Why going back to work doesn’t suck as much as you think it will

Returning to work after mat leave is a huge change, and can be an emotional time for many new parents. But don't freak out—there's also a lot to look forward to.

Senior editor Ariel Brewster and baby Cal

Senior editor Ariel Brewster and baby Cal. (Photo by Kate Warren Photography.)

A few months before my mat leave ended, I started feeling pretty overwhelmed about going back to work. Summer was ending, fall was in the air and my office wanted to know my exact start date. Gulp. It was time to freak out about daycare waitlists, wonder whether I could even leave my son, Cal, with someone else all week, second-guess my plans to return to work full-time, worry about his ever-evolving sleep problems and routines, wonder about daytime weaning, fret about his ability to self-feed and—are you noticing a theme?—generally question everything. I remember peppering my mom friends for advice on the transition and googling, somewhat ridiculously, “what are the advantages of going back to work.” In hindsight, I was obviously looking for reassurance during such an uncertain time.

Well, I went back to work four months ago, and I don’t regret it at all. I’ve been keeping a list for my fellow fretful moms on why it’s been great, both for me and for my kid. Hopefully this will help.

1. Remember that it’s the best of both worlds
In Canada, when it comes to parental leave, we’re super lucky: I got to spend almost a year at home with my baby, being a full-time mom, and then I got to go back to my job and continue my career. If I’d had to go back to work at 12 weeks postpartum, like my American friends, or even at six months, I’m almost certain I would have decided to quit. I just wouldn’t have been able to wrap my head around it. So remembering how fortunate I am to have had that very generous 12 months with my son has really helped.  I also went back in November, as a lovely summer and unseasonably warm fall were turning to winter, and that helped me transition, mentally. (I kept humming the lyrics, “to everything, turn, turn, turn…. There is a season, turn, turn, turn.” It may be cheesy, but reminding myself there was a season to be home with my kid, and a time to go back to work, was effective.)

2. A few months makes a big difference
If you’re planning to return to work after a standard 12-month leave, you may start to freak out around the eight- or nine-month mark. I remember thinking, how can I possibly leave this helpless little creature with someone new? I still had lots of self-doubt about whether we had really gotten the whole nap thing down (he preferred napping in the stroller or a swing), and mealtimes were a battle (newsflash: they still are). How would a virtual stranger manage his day-to-day? But I promise you that your baby will change a lot between the time when you’re scrambling to find childcare arrangements, lying awake at night worrying how your infant will function without you, and when you actually go back to work. Many babies become a lot more capable at self-feeding, even with just a few months, or even weeks, of practice. Between putting the deposit down on a daycare spot in September and going back to work in November, Cal naturally, on his own, started nursing less, got more independent at mealtimes and learned to walk. Thankfully, his first steps happened at home, in front of both my husband and me, as we were washing up the dinner dishes on a Saturday night. I was so grateful we both got to see that milestone happen before sending him off to daycare. While I was feeling emotional and nostalgic about “leaving” my baby, he went and turned into a toddler on us.

3. Your baby becomes a social butterfly
It is one of the great ironies of modern motherhood that a baby’s separation anxiety phase kicks in right as you’re preparing to return to work. But it’s OK! This is normal, and not a sign that you shouldn’t go back to work. Cal was always an outgoing and happy baby who was fine with new people and places, but he became a lot clingier (and a lot more of a mama’s boy) around nine or ten months. Developmentally, he was right on schedule. This is when babies are learning to explore, wandering around the room or play area and then coming back to their moms (or dads) for a cuddle or just a quick lap visit before heading out again. As they become more and more curious and independent, they just want reassurance that you’re still there for them. This pattern has continued now that Cal’s in daycare, but with longer stretches away from us. By pickup time he needs a few cuddles to recharge. Increasingly, however, he happily toddles right to me with a big smile, and isn’t in meltdown mode every afternoon. He’s getting used to his new routine and thriving on all the new activities, new friends and new environments. Every morning when he gets to daycare, he runs to hug the other toddler boy (adorable!). They often pat each other on the head affectionately, too. It’s been fun to hear about all their adventures when I arrive at the end of the day, or to notice a brand new skill in action, especially if your kid is learning and watching older kids. (Apparently my 14-month-old loves to paint at an easel now. And he’s trying to teach himself to use a skateboard?) His world is getting a lot bigger: He’s gathering a crew of neighbourhood buddies and he’s getting to do all sorts of fun group activities. If I were home with him 24-7, I’m not sure I would marvel as much at the developmental leaps and bounds he’s making.

4. Quality vs. quantity
Because I now have less time with Cal during the week, I’m definitely more motivated to make our “together time” count. Sometimes my husband and I even fight over who gets to do bath time or who’s taking him to swim lessons on Sundays—a big difference from when I was home with the baby all week, yearning to escape for some “me” time and watching the clock as I waited for my husband to finish work. Absence has definitely made my heart grow fonder, and I’m better at not overreacting to typical toddler antics. The quantity of time together has decreased, but the quality has increased. I’m a much more patient mom now.

5. Freedom from the tyranny of a nap schedule
This may be the main advantage of going back to work: Once I’m at the office, my workdays are luxuriously unstructured. (That is, until I’m doing the daycare dash like a madwoman.) Aside from meetings, I can eat lunch when I want, pee when I want, make a phone call and go grab a coffee without pushing a stroller or having to coordinate around two or three naps and five diaper changes. I can casually pick up groceries on my lunch break. I can get a haircut in peace. And do not underestimate the beauty of answering emails and sipping tea in your blissfully quiet cubicle—this cannot happen at home. (Unless you have the kind of mellow kid who will quietly play with blocks in the corner while you get some work done. I, however, do not. My toddler will read board books to himself for a maximum of five minutes, then he’s prying the furnace grates out of the floor and stuffing his breakfast toast down the vent holes.)

6. Remembering your strengths and skills
It might feel bizarre at first—your world has changed so much in one year and yet the office likely hasn’t—but I promise you’ll be back in the swing of things at work soon. And then you realize that yes, you’re a mom, and you’re still the awesome employee and productive professional from before your mat leave. Take pride in your ability to multitask and excel at both things; it’s kind of a cool feeling. You made a human being, you’ve kept them alive for this long and you’re doing your job and contributing to a team. I love the sense of accomplishment that I get from being the master of my to-do list at work, whereas, at home with an infant, something as minor as unloading the dishwasher felt like a major victory. It’s less likely now that my day will go off the rails due to a missed nap, unexpected poop explosion or emotional meltdown. (Although I suppose that depends on your workplace.) I’ve also found there’s a Teflon-effect to motherhood: Workplace drama that used to bother me pre-kid doesn’t ruffle my feathers at all. My brain is better at triaging what really matters and only focusing on the big stuff.

7. The anticipation is way worse than the reality
The best advice is the simplest: When I was freaking out about returning to work, a coworker told me that in her experience—after two kids—the anticipation and dread as you count down the days of your mat leave is way worse than the reality. Let me reassure you that she was very, very right. (Thanks, Kim.)

Read more:
Preparing your baby for daycare>
10 questions to ask when choosing a daycare>
Battling work-life balance>

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