14 ways to ease the pain of returning to work after maternity leave

Going back to work after parental leave can be stressful, guilt inducing and exhilarating all at once. Here are some helpful tips on coping with the transition and knowing your rights.

14 ways to ease the pain of returning to work after maternity leave

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The end of my mat leave felt like a battle with time as I wished for it to slow down (please stop growing up so quickly!) and speed up (only one more hour until my hubby is home!) all at once. Like most life transitions, returning to work was rife with mixed emotions.

But just like there isn’t a manual for how to do mat leave, there isn’t one for how to end it either. Returning to work when your mind and body are still adjusting to the new normal of being a parent can feel overwhelming, stressful and exciting all at once. My heart ached at the thought of leaving my daughter for five days a week after having 15 months together (and just when it was starting to feel easier, too). At the same time, I love my career and wanted to go back to work. It was a constant push and pull.

But the onus on re-entering work successfully shouldn’t rest solely on a new parent’s sleep-deprived shoulders. Organizations have a responsibility to foster respectful and equitable work environments with flexible hours, private pumping rooms, job-sharing options and subsidized child care. Although some companies are on the ball when it comes to supporting new parents, many still need to catch up. And for those who are self-employed, the transition can feel especially daunting when the onus really does seem to rest largely on you.

Assuming that you’ve already got child care lined up (which can often be harder to secure than tickets to Hamilton), here are some tips to help with the transition back to that paying job.


1. Feel all the feels, but let go of guilt

You might feel really, really sad about going back to work, but you might also feel really excited. Acknowledge your feelings without judgment, and then cry, laugh, journal or call a friend. For a few weeks before my mat leave ended, I let myself soak in all the pre-emptive nostalgia, mourning all of our “lasts”: our last mat-leave breakfast, our last mat-leave walk, our last mat-leave diaper change (spoiler: these things continued to happen post-mat leave, too). If you feel guilty, remember that guilt is an emotion that has evolved to trigger us when we are doing something wrong. But going back to work to support your family is never wrong. Certainly, you might feel anxious about leaving your child on a daily basis, but (and I don’t make a habit of telling people how they should or shouldn’t feel) you shouldn’t feel guilty.

2. Think about what you want

The Mom Project, an organization that helps design better workplaces for moms, surveyed more than 1,000 women and found that their ideal work week wasn’t the standard nine-to-five. What’s more, 88 percent considered flexibility to be as important as—if not more important than—salary. Ask yourself, What are your work priorities? A shorter week? Projects that require less travel? The option to work from home? A well-deserved raise? Write down your goals and ask (or, if you’re self-employed, plan) for what you want. If you’re not totally sure how to implement your ideas, set up a returning-to-work meeting with your boss to brainstorm possibilities. If your aspirations aren’t possible or asking just doesn’t feel like an option, it might be time to start considering other workplaces. In the meantime, write down your goals as intentions for the future—one day, that 30-hour work week might actually become a reality.

3. Get in touch with work early

Perhaps you’ve maintained contact with your boss and colleagues throughout your mat leave; if not, a quick email or coffee date before returning to work will help you feel included and up to speed. It also sends the message that you are motivated and value your job and creates a chance to discuss expectations about your return from both sides.

4. Planning makes perfect(ish)

A little organization goes a long way (my apologies to those who are averse to planning who are cringing right now—just bear with me). Plan out your new morning routine and maybe try a dry run a couple of days before you launch (timer optional but recommended). Having a list or calendar with the week’s to-dos can also be very helpful. Great Place to Work, a company that evaluates workplaces around the globe, has recommended that employers provide moms with a concierge service to run their errands while they work (um, yes, please!). Although that’s not likely to become a reality for most of us, it’s OK to ask for a bit of extra help from your mom, best friend or neighbour (especially for those first couple of weeks back). Do as much as you can to simplify mornings, like packing lunches and ironing the night before. A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that, on average, it takes 66 days to create a new habit, so after a couple of months, you should be making meal plans in your sleep.

5. Try a soft start


Ease into your new rhythm rather than jump in headfirst. If your child is going to daycare, see if you can do a gradual entry for a week or two before you go back to work, starting with a couple of hours a day (use the time to shop for a new back-to-work outfit or to just, you know, use the bathroom in peace). Some employers offer either “soft returns” to work (reduced workloads for the first few weeks) or “graduated returns” (slow increases in time at work until the target hours each day or week are met). If neither of these options is available, try to start back midweek or, better yet, on a Friday to dampen the shock of returning to work.

6. Know your breastfeeding rights

The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) has ruled that employers have a duty to accommodate breastfeeding moms. This means that you’re entitled to take breaks (over and above your regular breaks) to breastfeed or express milk, and you should not be asked to work extra to make up for this time (let’s be honest, they aren’t really “breaks” when you have a child or pump attached to your boob!). Although the CHRC states that employers should provide a suitable space for breastfeeding, you are also “allowed” to breastfeed wherever you feel comfortable. Currently, only Ontario and British Columbia explicitly protect a women’s right to breastfeed in public spaces, but under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, discrimination toward an employee because she is breastfeeding is a form of sex discrimination—so, yes, you can breastfeed in the break room without being asked to cover up.

7. Expect setbacks

I anticipated that the first few weeks back at work would be the hardest. But when the big day came, although I felt sad saying goodbye to my daughter, she seemed to take the whole thing in stride. We were both, surprisingly, OK. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that we hit our breaking point: My daughter was experiencing some major separation anxiety, and I was experiencing some major burnout. I remember coming home from work and sobbing my eyes out on the kitchen floor—I was just so tired. Every parent’s back-to-work journey will look different, but one thing is for certain: There will be unforeseen challenges, like colds, bouts of teething and snow days. Having a backup child care plan helps—as does the mantra “this, too, shall pass.”

8. Know your child care rights

In 2014, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that workplaces in Canada have the duty to reasonably accommodate employees’ child care obligations and offer flexible hours or the option to work from a different location. When those inevitable toddler colds hit, employees in Canada have the right to take up to three days of unpaid family responsibility leave each year to care for their children (thankfully, most employers will give more days or provide paid leave).

9. Reach out to other parents

Support from the parenting tribe can be very helpful. I’m not just talking about the heart emojis or “you got this!” responses to our back-to-work Instagram stories (although those are lovely, too); I’m talking about real-life, been-there-tried-this advice from other parents who have gone back to work. Lean on these people and learn from them. Better still, find a mentor from your field who can offer some workplace-specific advice. And when the time comes, pay it forward with your own knowledge.

10. Set boundaries


Try not to excessively check in with your daycare (or grandparents or stay-at-home partner) while you’re at work. If there is an emergency, you’ll find out. Enjoy wearing those dress pants that you so diligently ironed the night before (or didn’t—no judgment). Relish having adult conversations with your colleagues. If you work from home, set clear boundaries about your off-limits hours. At the end of the workday, try your best to leave work at work. While your pre-baby self could plan to tie up some loose ends on evenings or weekends, your post-baby self won’t always have (or want) this option. This might require some creative time-management strategies to ensure that your phone isn’t burning up with “urgents” once you’ve left the workplace (or are back “on-limits”) for the day.

11. Carve out special time with your little one

Handing over the stay-at-home parent reins to my husband was both empowering and excruciating. Although I was very thankful that my hubby was taking the year off to stay home with our baby, I was also worried about what becoming the “secondary” parent would mean for my relationship with my daughter. It became really important to have half an hour of quiet time in her room when I first got home. And on Sundays, we go to the pool—just the two of us. These little moments of bonding have made the transition easier on both of us.

12. Take care of yourself, too.

A 2018 study published by the Business Performance Innovation Network found that 63 percent of North American parents who work outside the home have experienced some form of parental burnout (a.k.a. “intense exhaustion”). As much as you can—and without making “self-care” a stressful part of your to-dos—find small ways to nurture your body and mind. Get to bed at a decent hour. Meet your bestie for coffee. Exercise, even if it’s just going for a quick walk on your lunch break. Use your benefits (if you have them) to get a massage or talk to a therapist. If it takes a village to raise a baby, then it also takes a village to support a parent—and there’s certainly no shame in that.

13. Remember your worth

There are a lot of bogus myths out there about moms returning to their jobs (and I say moms here because, unfortunately, these biases tend to be gendered), like that they are more distracted at work, put in less effort or are not interested in career development (um, no). In reality, a large body of research shows that mothers are just as effective and productive as men and non-parent employees and are highly committed to their work. What’s more, Harvard professor Kathleen McGinn surveyed thousands of women and men from around the world and found that daughters raised by moms who worked outside the home earned more money and were more likely to hold supervisory positions as adults. Sons didn’t make out too shabby either: They were more likely to contribute to household chores and spend time caring for family members. I take solace in these stats when I question my decision of returning to work full-time (but I also don’t hold on to them too tightly because I believe that if I choose to be a stay-at-home parent one day, I can also raise a daughter who becomes a boss or son who is committed to raising his children).

14. Cut yourself some slack

Remember that this is your first time working outside the home while also working full time as a parent. Or if this isn’t your first go-around, it’s your first time working while having two children—or three. You will feel tired. You will feel like you’re doing everything half-assed. Be kind to yourself. That’s what I try to do, even when it’s all I can do to get out the door on time with a matching pair of earrings and, more often than not, only slightly wrinkled pants.


Amy Green is a writer and PhD candidate in counselling psychology at the University of Calgary who is passionate about promoting mental health and wellness for women, parents and families.

This article was originally published on Feb 17, 2020

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