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  • Christine Cunningham

Transitioning Back to Work After Parental Leave



What I've learned about parenting so far...


is that it’s a constant stream of transitions. You just get settled into one stage and then the next stage is right around the corner. I think for a lot of families, transitioning to work outside of the home, after maternity or parental leave can be really difficult. And often times it can be much harder on the adults than on the children. And transitioning back to work during a Pandemic has been incredibly difficult for families, where childcare options have been very limited or non-existent.


Some of the things we have to think about when we are transitioning to work after parental leave include organizing a new routine, coordinating childcare, figuring out pick up and drop off and how baby will be fed. I found it so hard to manage getting myself and baby or babies ready for work and daycare in the morning and getting to daycare and school on time. Most mornings felt like pure torture and then once they were all dropped off, I had to take deep breaths to try and centre myself for the day ahead.


And a lot of challenges can come up with all these changes to our day, routines, and family life such as transitioning a baby who is very attached to us, worrying if baby will nap in a different setting, potentially weaning off chest-feeding and experiencing changes in sleep routines. And all of those things involve a loss of control in some sense. Having complete control over our baby’s day and routine can be hard to let go of. That was definitely a shock to my system! Something fun that I also experienced was after-daycare/school meltdowns when my kids would be very busy and managing their emotions at school all day and then just completely let go after school. Definitely not something I knew about or expected. It was hard to deal with when I was tired from a day of work and then dealing with a toddler or preschooler who was also very tired. Some kids struggle more than others to transition to childcare, and that’s ok but can be hard on us parents. Dropping off a crying baby to a childcare worker can feel heart wrenching and tiring and frustrating and anything in between. And what if you decide to wean baby off chest-feeding and they just aren’t ready? That can be very hard to cope with.


Managing all of these changes has been particularly hard for parents during the pandemic. When daycare has a COVID outbreak, or we can’t rely on older family members to help with childcare or our child’s class has an outbreak then we must somehow manage time off or working from home with kids at home. This is of course an extremely small description of this dire situation! The weight of this has been very heavy on families.


Another part of this transition back to work involves integrating the parent parts with employee parts in our own internal family system. You’re going back to work as a parent, which can be a new role or you’re returning to work with more children in your family, and this takes some adjustment. Of course, everyone’s experience is different however sometimes it can feel so hard to “balance” these parts (whatever “balance” actually means). Sometimes work can feel not as important as before or maybe it does and then that is hard to balance with the demands of being a parent. Maybe you really want to focus on your career and gender stereotypes or the vision of the “ideal parent” make that feel harder than it needs to be.


Do you remember when you’d get to relax after work when you were tired from a long day?


Ya me neither! In all seriousness though, it can feel hard to imagine how you can fit anything into your life on top of work and family. That first few months after going back might involve less time for friendships or extracurricular activities. And we can have thoughts about that, that we can’t keep up or we’re missing out on some fun parts of life. If we listen without judgement to what we need, then we can cope as best as we can with these changes.


Grief can also be present in this transition. You might experience grief about having less time with your child or children. If you experienced a Perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, then you might feel grief for the time you lost to the illness. And if you had a difficult recovery physically there could be grief for that time it took you to recover.


I found that the build-up to going back to work was much worse than actually going back to work. I am a hyper planner (thank you anxiety), to overcompensate for my difficulties in maintaining routines (thank you ADHD), and so I spent a lot of time in hyper planning mode to make sure that everything went smoothly. Once I went back to work though, it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated, and I was able to cope. And I had spent a lot of time in those last few weeks of my maternity leave in high anxiety.


Here’s my advice-giving part:


It can help to figure out what things you can cut back on while you make the transition, such as some household chores or starting new projects. Can you transition back to work on a part-time basis or transition your baby into child-care on a part-time basis? Can you reduce the extra-curricular activities for this transition period, or do extra activities help to pass the time after work until bedtime? Can you try to stay present in those last few weeks before going back to work in order to enjoy the rest of your time with baby or kids and to keep your nervous system regulated before the actual transition? Does your support system need to change? Maybe you need to recruit help for pick up and drops offs or people to help with meals or chores? Just like we can plan for the postpartum period, we can plan for the return to work period.


The most essential coping skill is being able to listen to yours and your family’s needs. It’s important to take everyone’s needs into account, not just your baby’s, but yours as well. Maybe that first weekend after returning to work needs to be a quiet, restful one or maybe you need some extra sleep. It can be very helpful to be present with your emotions and physical sensations in order to hear what you are feeling and what you need.


For some of us, going back to work is a welcome transition, despite the challenges that it presents and that’s ok too! Being present and mindful will allow you to savour that cup of coffee or tea that you get to drink while it’s still warm at work. There was nothing that I loved more than my solo drive to work with my music blasting or a good podcast to keep me company. And at work (for hopefully most of you), you get to go to the bathroom when you need to and ALONE! Relish it, enjoy it! Interacting with other adults, friends and co-workers felt really nice after mostly only talking to babies and toddlers for a year!

Sharing experiences can help!

Sometimes just talking about how much we loved going back to work or how hard we felt it was can be so helpful. Just knowing that other people had similar experiences can help us feel less alone, less like we can’t cope and less guilty for returning to work out of necessity or choice! Let us know in the comments what was the hardest or best part of transitioning back to work for you!


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