Returning to work after the birth of a child can be an exciting time as it brings a sense of self-worth and relief around a return to normality and reduced financial stress. It can also be utterly terrifying. Feelings of dread emerge as you drop your little pal at daycare or leave him with a carer/nanny/grandma/grandpa/neighbour for the first time, accompanied by dozens of racing negative thoughts such as “Why am I doing this?”, “Separating doesn’t feel natural”, “How could I leave her?” “What will the carer say when he wonders where I’ve gone?” “Will he get enough hugs and kisses?”, “Will she cry all day?”, “Will it rupture our bond?”
It doesn’t seem to matter how much thought and effort a parent puts into arranging the best childcare for their little one, the anxiety of separation can be excruciating. Parents can be flooded with negative thoughts and overwhelming emotions (particularly early on in their transition back to work), made worse by innocent comments of other parents, family members and friends such as “oh, but he’s so young!”, “do you really need to go back so soon?” or “it’s going to damage your parent-child bond forever”. Each comment can feel like a gut-wrenching guilt bomb thrown right at your face leading you to doubt yourself, your decisions, your career, your life choices… the list goes on. Without appropriate support in place, this dread and self-doubt can linger too long putting a working parent at risk of burnout and developing mental health issues.
What some of us forget is the moment a child is born, a parent is born too. This man or woman has changed (for the better in my opinion) leaving behind their child-free life. No-one can fully prepare for this change since individual circumstances are unique. People give advice about what it is like to become a parent based on their own experiences, but each journey, each parent-child relationship and each family situation has a unique set of dynamics and challenges.
Like the transition to parenthood, returning to work after a baby is unfamiliar territory. Overwhelming emotions and negative thoughts are a normal part of the process. Working parents need to allow for a period of adjustment (particularly in the early transition phase) and carefully consider risks associated with burnout and the development of mental illness. The Black Dog Institute reports one in six Australian workers will experience a mental illness, with many others experiencing early signs of mental illness (such as worry, fatigue and insomnia). According to research by La Trobe University working parents can be more vulnerable to mental illness and burnout, particularly those who have gone back to work out of necessity or earlier than they were ready or those who work extended hours. Low socio-economic status can also predict poorer mental health outcomes in working parents.
So how does a new parent navigate the transition back to work? There is no one-size-fits-all approach but it is important for a parent to be patient and gentle with oneself, partner and baby. It’s new territory for everyone and there will likely be teething issues (no pun intended). Below are some practical tips for navigating the transition. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
- Focus on QUALITY parenting. Whether by choice or by necessity, returning to work does not have to impact the quality of your parenting. It will naturally impact the quantity of your parenting time – but the quality can remain same. In fact, some parents experience an improvement in their parenting as their focus shifts outside the home. Experiment with building special/fun/silly rituals into morning and evening routines with your child.
- Create RITUALS for yourself in the morning as well. Extracting yourself from the house in the morning can sometime feel like running a marathon. If you’ve managed to escape without weetbix and toothpaste smeared all over you, consider that a win. Once you’ve extracted, focus on the peacefulness of your commute to work. Grab a coffee, tea, juice without little critters gnawing at your feet.
- Prioritise SLEEP HYGIENE and QUIET time. The busier you get the more quiet time you need and the more healthy sleep routines you need to build into your evenings. Be mindful of over-stimulating yourself before bed. Try to avoid caffeine, TV, laptops, phone etc. (easier said than done) but the wind down before bed is critical.
- Prioritise SELF-CARE and establish an EXERCISE ROUTINE that works for you. Don’t set unrealistic fitness and exercise goals which de-motivate or make you feel guilty.
- Consider familiarising yourself with the GOOD ENOUGH parenting philosophy to release yourself from the burden of unrealistic standards and expectations. For further reading about this parenting philosophy, read Dr Andrew Wake’s book The Good Enough Parent.
If you need help navigating TRICKY CONVERSATIONS with your manager, consider chatting confidentially to a professional (e.g., from the Pure Insights team) or check out the tips on the supporting working parents government website. There are some brilliant practical tips on managing the transition to work in the following links. We would also love to hear from working parents on strategies that they have used that worked. Happy reading and happy transitioning!