Returning to work after maternity leave can be bittersweet.
On the one hand, after weeks or months of nonstop togetherness, it’s hard to imagine going eight hours without seeing your baby. On the other, maybe you’re as excited as I was about having adult conversations and eating lunch without another human on your lap.
When I returned to work, I knew it would be a big transition. So, I did my homework. I consulted trusted friends; I scoured the Internet for tips on adjusting to a new routine; I armed myself with a box of tissues and the expectation that there would be some emotional days as I learned to navigate my new world of balancing career and motherhood.
Spoiler alert: I was fine. As it turned out, the problem was everyone else.
When I was pregnant, I marveled at the things people chose to say to me, ranging from unsolicited comments on my changing body to harrowing birth and postpartum stories (exactly what an expecting mother wants to hear). After I had the baby, I thought I was finally done with the worst of it. Then, I went back to work.
For the record, as coworkers welcome you back to the work world, I truly believe most of them mean well. They want to acknowledge the huge life change you’ve just experienced or pay you a compliment, but they don’t know what to say — or not say.
To break it down, here is a round-up of topics that every new mom wishes others would steer clear of on her first days back in the office.
Comments on appearance
The months following pregnancy are when your body is healing and reassembling itself. Like a jigsaw puzzle slowly coming together, it takes time to see and adapt to the full picture of what your new normal looks like. The last thing you need during this process is color commentary from the sidelines.
People often think they are paying you a compliment by saying things like, “You look great for someone who just had a baby!” or “You’ve really bounced back!” However, statements like those only remind women of the unrealistic expectations around “getting our bodies back” and undervalue the miracle we just undertook of growing and birthing a human.
Even the seemingly innocent “You look tired” is off-limits. Because, duh, I am tired. It’s part of the deal. So, unless you’re going to offer to buy me coffee or cancel a meeting so I can go take a nap, please keep your observations to yourself.
Becoming a mother doesn’t mean you no longer get to have boundaries or that your personal choices are fair game for public discussion. No new mom wants to answer questions about whether or when she wants to have more children. She does not want to talk about whether she’s nursing, who is taking care of her baby while she’s working, or if she plans to “cry it out.”
Though you may not mean it that way, these types of questions can feel like unsolicited advice or thinly veiled judgments. A better option? Tell her you’re glad she’s back and ask how you can help support her re-entry.
Suggestions that motherhood is easy
More than once I’ve been welcomed back from maternity leave with, “I hope you had a great vacation!” or “What I wouldn’t give to have all that time off!” as if I’d been lounging by the pool drinking daiquiris instead of wearing mesh panties and sleeping in two hours stints while I kept a tiny human alive.
We also don’t need to hear how jealous you are of all the pumping “breaks” we get to take (this is a real thing I’ve heard from more than one woman), as if huddling half-naked in a closet while coworkers walk by outside is relaxing.
The role of working mother is one of the hardest, period. In addition to our professional responsibilities, we also spend an average of 4.5 hours on unpaid work, like household chores and childcare, compared to two hours on average for men. We also live in the only developed country that does not offer paid maternity leave, meaning that many mothers must return to juggling work and motherhood much sooner than is optimal for them and their baby.
Questioning our decision to be a working mom
Women decide to return to work for a variety of reasons, ranging from career ambitions to economic necessity. We don’t want to be asked whether we miss our baby while we’re working or if we feel guilty about coming back. We don’t need to hear how you’re surprised we returned at all because you know our husband has a good job. There is plenty of guilt to go around for all mothers, whether they work outside the home or not. I promise we will get our share without your contribution.
Returning to work after having a baby can come with lots of complicated feelings. There will be good days and bad days, just as there will be people who’ll say the right thing to welcome you back and those who won’t. The good news is that the transition doesn’t last forever, but the joy of being a mama always will.