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Returning to Work: It's Time to Freak Out!

Photograph by Getty Images

“I’m about to go back to work, and I’m freaking out,” bemoaned my friend whose maternity leave was coming to an end. I toyed with two responses to her: I could pretend she had no reason to freak out because millions of women return to work every year, or I could tell her the truth.

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“You should be freaking out,” I blurted out, unable to go the platitude route. Because I just couldn’t do it. She’s one of my best friends; I love her like she’s my sister. How could I look her in the eye and feed her some fake line about how she will adjust in no time? I simply couldn’t.

Plenty of people told me that I would get the hang of child care “in a few weeks” and promised me that I would “find my groove” within a few months. They made these assurances as if I were talking about learning to ride a new bicycle or testing out bangs. Returning to work after having my first child was more like having my head removed from my body and sewn back on backwards. And upside down.

Every single thing felt different.

It was the first time I desperately wanted to be in two places at once. I genuinely wanted to work and I wanted to be with my baby. I had no idea know how to channel my ambition into a schedule that would allow me to see my baby.

I can’t imagine how it benefits a new mother returning to work to sugarcoat my experience.

It was the first time I had to turn down assignments because I didn’t want to travel overseas. I turned down another plum assignment because I was trying to hold down a part-time schedule. Never before had I walked the line of committing to my career, while keeping one foot (and most of my heart) firmly at home.

Gone were the days when I would shoot the breeze with colleagues or linger over lunch talking about current events. As a new mom back at work, I was hyper-aware that every moment squandered during the day sliced into my limited time with my baby. Colleagues would stop by to welcome me back and ask about my daughter, and I would mentally shoo them away because I couldn’t afford the dip in my productivity, which would require that I stay late to finish my work. Staying late used to be no big deal; now it meant I’d miss my daughter’s bedtime.

None of the above even touches on what it’s like to disappear for two or three chunks of the day to pump milk. My office had a “mother’s room,” but I had to take an elevator and walk down two hallways to get there, and I didn’t feel like I could spare the time. I opted to stay at my desk, trying to work while hooked up to the pump. The post-it note on my door read, “Please knock before entering.”

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So, it took more than a few weeks to “find my groove.”

I can’t imagine how it benefits a new mother returning to work to sugarcoat my experience. So, I don’t. I tell it like it is and offer my honest assessment and my realistic timelines. “Give yourself as long as you need to adjust,” is the best I can offer, which is better than a false assurance that “a few weeks” will do the trick.

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