Tackling mom guilt – here are 5 ways to cope as you return to work after maternity leave

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Going back to work after spending months bonding with your newborn can fill you with pangs of guilt.
Going back to work after spending months bonding with your newborn can fill you with pangs of guilt.
Westend61/Getty

From the second they come out of your womb and take their first big gulp of breath, they are dependent on you for every need. 

You bathe them with delicate care, gingerly give them a nappy change, learn how to breastfeed them, understand their needs and what each cry they make means. Your baby is your miracle and for those first few months of maternity leave you spend bonding with them, they become your world.

But the reality is it’s a man’s world and, even though more countries have made paternity leave a statutory right, moms still bear the majority of the domestic load, which includes childcare and being there for a newborn 100% of the time from the time they’re born.

Then there’s the other very real concern of feeling like you’re either missing out on crucial developments at work – new recruitments, promotions and restructuring – or being pressurised to return to your duties through hints or slights by co-workers as a working mom.

“I think as a society we value productivity above family life,” Blanca Eschbach told Reuters. “You almost feel rushed to get back to work.”

The new mother lives in the southern state of Texas in the US, one of the few countries in the world where new moms are not entitled to unpaid maternity leave. In fact, according to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, the country is one of the worst performers among developed nations including those in the EU when it comes to parental leave. 

Read more | This mom went from struggling to breastfeed to becoming a milk donor – here's how you can donate too

In SA, new moms are entitled to four months of paid maternity leave and employers who change the conditions of your employment during that period can be taken to the CCMA.

You may be the type of mom who cannot wait to back in your work clothes, latte in one hand, laptop bag in the other as you march back into the office after four months of maternity leave. You’ve been in oversized T-shirts and yoga pants for so long, you feel guilty that you’ve been on a paid “holiday” while your colleagues salved away.

Then there’s the guilt of feeling like your little one is too young for you to leave them at home – they’ve been so dependent on you for every need from the moment they were born. Going back to work feels like leaving them behind to fend for themselves. This is classic mom guilt.

“We are genetically wired to feel mum guilt, and that’s because since the beginning of human life it has predominantly been the mother’s role to care for a baby,” said celebrity physician Zoe Williams, who gave birth recently.

As with many unsettling emotions that make us feel bad, acceptance is the first step to coping with the mom guilt, according to Dr Williams.

“What I’ve discovered, is that mum guilt is real and you feel it no matter what you do as a working mum. My first tip would be acceptance,” she told Hello! Magazine.

For those moms also experiencing an unhealthy dose of mom guilt, here are four other tips to help you manage.

Encourage a positive bond between your baby and your childminder 

Ideally, if you have the financial means, you would’ve hired someone while you were still on leave to make the transition back to work easier. This also allows you to see how they interact with that baby and how comfortable the little one feels with the nanny.

Arrange for the minder to start a few weeks before you go back to work. Spend some time with your child and the childminder together at first so you can explain some of your child’s habits and behaviours to the minder and help her interpret some of their cues.

This is of utmost importance for babies or toddlers who can’t express themselves through words yet, but is also beneficial for caregivers of older children because being able to understand your child better will enable the minder to respond more appropriately to their needs.

Encourage your childminder to stick to a basic routine. This creates a calmer environment at home, helps everyone involved to know what to expect and makes handing over the reins at the end of the day easier for parents and childminders. Remember, small children generally find change very difficult and they might be quite tearful during times when they are transitioning between parents and childminders.

Show confidence. Say goodbye confidently when you leave to let your child know that he or she is safe with the caregiver.

Try to mention the childminder’s name in conversations when you are home alone with your child – talking about them often. Showing an interest in your child’s interactions with the minder will encourage a strong bond between them.

Negotiate with your employer

With many employees working from home (WFH) or on a hybrid contract that allows them to work half-days or less days a week, you might find that your employer is open to you making a staggered transition back to the office.

Easing back in by working part-time at first “allows you to learn how to do the job you did before differently”, Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behaviour and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, told Harvard Business Review

“You learn to prioritize and concentrate on the things that move the needle,” when you’re going back part-time at first she says. But there is a downside to this, she adds. It can make your team feel like you are only giving 50%.

Read more | Sylvia on becoming a mom again after her former husband killed their 4 kids

Continue breastfeeding 

It’s still a struggle for new moms to find dedicated space at work where they can pump breast milk – and the toilet is a less than ideal place to do this. If you work in a cubicle or share an office with someone, talk to your boss about getting your own office or having an unused space set up for moms to pump milk.

The Mayo Clinic suggests changing “your nursing schedule at home so that you’re pumping at least once each day and nursing before and after your upcoming work hours” two weeks before you return to work.

“Have someone else feed your baby a bottle of breast milk to help your baby adapt. If you'll have on-site or nearby child care, consider the logistics of breast-feeding your baby during the workday.”

Remind yourself that achieving your career ambitions is about your child as much as it is about you

“Your baby will be proud of you someday,” columnist Michelle Ruiz opined in Vogue. “And he or she may even be better off because of your career.” 

If you need to remind yourself of this fact, she adds, print out and “frame the Harvard Business School study that found that daughters of women who work outside the home grow up to earn more and be bosses, while sons grow up to be more involved in household chores and childcare”.

Sources: Reuters, Vogue, Mayo Clinic, Harvard Business Review, Hello!
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