Back on the Job

Returning to work can trigger unexpected emotions. Here's how to make the transition.


Karen Beattie couldn't wait to get back to work after the birth of her first child, Kevin. "By the time he was 7 months old, I was climbing the walls. I really needed something else besides being a mom 24/7," she says. So she was surprised—to put it mildly—when she burst into tears on her way to work. "I thought my legs were going to fall out from under me. I cried the whole way into work. Periodically throughout the day, I'd break down and have to close my office door."

If you are contemplating a return to your job after several months of maternity leave, be forewarned: No matter what work arrangement you ultimately choose, you may be bombarded with intense, unexpected emotions ranging from profound sadness to deep relief.

The Many Faces of Motherhood The spectrum of reactions is common and normal. "Some women who have spent their entire adult lives making all the 'right' decisions as they built careers suddenly have no desire to return to work," says Susan Walker-Matthews, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist providing women's health services and pediatric psychology at Charleston Area Medical Center's Women and Children's Hospital in Charleston, W.Va. Yet the reverse also is true. "Some women report that they worry because they return to work easily and don't know what they would do with their children or themselves if they were home all day," she adds.

The reality of having a new baby can change your goals and perspective dramatically. What you thought was a perfect plan while pregnant may seem all wrong once you're holding that baby. Indeed, the transition from giving birth and immersing yourself in your life with a newborn to incorporating a new baby into your work life often proves difficult.

Working mothers may be blindsided by their emotions at the end of maternity leave because they've been so consumed by the practical matters of lining up day care, figuring out schedules and planning for emergencies. And even if they do see the emotional tidal wave coming, where do they run for cover? Support can be hard to find in a society that tends to frown upon the full-time working mom, even if she has no choice.

"When a woman considers the question of whether to go back to work," Walker-Matthews says, "she triggers layers of social, personal and familial expectations that may be unrealistic for her and her family." While suffering separation from their babies, many working moms also berate themselves with the outdated notion that the only good mother is the one who stays at home with her child.

Yet a child will sense her mother's love and internalize her mom's comforting presence, writes Susan Chira in A Mother's Place: Taking the Debate About Working Mothers Beyond Guilt and Blame (HarperCollins). That's why the emotional bond between working moms and their children can survive hours and even days apart.

Consider Your Options The birth of her son, Samuel, seven years ago dramatically changed Walker-Matthews' priorities. "After maternity leave, even as I became reconnected with love of my work," she recalls, "I would find myself speeding recklessly home in the evening. My desire to see my son became nearly excruciating the minute I began leaving the office." Recognizing this need to be with her son, Walker-Matthews cut her schedule down to a four-day workweek. Other options for women who want more time with their children include working from home a few days a week; negotiating a leave from the job; choosing a day-care center near their work so they can visit during the day; working part time; or switching to a career that allows more flexibility or provides on-site day care. And some companies let parents bring their children in to work on slower days.

While every new mom's experience is different, the emotion that unifies nearly all of them is guilt. One way to ease it is to create a work schedule and child-care arrangement that you feel is best for you and your baby—and to be willing to make adjustments along the way. (See "Easing Back to Work" and "Which Child Care Is Right for You?" for tips on both.) Other coping mechanisms: Keep photos of your baby with you at work, and if you can, call your caregiver often to check on the baby's welfare. Some working parents also establish a later bedtime for their babies so they can spend more family time together.

Whether you burst into tears at the office or breathe a sigh of relief, go easy on yourself. Unlike other jobs, there are no "right" choices in motherhood, only ones that work well for you and your family. As Morrison says, "Have a sense of reality, and don't get too dogmatic about trying to do everything perfectly."