return to work
Easing The Transition
21 August, 2017
Returning to work after a time out is never an easy transition. Even less so when during your time out you have become a parent. One of the most common emotions during the return to work period is overwhelm. You are adjusting to a new schedule and office life, and adding a career focus to your life again. In addition, you are juggling this with child care, family commitments, and, often, an attempt to compensate for the fact that you are not a stay-at-home parent.
Transitioning from one role to another requires relinquishing all the responsibility you previously had as a stay-at-home parent, and replacing it with a completed upgraded version. . This revised version typically entails acceptance of a dual responsibility, where you straddle two distinct roles and "modes of being", and between which there is an inherent tension.
In a study on working mothers, Wendy Hall (1987) explains that the ensuing feeling of overwhelm “resulted from [new mothers'] unrealistic expectations. [They] were trying to do it all perfectly; theorists describe this as 'superwomen'” (sic). She identifies six feelings resulting from overwhelm and unrealistic expectations: guilt, loss, exhaustion, ambivalence, resentment, and anger. We took a closer look at each one. (This consideration only looks at the mother's experience. We believe that some of the perspectives may be useful for fathers undergoing the return to work transition too).
After birth, mother and baby undergo an intensive period of bonding and start to form a relationship outside the womb. Changing the conditions of that relationship by returning to work can induce guilt on behalf of the mother, especially as it is she who removes herself from the previous closeness of the relationship. Attempts to compensate for this change are impossible when the mother is confined to a work schedule, which can open the door to further guilt.
Making the decision to return to work means accepting the consequence that you cannot be as hands-on as a stay-at-home parent. Accepting this reduces the stress of the guilt, and means that time spent with your baby is not influenced by any feelings of remorse or desperation for things to change.
The original mother-baby relationship changes, and the amount of time which mother and baby spend together decreases. This can often bring feelings of loss, especially as the mother can easily feel replaced during these hours by the child's new carer. The longer the time she spends as a stay-at-home mother, the greater this feeling of loss tends to be.
Viewing the change in relationship as a necessary development of the bond between you and your baby changes the perspective away from loss. Furthermore, recognising the benefits to your child of you working can also help.
The sheer amount of time required to satisfy the responsibilities of work and home often means that women try to fit it all into their schedules, resulting in physical exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion can also result from the conflicting responsibilities and energy required to adjust to the life of a working mother.
Being realistic about your responsibilities and creating a routine which is “good enough” and includes what matters most for you is a good way to mitigate physical and emotional exhaustion.
Sometimes returning to work doesn't have the impact that you expect. Managing multiple areas of importance may mean that you are unable to derive meaning from any of them, as you are constantly being pulled away by another.
The key thing is to know what you want to get out of each area you spend time on. If you know you want a sense of achievement and challenge out of work, for instance, then you can drive towards that, and then alter your course when work stops fulfilling these needs. At home then, for example, if you know that uninterrupted time with your children is what matters most to you, then you can focus on spending time with them when things like cooking or socialising with other families don't get in the way.
Resentment is an easy feeling to encounter, especially given the fact that returning to work is different for everyone: there is no "one" experience. Maybe you feel like a small cog in a large organisation, whose vision you are even less sold on than before your parental leave. Or maybe now that you are essentially giving up something to work, the pay or the recognition is not good enough. Feelings of resentment can also arise when comparing yourself to others. Your friends, family, or even your partner, may be returning to work themselves and having an easier time of it; or, perhaps, the fact that they never had to make a transition at all is equally frustrating.
Finding reasons to embrace your own choices, and appreciating that they come with trade-offs, may reduce feelings of resentment.
Some mothers may feel trapped, especially if they had to return to work because of financial concerns, or if they are single mothers. This can lead to anger because of the intense feeling of powerlessness that can come with returning to work.
Again, comparison with others, especially a partner, can be counterproductive. Clearly articulating the reasons why you chose to return to work can help reduce the sense of powerlessness, as can developing a schedule that allows you to spend more time with your child in a way that is meaningful to the both of you, for example integrating a daily reading time, or having a block of uninterrupted, one-to-one time together every weekend.
Hall, W. A. (1987). The experience of women returning to work following the birth of their first child. Midwifery, Volume 3, Issue 4 187-195.
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