Returning to Work After Maternity Leave: Navigating the Emotions, Difficulties, and Challenges - Happy as a Mother

Returning to Work After Maternity Leave: Navigating the Emotions, Difficulties, and Challenges

with Dr. Cassidy Freitas, Marriage and Family Therapist


  • Feelings that Show Up When Going Back to Work After Maternity Leave 
  • Redistributing the Labour When Roles Change
  • Feelings that Come Up When Your Partner Goes Back to Work
  • Conversations to Have Before Returning to Work After Maternity Leave
  • How to Navigate Mom Guilt When Returning to Work After Maternity Leave

Returning to work after maternity leave, or having your partner return after their leave, can be tough. These situations often come with feelings of anger, guilt, and resentment. But if we can learn to listen to our emotions, guide ourselves through the transition, and work with our partner, we can overcome mom guilt and ease the transition. 

Today, I’m joined by marriage and family therapist Dr. Cassidy Freitas to talk about coping with our emotions while returning to work after having a baby.

Big Emotions and Ending Leave

When I had my first baby, my husband and I talked through how we were going to handle maternity leave. We were fortunate to be in Canada, where parental leave is guaranteed and can be shared between parents. We decided that I would stay home for 12 months, and he would use a week of vacation and then go back to work. 

Of course, neither of us was remotely prepared for how hard transitioning into parenthood would be. At the end of that one week, I was barely hanging on by a thread. Breastfeeding was a struggle. I was power pumping between feeds to boost my supply. My husband was helping wash pump parts to give me a little bit of a break—but I could not imagine facing it alone at that point. 

So, he took another week of vacation before heading back. 

By then, things felt a little bit more smooth, but it was still so hard. I watched my husband get dressed every day and head to downtown Toronto to work, and I envied the life he got to lead outside of our own home. And he, in turn wished he could spend more time with the baby, when he had to scramble home just to spend a couple of hours with us. 

We each experienced big emotions, and in many ways, we each thought we got the short end of the stick. It took a lot of curiosity, intention, and honest conversation to process our feelings together and understand each others’ point of view. 

When I ended up going back to work (after three maternity leaves in a row), I faced even more feelings. I was excited—ready to look and feel normal and go engage with peers and challenge myself in ways I hadn’t been able to for years. 

But reality didn’t look or feel quite as glamorous as I thought. As I sat in an unlocked room, half-naked pumping breastmilk, trying to push away the mom guilt and worry popping into my head, I started to feel like there was just no winning as a working mom. (Cue more curiosity, intention, and honest conversations that eventually led to my husband and I both working in my online business). 

Ending parental leave often comes with a big mix of emotions—whether you’re the one returning or your partner is. And those emotions aren’t always easy to handle. 

That’s why I was so excited to discuss the difficulties of returning to work after maternity leave with Dr. Cassidy.

Feelings that Show Up When Going Back to Work After Maternity Leave

There are countless emotions that can come up with the end of parental leave. Dr. Cassidy pointed out that one of the most common is anger, which can show up in many ways. 

Anger can be the primary emotion, especially in countries like the United States that offer limited amounts of paid leave and support. Parents often feel like being forced to return to work before they are ready is a violation of their rights as a parent. 

It can dance around with grief, resentment, or rise up when we feel helpless, unsupported, or unseen. 

Dr. Cassidy experienced many emotions during her first maternity leave, which lasted four months. She felt jealous of her husband, overwhelmed and anxious, grief over losing a sense of accomplishment and positive feedback, and guilt and shame about having all of those other feelings. 

Part of the reason why returning to work after maternity leave is often so difficult is because from a mental health perspective, that three to four month time is often very vulnerable. 

Moms in the United States who return around this time might be facing postpartum depression or anxiety (often undiagnosed), making it difficult to cope with the idea of leaving their infants in the care of someone else. Returning to work in that situation can feel devastating. 

Redistributing the Labour When Roles Change

Dr. Cassidy believes that part of the reason that it’s common for postpartum mental health issues to arise around that same timeframe is because of the transition back to work for working moms. 

With that transition, couples have to navigate changing roles and adapt their expectations. We often assume that the labour in the home will be shared more evenly when we return to work, but the patterns that are laid down in the postpartum period, often fueled by gender norms, are hard to break out of. 

This can lead to additional resentment, sleep deprivation, and difficulty within a relationship. 

Dr. Cassidy experienced this herself. She and her husband never talked about what the labour would look like when he returned to work. She just began taking on the nighttime labour alone to protect his sleep since he worked outside the home.

Many of my mom clients talk about that same idea. But it’s important to talk about the definition of work and to acknowledge that work at home is as valuable as work outside of the home. Care work is work, and it should be viewed that way. 

This is especially important when it comes to sleep. Moms need protected sleep too—nighttime wakeups, feedings, and care work are meant for more than one person. Planning together to come up with ways that both partners can get protected stretches of sleep can help keep everyone healthy and functional. 

Feelings that Come Up When Your Partner Goes Back to Work

When one parent stays on leave and their partner returns to work, many emotions often come up. 

You might experience anger that your partner is leaving or jealousy that they get to reintegrate with their role outside of the home. Anger can also arise over boundaries with work. You might also feel grief, sometimes along with anger, that your partner has to go back and leave you to manage the load alone at home. 

When both parents are home together with a new baby, it can feel like a protected little bubble. Even though you’re both experiencing major transitions, it feels collaborative and contained—like the world outside of your bubble doesn’t exist. 

But when one partner goes back, that bubble bursts a little bit, and that can feel very concerning. 

You might feel increased anxiety or experience an influx of intrusive thoughts if you are home alone with the baby for the first time and nervous about how to handle it. It’s difficult to go from having a partner to help troubleshoot some of the tough postpartum parenting challenges, like feeding and sleeping, to having to face them alone and make all the decisions by yourself. 

The partner that goes back to work also experiences emotions, including grief, sadness, and jealousy of their partner’s time with the baby. They might feel helpless or awkward around the baby, or even feel like a third wheel when they are at home. 

Sometimes that partner feels as if they don’t know how to take care of the baby as well as their partner. And if they get feedback from their partner that they aren’t doing it right, it often makes them feel as if they want to withdraw. 

When this occurs, an overfunctioning/underfunctioning relationship can form, where one partner takes on the bulk of the work while the other continues to withdraw and do even less. This can even lead to depression, anxiety, or relational challenges. 

Conversations to Have Before One Partner Returns to Work

Dr. Cassidy pointed out that it’s important to have conversations before the baby comes and before returning to work after maternity leave—to discuss what the boundaries will look like with work, what the roles are going to be, and how to distribute the labour in the home. 

These conversations should involve the invisible load—the mental tasks in the home, as well as the physical. We have to talk about more than just the nighttime parenting and feeding. Who will be making doctor’s appointments? Who will research baby sleep classes during regressions? Who will keep track of milestones? 

We need to get all of these things on the table before we’re in the thick of it, by making the load transparent and having an open, honest conversation about expectations. It’s often helpful to talk about how the labour distribution was modelled for you in your home growing up, and what expectations and ideals you’re bringing into the relationship. 

Having these conversations can be tough, but if we view ourselves as teammates instead of opponents, we can be productive and work through problems together. 

Dr. Cassidy pointed out that if you and your partner find yourselves in cycles of criticism and defensiveness, it might mean you need extra support through relationship counseling so you can learn skills and tools to help you work together. 

She also suggested doing trial runs before one partner returns to work, practicing what it will be like for the other partner to stay home with the baby. You can even walk through what the coming home ritual will be like. 

If the partner who works outside the home expects decompression time, but the partner home with the baby expects an immediate break, it can cause conflict. That’s why setting expectations in advance is helpful. 

Dr. Cassidy also said that it’s important to talk about feeding early on. Is the person who will be caring for the baby going to be able to give a bottle? Sometimes a baby needs practice before they will take one. 

Pumping at work comes with a lot of questions as well. Dr. Cassidy recommends talking with your employer early about pumping rooms, breaks, and where you can store your parts and milk. 

She also pointed out that it’s important to be flexible when it comes to feeding. Sometimes, our journey doesn’t look like what we hoped for. Pumping can cause stress and anxiety, and leave us feeling overwhelmed. 

We often think about breastfeeding as “free,” but even if you don’t factor in lactation consultants, price of pumping supplies, and other medical concerns such as a tongue tie, breastfeeding comes at a cost. 

Studies have shown that breastfeeding equates to roughly 1,800 hours per year (to put that into perspective, a regular 40-hour job is 1,960 hours per year). The time and energy we put into breastfeeding matters. We also have to determine whether breastfeeding is costing us our mental health

For Dr. Cassidy, supplementing with some formula was one of the best decisions she made for herself, for her mental health, and for her marriage. As she pointed out, one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves in parenting is flexibility. 

Another conversation that’s important to have as early as possible is childcare. She pointed out that for many moms, anticipating the end of leave feels like an internal clock counting down the moments until you have to go back. Sometimes, this robs us of enjoying maternity leave and being present with our babies. 

Planning childcare in advance can alleviate some of that pressure and allow us to focus more on living in the moment, rather than worrying. 

How to Navigate Mom Guilt When Going Back to Work After Maternity Leave

When we return to work, we often experience mom guilt and shame. A voice inside our head whispers painful things about what kind of parent we are. That voice tells us that this shouldn’t be so hard, or that we should be with our children. But Dr. Cassidy pointed out that we need to get curious about these things. 

Whose voice is inside our head saying these things? Externalizing that shame voice and taking a look at where those beliefs came from is important. 

Dr. Cassidy said that we can scoop up that part of us that feels so much shame and sit with it, looking out at society and looking at the lack of support, the struggles working moms face, and why returning to work after maternity leave is so difficult. 

Part of the reason why it is so hard is the intensive mothering ideology that gets prescribed to us—the myth that we must self-martyr ourselves and be in constant close proximity with our child in order to be a good mom. 

To me, it can feel like driving along a road with billboards about motherhood popping up telling us we should be at soccer practice instead of taking that meeting or that we should stay at home and spend every moment with our child. We need to see that these beliefs are myths—myths that came from outside of us. 

Dr. Cassidy took this analogy further, saying that your emotions are driving around in the car with you. You can’t get rid of the billboards, and you don’t want to toss out the emotions because they are a part of you. 

But we want to stay in the driver’s seat. That means we need to view our emotions as data. If we feel angry about returning to work, hear the message your anger is sending and take a look at why—perhaps we are feeling unsupported or unseen. 

She also pointed out that one of the best things we can do to help stay in the driver’s seat is to know our personal values. When we know our values, they serve as our GPS—they can keep us driving in the right direction even if the billboards try to throw us off. 

We need to understand our own values and our partner’s values so we can talk about priorities, understand each other’s perspective, and work through the difficult transition of returning to work after maternity leave together. 

Values can help us see each other’s side during a conflict, they can help us divide labour fairly in a way that feels good to both partners, and they can help us let go of the “shoulds” of motherhood given to us by other people. 

Working with a mom therapist can help you uncover your values, work through mom guilt, and cope with emotions during the transition back to work. Book a FREE 15 minute consult through our Wellness Center today!

Dr. Cassidy Freitas is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and mom to three with a virtual private practice in California where she offers therapy to parents navigating fertility, pregnancy, postpartum and parenting young children. She hosts the top-rated wellness and parenting podcast, Holding Space and shares supportive tips and strategies for millennial parents over on Instagram @drcassidy.






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