Why new mums struggle at work: A guide to surviving the huge shift
Back to work after maternity leave? Are you struggling? On the verge of breaking down? Read on to find out the reasons returning to work after having a baby is just so tough, and what you can do to make things a little easier.
Four months of maternity leave have gone by in the blink of an eye. The time has come. You are returning to work after having a baby.
You look through that long-abandoned section of your wardrobe – crisp work shirts, silk blouses, high-waisted pencil skirts. There is a tinge of excitement growing within you at the thought of getting out of the sweatpants and messy bun that have plagued your appearance for the most part of the last few months.
Then your thoughts are interrupted by the sound of your baby crying. Reality hits and it hits hard. You stare at your ashen-faced reflection in the mirror. It dawns on you that when tomorrow comes, you will be away from your baby for most of the day.
An unexpected wave of guilt sweeps over you. As your baby’s cries get louder, you start to realise that perhaps returning to work after having a baby is harder than you expected. Panic starts to engulf you.
Returning to work after having a baby is no walk in the park. Many mothers struggle to adapt to the drastic change in their lives. Some even find themselves gravitating towards postnatal anxiety or depression.
In order to help mums to deal with this situation, we spoke to Silvia Wetherell, lead counsellor, The Choolani Clinic, Mount Elizabeth Novena Medical Centre. She provides a detailed explanation of the challenges of returning to work after having a baby and offers some solutions to facilitate the transition.
Why is the transition so hard?
1. Emotionally difficult transition
Jumping right on board after four months of being a full time mum is a huge transformation. Especially if you are a first time mum, you have just spent four months trying to be a mum.
In this short span of time you had to learn how to hold, feed, clothe, bathe, clean and care for a baby. You stayed up all night soothing an inconsolable baby suffering from colic pain. Breastfeeding is something you are barely getting the hang of.
You had to deal with physical recovery from childbirth. Your body has undergone a tremendous amount of change during pregnancy. After giving birth, you stare at your reflection albeit not recognising yourself. You don’t look the same. You don’t feel the same. Half your clothes don’t fit.
Then suddenly you’re expected to return to work and get right back into the swing of things. You have just set foot into your office and you are already drowning in a sea of meetings, emails and new projects. It’s like going from 0 to 100.
You are barely holding it together and the expectations are for things to be the same as they were before you had a baby. The same working hours, deadlines and stress levels. Many women feel overwhelmed and struggle to cope. Consequently, they start feeling useless.
These are unrealistically high expectations of a woman says Silvia.
A possible way to ease the transition would be to give new mums an adjustment period. Silvia advises employers to have realistic expectations of mums and to start them off with no more than 20% of their actual workload. Give them a few weeks to fully get back on track.
If such arrangements are not in place for you, do not hesitate to request for them. It is best to speak to your bosses prior to going on maternity leave. Informing them of your plans way ahead of time makes it easier for them to make contingency plans.
These days, many companies and organisations are pro-family. Do not assume that trying to request for some flexible arrangements would immediately translate to negative appraisals.
Remember mums, going on maternity leave is something you do not have to feel bad about. So do return to work with a positive mindset and pick it up from where you left.
2.Hormones – Baby Brain
Returning to work after having a baby is exceptionally difficult due to the hormonal changes after pregnancy. Ever heard of ‘Baby Brain’?
You mentally prepare a long grocery list only to stare blankly at the shelves in the supermarket. You search the entire house for your sunglasses only to find them perched on your head. You just can’t seem to remember what you have on this weekend.
You burst into tears while watching television. Then you realise that everyone else watching the same show looks at you strangely. It wasn’t that moving a scene was it?
Does this ring a bell? It's called baby brain. Simply put, baby brain is shrinkage of the grey matter in your brain caused by a huge flood of hormones that affected your brain during pregnancy.
While some areas of your brain shrink, there is significant growth in areas of your brain relating to your baby. You find yourself more forgetful and overly sensitive. This is nature’s way of taking your focus away from logical tasks and preparing you to bond with your baby.
Silvia stresses that in order for you to shift from this huge maternal preoccupation to work mode, your brain needs time. Again, it is of cardinal importance to be realistic.
Write more to-do lists and reminders, diligently fill in your planners, set phone reminders. Do what you must. But remember, the idea is not to find yourself struggling to keep your head above water.
You may wish to talk to some of your colleagues about your struggles. Consider confiding in a few close friends or the person you directly report to.
Again, this is not for sympathy, or an excuse to get away with work. It is just a humble request for people around you to be a little bit patient, and a little more forgiving if you initially have trouble getting back into business.
Breastfeeding was hard enough when you had your baby camping at your breasts all day. Now that you are returning to work after having a baby, you need to express milk.
It's a hectic day. One meeting after another. You missed a pumping session and your breasts are engorged. You feel uncomfortable. Your breasts hurt. You are leaking milk and staining your clothes.
It's an exceptionally busy day. 15 minutes are all you have to get lunch out of the way. 15 minutes are also all that you have to pump. Pumping while eating sounds like the only solution. But where?
Exactly. Where? Some mums are blessed with a nursing room or a conducive pumping environment with adequate privacy. For mums who work in a tiny, cramped office, options aren't aplenty. Sad to say, until today, some Singaporean working mums are expressing milk in the toilet.
Do we even need to start on supply issues?
And the feeling of being judged. This judgment is sometimes real but often, it is simply your perception, says Silvia. The anxiety within you is acting up. You fear that people think you are slacking off work by taking time to pump. You read too much into the facial expressions of everyone around you.
Please mums, do not impose such undue stress on yourselves! You are doing what you got to do. Expressing milk does not mean you are skiving.
Think a little less of those around you. Close your eyes and think of your baby's face. Remind yourself that this is a necessary pocket of time that you need to set aside in order to nourish your baby. It is important that you take stress out of the equation or you might find yourself struggling to get a let-down.
Communication is key once again. Let those who are working with you know that you will need to express milk every three hours or so. If someone doesn't look too happy then remind yourself that you cannot possibly please everyone.
If your job requires you to constantly be on your feet, you need to carefully plan how you are going to slot in your pumping sessions.
Your company has an event and you are going to be out of your office the entire day. What do you do? Plan ahead. Call up the location and find out if they have a nursing room or place for you to pump or store your milk. Bring your cooler bag. Think of how you will clean your pumping equipment.
In a worst case scenario, you might have to pump and dump your milk. It's tough. Undeniably. But mums have a fighting spirit that is unparalleled. I promise you that you will find a way around it if you try hard enough.
Continue reading to find more about the struggles mums face when returning to work after having a baby
4.Juggling work and home
After a hard day of work you return home. You spend the entire drive home mentally going through the dinner menu. You visualise your refrigerator and try very hard to remember if that half a packet of cherry tomatoes is still there.
When you get home you rush to prepare dinner. You take thrice the usual time because you need to attend to a crying baby in between. Or worse, your crying baby and toddler. Then there's the infamous Mt. Everest pile of laundry eagerly awaiting your attention.
Silvia highlights that even in this modern society, where we speak of equality, the main responsibility of domestic affairs still falls on women. Juggling work and home is incredibly exhausting.
There is also the guilt that women are struggling with. While at work, they are weighed down by the guilt of leaving their baby. When they return home, instead of focussing on the baby they start feeling guilty about work. Silvia sheds light on how many women find themselves trapped in this vicious cycle.
Support, support and more support. I cannot emphasise enough just how important support is for a mum who is returning to work after having a baby.
Husbands need to play an active role. So daddies, please remember to change your fair share of diapers. Consider taking turns for night feeds as well.
The rest of the family should also come together to assist. Ask for help mums, and free some time up. You don't want household chores taking away whatever little time you have left with your baby.
Don't forget you need time just for you. That bubble bath, your favourite Netflix series, a face mask, whatever it is. You need me-time.
For the most part of your maternity leave, you were by your baby's side. You were the primary caregiver. Returning to work after having a baby means being separated for a good eight to twelve hours a day.
Silvia explains that it is the mums who are most likely to face separation anxiety rather than the baby. Additionally, mums may find themselves constantly worrying about the care of the baby.
You need a plan in place to work towards being away from your baby, advises Silvia. The change from being with your baby all day to working full-time is extreme. The transition has to be gradual to make things easy for yourself and your baby.
During your maternity leave itself, take some time away from home. This will help both you and baby prepare for when you return to work. The bonus is that you have some space for yourself!
Start planning out the arrangements early. Decide on who is going to look after your baby when you return to work. Let them start getting accustomed to handling the baby.
This will help you to trust the person and have less to worry about when you return to work. It will ease the transition.
6.Intrusive family members
Many Singaporean mums struggle to deal with their parents, in-laws or family members constantly telling them what they should or should not feel. When returning to work after having a baby, the last thing a mum needs is for people belittling her struggles and imposing their views on her.
A mum also does not need to hear that it is a terrible idea for her to work, or that money is not more important than being with her child. Such things can be extremely undermining for a new mum who is already dealing with a myriad of challenges.
Silvia emphasises that mums need the right kind of support. Practical support to run things and look after the baby isn't enough. Mums need emotional support Mums need someone to confide in. They need to be heard without judgement.
Silvia foregrounds the importance of standing up for yourself when the need arises. Remove yourself from an environment that causes you to second guess yourself due to too much criticism. Mums need to be surrounded by people who are encouraging and supportive, not overly critical.
One of the best support systems a new mum can have is to be with other mums. Silvia advises new mums to join What's app groups, Facebook groups or whatever support groups that work.
Sometimes when you are at work and you find that you are close to breaking down, just being able to rant away on What's App to fellow mums who can empathise makes all the difference. Even if they cannot fix your problems, just being there for you goes a long way.
Senior assistant executive Serena Lim shares her struggles of returning to work after having a baby. Among other things, she felt lethargic and exhausted due to breastfeeding. Expressing milk was a challenge as she did not have a proper place to do so. Serena's teammates were neither understanding nor supportive.
Eventually she suffered from mastitis in her left breast. She could only feed her baby from one breast and struggled to meet her baby's demand.
Serena's husband was away and she was mostly living alone with her mother-in-law. Things got so bad that she felt like throwing her baby away. "I remember kneeling on the floor with my baby crying in my arms when no one was home. I wailed and screamed in frustration."
Over time, Serena found solace in prayer and by reading up more about the issues she faced. She moved in with her mum and gained support from Facebook support groups. Some members of the support group even paid her a home visit to help her cope.
Serena has come a long way and is now a happy mum to a thriving four year old. She has since made a career switch, and is finding purpose and meaning in her new job which involves working with children.
So mums, always listen to your needs and do what you think is best for you and your child. We hope that this article has helped you to understand the challenges of returning to work after having a baby, and how you can overcome them.
You need to be a happy and healthy mum to raise a happy and healthy child. Always look after yourself and never ever hesitate to seek help!
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