Caution: Working Mom

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 the way to her van-pool pickup spot. “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 lasting careers suddenly have no desire to return to work,” says Susan Walker-Matthews, Ph.D., a woman’s health clinical psychologist for the Family Resource Center at Charleston Area Medical Center in Charleston, W.Va. Yet, she adds, “The reverse is also 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.”

The reality of having a new baby in your life 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. “You can’t really imagine what the life change is going to be like,” says Mary Morrison, M.D., co-director of medical and consultation psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. “The transition from giving birth and the immediate maternity experience to incorporating a new life into your work is difficult.”

Working mothers may be blindsided by their emotions at the end of a maternity leave because they’ve been so consumed by the practical matters of lining up day care, figuring out schedules and planning for emergencies. 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 mother, even if she has no choice.

“When a woman considers the question of whether to go back to work,” says Walker-Matthews, “she triggers layers of social, personal and familial expectations that may be unrealistic for her and her family.” While suffering the 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 his mother’s love and internalize her comforting presence, writes Susan Chira in A Mother’s Place: Taking the Debate About Working Mothers Beyond Guilt and Blame (HarperCollins, 1998). 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, two years ago changed Walker-Matthews’ priorities dramatically. “Even as I became re-connected with my 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 work.”

Recognizing this need to be with her son, Walker-Matthews hopes to cut down to a four-day workweek. Other options for women who want to be with their children more include working from home one day a week (“telecommuting”), negotiating a leave from the job, choosing a day-care center near their work, working part-time, or switching to a career that allows more time flexibility or provides on-site day care. Some companies even let parents bring their children in to work on slower days.

As your pregnancy progresses, go over finances with your partner and discuss your goals as parents. Even if the family doesn’t need your income, if work provides you with stimulation and self-esteem, returning to it may give you a sense of fulfillment that will help you be a happier mother. Reach out to other new parents for information and support. Carefully investigate child-care options.

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. Keep photos of your baby with you at work. If you can, call home (or day care) often to check on your baby’s welfare. Some working parents 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.”