Justice

Moms Talk About Going Back to Work After Maternity Leave

Despite having the world's largest economy, the United States has a shameful track record when it comes to paid parental leave. Recent findings from the Pew Research Center reveal that the U.S. is the only country out of the 41 nations in the study to guarantee zero weeks of paid leave for new parents.

 

This lack of support can take its toll on parents and especially new mothers. Some women may face separation anxiety, postpartum mood disorders, and severe stress trying to juggle both motherhood and work responsibilities. 

We spoke with several women about some of the challenges they faced when they returned to work after maternity leave. Here is what they had to say.

Parental leave is over before you know it.

A new mother who asked ATTN: not to reveal her name or line of work said that she received three months of leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers at companies with more than 50 employees. She was lucky to receive an extension due to anxiety-related issues, but the extra month "went by so fast," and she said she thought about her daughter constantly when she returned to work:

"Before having a baby I thought three months was a long time but it's not. You bond with your baby so much and it makes it even harder to leave at a time they need you most. Going back to work was very painful. The hardest thing I've ever done. I thought about my baby constantly, to the point I couldn't focus. I also felt extremely guilty for leaving her. I was worrying about her care and needs being met. I also refused to quit breastfeeding, so pumping every few hours was very hard to get things done at work in addition to the feelings. I really think most moms need almost [all of] that first year off. Too many firsts happen and moms miss it. It's heartbreaking."

She added that transitioning from carrying one's child for nine months to daily separation can feel unbearable:

"You can't go from carrying your child for 9 months, bonding with the baby afterwards [to] then being away from him or her for an entire week! You miss everything. By the time you get home, it's their bedtime and you miss out on time with them. I fought for even more time off work and was able to take the first year off. I'm not getting paid but it's worth it. I'm much happier and less stressed knowing I'm her primary caretaker. It's a life changing experience and you can't just snap back to your old life after three months."

Another anonymous mother said that she wished she'd been screened for Postpartum Depression after her leave:

"Returning to work after my first child was awful. I missed her greatly and wasn’t screened by my OB-GYN for postpartum depression and probably should have been [It's] one of a few reasons why I wish to remain anonymous. I missed my baby with a fierce physical ache that was complicated by a work environment that was un-supportive and at times openly hostile to my need to pump three times a day. My milk dried up quickly after returning to work which made me feel guilty as I had planned to continue breastfeeding and wasn’t able to do so. My return to work after my second maternity leave was much easier as I had full confidence in my children’s daycare and a different supervisor who was more supportive of my need to pump at work during my breaks."

An anonymous mother from Nebraska thinks a six month leave sounds ideal given the needs of children:

"I feel that six months would be an appropriate amount of time to bond with baby. ...[at six months, the baby] isn't a newborn anymore and can take a bottle better."

Cora, an Alabama mother of twins who received partially paid leave, missed her new babies when she returned to work but appreciated the change of pace after a couple weeks:

"When you go from spending every second with your newborn(s) to several hours without them, it's a shock. My body physically ached from missing them, but that didn't last very long, maybe a few weeks. After that, [I] still felt guilty about leaving them, but I won't lie, it was a slight relief when [I] walked into work every day. When you are a new mom taking care of two infants, everything you are doing is very biological and automatic. Going to work felt like a nice brain workout for me and the social interaction with adults was nice."

The stigma surrounding paternity leave can also put stress on new mothers

Cora also said she hopes the workplace can improve the way it handles paternity leave. Two years ago, Scott Coltrane, a sociologist studying fatherhood, told The New York Times that paternity leave can be highly stigmatized.

 

"I think at the minimum there should be some sort of paternal leave program available for new dads," Cora said. "My husband is in sales and sets his own schedule, so he could squeeze work in when he could those first few weeks. Many fathers don't have that luxury and it puts a lot of pressure on the mother."