and ease the burden. Or, you can come up with batch-cooking recipes and freezing meals for busy weeknights. If your budget allows, splurge on lunch takeout to one less to-do from your list.
…and your baby’s meals.
If you’re breastfeeding and plan to continue once you’re back at work, give yourself plenty of time to transition to pumping and feeding bottles at home, urges Johanna Allen. Having a stash is essential for being away from your child throughout the day. Allen says you should also check in with your employer to communicate that you’ll be pumping and make sure there is a private, safe space for you to do so. Remember, it’s a law to provide this area, so your employer must give you the time and space to maintain your supply.
“If you’re struggling to breastfeed, consider reaching out to a lactation consultant,” she continues. “If you choose not to breastfeed, be aware of the potential shortage of baby formula and plan accordingly.”
Check-in with yourself throughout the day.
A new mom is often expected to reintegrate into the workforce and continue to be as productive as she was before the pregnancy, says Jessica Cisneros. But in reality, you may feel completely scattered, exhausted, and worried about your child. Finding a work-life balance may not only feel hard but impossible.
To help you ease into work again, Cisneros says It is crucial to be very self-aware and have check-ins with yourself throughout the postpartum period. You can do this by asking yourself these questions:
- Have I eaten?
- How much water am I drinking?
- Do I need to step away for a break or a walk?
- Do I need to ask for help?
- Do I need to cry?
At work, don’t volunteer for every project — instead, take it slow. Ask yourself these questions and take it day by day as you gradually adjust. “When we take on too much, we can feel like we are failing, which leads to feeling discouraged — and ultimately can lead to depression. “Doing one thing at a time and making a to-do list can help a new mom not to feel overwhelmed,” she adds.
Make time for yourself as a matter of necessity.
While it’s likely been a hot second since you’ve flown the friendly skies, Erlich says ‘secure your mask before assisting others’ applies now more than ever. “It’s not sustainable to be working and parenting 24/7, so make sure you leave those dishes in the sink and take a bath or sit outside on a warm evening once in a while,” she says.
Your self-care time can be anything — stretching, taking a fitness class, going for a walk with the dog, getting a manicure, you name it. The goal is to set a regular time for yourself, not in the office or caring for your baby. To do this, you’ll need open communication with your partner to ensure a fair division of free time and downtime. “When you keep your own needs at the top of your priority list, the pressures and responsibilities of working and caring for a baby can be offset, a least a little,” Erlich adds.
Pay attention to posture.
Dr. Simons says postural awareness is huge in the postpartum phase. “Regardless of one’s mode of work — sitting at a desk all day or standing up for hours — paying attention to the position of your body in space is important to helping your body continue to heal and not add strain to an already depleted and weak system,” she explains. During pregnancy and delivery, abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor have been stretched and weakened, so movements or postures that were once easy may be uncomfortable.
Dr. Simons says the ideal posture is one where you stick your ribs over your hips. “You want to ensure that your ribs are pointing down, towards the hip bones, not pointing forwards and up or down and back. When your ribs align with your hips, this naturally allows for more activation of the abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor, simply because they are in an optimal position to be turned on and generate tension, supporting your body,” she says.
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