How to Know When You’re Really Ready to Go Back to Work

Working Mom

Returning to work after having a baby is not easy.

By Deirdre Wilson

You’ve had six weeks of bliss with your newborn – getting to know his sleeping and eating habits, his cries and his smiles. But your maternity leave is up, and you need to return to work.

Are you ready?

It’s not unusual for a new mother to pack a breast pump in her briefcase, drop her baby off at a newly chosen childcare facility and head into work – only to find herself stressed, emotionally distraught and in tears before the day is out. Why? She could be having trouble pumping breast milk; perhaps her childcare provider called and said her baby hasn’t stopped crying; or maybe she’s reacting to the hormonal changes that come after giving birth.

Returning to work after having a baby is not easy.

A national survey of new moms conducted in 2008 – the first of its kind to gauge their experiences in the months after giving birth – bears this out. The survey found that nearly half of new moms who returned to work felt that they hadn’t stayed home long enough with their babies. Most said they had to return to work because they couldn’t afford more time off.

The survey, “New Mothers Speak Out,” conducted for the maternity support organization  Childbirth Connection, details the experiences of 903 mothers during their first 18 months after giving birth. Of those moms who were previously employed and returned to their jobs after having a baby, one-third returned within six weeks and most (84 percent) returned within 12 weeks. But these women reported numerous challenges:

• 79 percent said that being apart from their baby was a challenge.

• 50 percent had difficulty with childcare arrangements.

• 37 percent had breastfeeding issues.

• 36 percent didn’t feel they had enough support from their partner or spouse.

• 29 percent perceived a lack of support as a new mother in the workplace.

The survey also revealed problems with weight control, stress, sleep loss and backache, as well as lingering pain from Cesarean delivery more than six months after childbirth. The findings, advocates say, underscore the need for more support for new mothers.

“Childbearing and being a mother is one of the most important challenges that women face. Not only does a mother have to recover herself, but she also wants to take care of her family, her new baby and to maintain a positive relationship with her partner or spouse. It’s an awful lot to juggle. And then there’s the decision to go back to work,” says Maureen Corry, Childbirth Connection’s executive director. “We’re about the only major industrialized country that doesn’t have the kind of postpartum supports that women really need.”

Among the changes needed at the national level, Corry says, is an extension of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to more women. Currently, the law mandates family leave of up to 12 weeks for people who work for companies with 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the company’s business location. Many small businesses are exempt. Furthermore, the family leave is unpaid.

“It would be ideal if all women had access to it, and if more women actually had paid leave,” Corry says.

Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, is more blunt. While other industrialized countries provide paid maternity leave and stronger supports for working mothers, she says, “women here struggle to cobble together the time off, income and child care they need. … We can, and must, do better.

“We are letting our mothers and babies down at one of the most critical and vulnerable times in their lives,” Ness says in a statement responding to the survey.

Thus far, U.S. lawmakers have rejected calls for changes to family leave laws. So what can new moms do to ensure that they’re ready to return to work?

It’s All in the Planning

If mothers become more aware of the challenges they’ll face, they’ll be better able to prepare for them, Corry says. “I’m a big believer in planning,” she adds, “If I can anticipate what may happen, then I can put my plans in place.”

How do you plan for a postpartum experience that will work for you?

• Talk with your employer about your desire to pump breast milk for your baby while in the workplace. You’ll need time and a private area to do this.

• Talk with your physician about what to do about any lingering pain or discomfort from a Cesarean section, if you underwent this procedure during childbirth.

The survey also revealed problems with weight control, stress, sleep loss and backache, as well as lingering pain from Cesarean delivery more than six months after childbirth. The findings, advocates say, u

• Sit down with your partner or spouse and talk about what kind of support you can expect in caring for your home and your baby once you return to work.

• Research and get the best childcare you can find. Do your homework, Corry advises. The more comfortable you feel with the childcare setting, the more confident you’ll be taking your baby there, she says.

 • Look into backup care for those times when your childcare provider can’t care for your baby.

• Think about what you’ll do if you experience fatigue, discomfort, depression or other problems that can arise after childbirth. Discuss this with your employer, too. You may want to ask about easing back into your work schedule – putting in just a few hours per day during the first couple of weeks and gradually working back up to your previous schedule.

But even with the best-laid plans, some moms will still experience an emotional tug that feels overwhelming. When is it too early – emotionally – to return to work, school or whatever you have to do that separates you from your newborn?

“It depends on each individual mother,” Corry says. “It’s such a huge decision that a new mother has to make … It might be traumatic for you to go back at six months, whereas someone else may be feeling just as bad at two years.”

But the better you plan for all of this, the better off you – and your baby – will be.


Who Will Care for My Child?
Need help finding a top-notch childcare provider for your baby so that you can return to work? Read 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing Childcare .