A 2020 study conducted by Safety and Health at Work indicated that ‘over half of American women return to work during their child’s infancy and most return within the first 3 months after childbirth despite often experiencing lingering health issues related to pregnancy and giving birth.” In fact, one in four women return to work ten days after giving birth. It is no wonder, then, that postpartum re-entry is a source of anxiety for many women and birthing people as they make the transition from new parent to working parent. But whether the transition comes at 3 months postpartum or 12, the separation of mother and baby is never an easy one. But for most, it is a necessary one.
Dr. Tiffany Green, Assistant Professor, Population Health Sciences and Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recognizes that there is a confluence of factors that come into play for women and birthing people heading back to work postpartum. Chief among them is the absence of guaranteed paid leave. She says, “giving birth is intense on the body. Your body needs to recover. And by the time many women and birthing people go back to work, they have not had a chance to physically recover.” Many new mothers or birthing people also struggle with mental health challenges such as postpartum anxiety, postpartum depression, and maternal separation anxiety. These conditions can be exacerbated by structural barriers which force parents to have to choose between being away from their infants and providing for them.
Another major source of anxiety for new parents returning to work is childcare. As Dr. Green notes, access to childcare services can be incredibly challenging and often entails waitlists that are more than a year long. She says the childcare system in the U.S. “is run by a disproportionately female workforce and like most women dominated professions, they are incredibly underpaid. The childcare workforce is now at a breaking point because of COVID.” She adds that those childcare challenges are predominantly borne by mothers, further exacerbating an already stressful transition period.
Dr. Kecia Gaither, double board-certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Maternal Fetal Medicine says “going back to work after birth can result in a myriad array of emotions for new parents, from anxiety about how easily they will meld back into the work environment, guilt about leaving their baby, to excitement about jumping back into a workspace that they enjoy. But amidst all the emotions, the fact remains: a return to work postpartum is imminent for most.
Dr. Gaither offers some of the following tips for moms and birthing people heading back to work:
- Enlist support – a cleaner, doula, or a family member. Outsourcing work allows new parents to recharge which is essential to the wellbeing of both baby and new mother.
- Find your community. The postpartum experience can be very isolating. Having a community to share with can help new moms and birthing people feel less alone as they confront the challenges that come with postpartum re-entry.
- Create a flexible work schedule. Inquire with your workplace about the possibility of having flexible hours or the ability to work from home. Many employers are starting to implement remote working policies. Working from home eliminates the need for commuting which is a significant source of stress for new parents with children in childcare.
- Prioritize self-care. As working mothers are more prone to burnouts, it is crucial that new moms transitioning back to work are able to engage in acts of self-care.
- Stay in tune with your emotions. The postpartum period is rife with major change, including a return to the workplace, that can bring about or compound postpartum conditions. If you start to feel overwhelmed, seek professional help. That might mean a mental health practitioner or a postpartum doula.
Dr. Green notes that it is important to recognize that Black women are particularly vulnerable to the strains of postpartum re-entry as they are more likely to have jobs with limited or no maternity benefits. She says while there are steps individuals can take to make their transition back to work as easy as it can be, efforts at the individual level are not a placeholder for the structural change required to support new parents, and create long-term impactful change to the lives and livelihoods of new mothers and women.