Jill* came to see me for therapy at the end of her maternity leave. She had never experienced anxiety before and was suddenly suffering from shortness of breath, racing heart, difficulty breathing and intense feelings of guilt in anticipation of returning to work and leaving her newborn son.
While the experiences, conditions and circumstances of working vary, many women, like Jill, experience guilt—feeling they are causing harm or doing something wrong.
Mothers often strive to meet unrealistic expectations of parenting. When they don’t reach these unattainable goals, intense feelings of guilt arise. Here are some of the most common reasons mothers feel guilty, specifically when returning to work, followed by tips on how to overcome these feelings.
Guilt #1: Leaving my baby with someone else
“What’s the point of having a baby if I am going to leave him every day?” Jill asked. Often working mothers feel guilty leaving their babies in the care of others. However, most children under the age of 5 years old receive childcare from someone other than a parent, whether through day care centers, nurseries or with nannies.
Infants and children do well with a loving caregiver, whether a parent or another provider. In fact, your child may actually benefit from a healthy and loving relationship with another adult. Furthermore, research suggests that using childcare can have social, psychological and financial benefits for both children and parents.
Guilt #2: I’m not good enough
Many mothers strive for perfection, which sets them up to feel disappointed, frustrated and ashamed. Rebecca* was looking forward to returning to work after being on maternity leave with her newborn son and toddler but soon discovered that she was not the same employee as before. It was no longer realistic for her to be the first one in the office and the last to leave.
Whether you are elated or anxious to be back at work, it is important to be realistic and patient with yourself. You are not the same person as you were before you left, and that is okay. Additionally, you are returning to work with new skills gained in motherhood, such as multitasking, delegation, time-management, saying “no” and fully committing when you say “yes.”
Guilt #3: Failing at work-life balance
When you think of work-life balance you probably think of equality in both work and life. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Instead, think about work-life balance in more flexible and realistic terms—sometimes work triumphs over life and other times life wins over work.
When you are at work, try to be 100% focused. When you’re home, try to be 100% present—don’t check work emails or take work calls. If the work-life wins and losses feel about even, then you have achieved work-life balance.
Keep in mind that working is not the same as self-care. You still need time for yourself, whether taking a workout class, grabbing dinner with friends or squeezing in a manicure.
Try these tips when returning to work:
- Choose all of your outfits for the week before returning, ensuring the clothing fits your body now.
- If you are breastfeeding, practice pumping at home. Find out the best place to pump at work and pack all of your supplies the night before.
- When coworkers ask how you are doing, have one short and positive line ready, such as “It’s good to be back.”
- Take breaks and call your partner or supportive person to hear a friendly voice
- Place a photo of your baby on your desk.
- Ask your caregiver to occasionally send photos, but try not to FaceTime.
- Learn to say “no” and not over-commit.
- Spend quality time with your baby when you return home—the laundry and dishes can wait.
- Take time for yourself.
- Find your own version of balance.
* Names and identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.