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  1. Blog
  2. Return to Work
  3. May 30, 2024

A New Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Postpartum Phase at Work

Plus, how managers can offer practical support

parent holding their baby's hand
Photo courtesy of William Fortunato

As a new parent, it’s normal to feel conflicting emotions about returning to work

There can be a range of emotions, and all are valid. For example, it’s completely normal to feel ecstatic about having a newborn and want to experience all of the adorable “firsts” at home, but also want to continue forging your career path and honing your professional skills. You might feel grateful, excited, empowered, and fulfilled with your decision to have kids, while also feeling overwhelmed, guilty, or nostalgic for the freedom you experienced with your time and energy for your career and life pre-baby. 

If you feel overwhelmed by the weight of being a new parent, you’re hardly alone. The majority of parents (62 percent) say being a parent is at least somewhat harder than they expected (26 percent say it’s a lot harder), and about one in eight women report symptoms of postpartum depression in the year after giving birth.

For birthing parents who decide to return to work, balancing the demands of a newborn with the responsibilities of a job can be challenging. Luckily, there are practical strategies and support tips to help you honor your emotions and better navigate the transition. From managing your time effectively to prioritizing self-care to seeking support from your employer, read on to learn how to make your return to work during the postpartum phase smoother and more manageable.

Read more: 31 Companies That Offer Paid Parental Leave Policies

What is the postpartum phase?

The postpartum phase begins immediately after childbirth and typically lasts until about six weeks to six months after birth, although some aspects can extend up to a year or more as you fully recover physically and emotionally.

After giving birth, your hormones fluctuate and can drop sharply. Given that, it’s understandable that you might experience some postpartum emotions, often referred to as the “baby blues,” including mood swings, irritability, tearfulness, and anxiety. These emotions are generally mild and transient, caused by hormonal changes, physical recovery, and parenthood adjustments.

However, there are more severe and persistent mental health conditions that can interfere significantly with your ability to function. These conditions involve intense, prolonged symptoms such as a deep sadness, overwhelming worry, or psychotic episodes that require medical attention and treatment.

Postpartum mental health conditions

While some temporary physical, emotional, and psychological adjustments are expected, more serious mental health conditions can require treatment due to their impact on daily functioning. Here are three postpartum mental health conditions to be aware of.

1. Postpartum depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in activities, often accompanied by fatigue, changes in sleep and appetite, or difficulty bonding with the baby. Other symptoms may include:

  • An extreme lack of energy, even after resting or sleeping

  • Trouble concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions

  • Feeling guilty about not enjoying parenthood or feeling inadequate

2. Postpartum anxiety disorder involves excessive worry, fear, and nervousness, which may include physical symptoms like restlessness, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty concentrating, often related to concerns about the baby's health and safety. Other symptoms may include:

  • Intense anxiety related to your baby’s wellbeing or your ability to care for your baby

  • Difficulty sleeping, even when the baby is sleeping

  • Physical aches and pains, nausea, headaches, or stomach issues 

3. Postpartum psychosis is a rare, but severe, mental health condition that involves hallucinations, delusions, extreme agitation, and disorganized thinking, usually requiring immediate medical attention and hospitalization. Other symptoms may include:

  • Extreme shifts in mood, from high energy to severe depression and anxiety

  • Difficulty understanding what is real and severe confusion 

  • An inability to sleep, even when exhausted

If you think you’re experiencing one of these conditions, you should contact a healthcare provider, such as an obstetrician, primary care physician, or mental health professional, as soon as possible. Make sure they take it seriously. Talk to a trusted family member or friend about what you’re experiencing to ensure you’re not alone, can get immediate support, and have a sounding board as you advocate for yourself.

Read more: How to Balance Building a Career While Being a Full-Time Mom

Navigating the postpartum phase when you return to work

Returning to work after maternity leave or parental leave can be a complex, emotional experience, varying significantly from person to person. Juggling the roles of a parent and a professional can lead to shifts in identity, and the logistical challenges of arranging childcare and managing breastfeeding or pumping schedules can add to the complexity. 

Career and life coach Shanita Liu, a mother herself, says, “Hormonal changes and the weight of caring for a new human makes nearly every part of the return challenging. Emotions could range from sadness about ending maternity leave, to frustration about the increased mental load, to anger about not feeling as on top of their duties as they used to be.”

You might feel relief or excitement about resuming a familiar routine, returning to a professional environment, or having more adult interactions. At the same time, however, catching up with work and staying on top of new and ongoing tasks might feel overwhelming when your mind is preoccupied with keeping your small human happy and healthy. 

“Having to leave your little one’s side to return to work can create loads of mom guilt. This includes guilt for not being there in the same way, guilt for leaving your child in the care of someone else, and the list goes on,” says Liu. “While that guilt might not ever go away, it’s helpful to talk to other moms you know to see how they managed their transitions, as well as seek a certified life coach or therapist to gain skills for how to address the guilt.”

When you return to work, here are a few tips for easing the transition

Create and feel secure in your childcare plan

Many parents feel anxious about leaving their baby and worry if they’re in good hands. Creating a thorough childcare plan helps ensure a smooth transition back to work and provides a stable, supportive environment for your child. There are several childcare options—daycare, employer-sponsored childcare, help from a nanny or family member, and more. 

You can ask for nanny references from other parents or look for online reviews and tour potential daycare centers. Once you’ve done your research and chosen the option that best aligns with your needs and budget, make sure you arrange for backup care in case your primary caregiver is unavailable. Inform your employer of your childcare schedule to coordinate any necessary adjustments at work, including flexible work hours or remote work options.

Read more: 30 Companies That Offer Daycare at Work

Establish boundaries around your time and needs

When you return to work, time management skills are imperative in order to effectively balance your work and family responsibilities. Identify the most important tasks and goals both at work and at home, and make daily or weekly to-do lists to keep track of your responsibilities and deadlines.

You can be respectful, yet firm with communicating your needs and boundaries. Err on the side of being over-communicative with your manager and outline exactly what you need. For example, you might say: 

“I’m excited to be back and contribute to our team’s success. To ensure I can balance my responsibilities effectively, I need to adjust my availability slightly. I need to leave by 5 p.m. to pick up my child from daycare, so I won’t be available for late afternoon meetings. However, I’m happy to start earlier in the morning or find other ways to ensure I’m meeting all work expectations. I appreciate your understanding and support in helping me make this transition smooth for both my family and our team.”

You might also set boundaries around:

  • Workload prioritization: Boundaries around prioritizing tasks and delegating responsibilities to ensure manageable workloads.

  • Respect for personal time: Boundaries around after-hours communication and respecting personal time with family.

  • More regular check-ins: Scheduling regular check-ins with your manager to discuss workload, progress, and any adjustments needed.

  • Protected pumping time: Ensuring uninterrupted time for breastfeeding or pumping by blocking off schedule slots.

  • Time off for appointments: Requesting flexibility for medical appointments, childcare emergencies, or other family-related commitments.

Take care of your physical needs and use techniques to relieve anxiety

When you’re at work, remember to prioritize your basic needs as you adjust to a new routine. If you’re in person at the office, take breaks to get some fresh air, move your legs, and eat snacks and hydrate throughout the day. If you’re working from home, take a long shower, do your skincare routine, or change your clothes. Try to reserve time for self-care activities such as exercise and hobbies as well.

Throughout your work day, use grounding techniques to reconnect with your body. Take long, deep breaths through your nose, exhaling through puckered lips. Mindful breathing can help calm and regulate your nervous system when your emotions are heightened. That said, allow yourself to feel and move through your emotions. Reassure yourself you’re making the right decisions for yourself and feel proud of all of your accomplishments, personal and professional.

Read more: How to Create a Self-Care Checklist (with Examples)

Practical tips for managers supporting new parents returning to work

The level of support from employers and coworkers can greatly influence a parents’ experience returning to work. Liu says, “Readjusting expectations and creating an ease-in period can be valuable so that new parents don't feel like they have to perform at a pace that feels unmanageable. Options like mental health days or flexible work schedules are extremely helpful. If there’s an affinity group at work that supports new moms or parents, that could be helpful too.”

If you’re an employer hoping to better support new parents, here are some practical tips. 

Be empathetic and intentional in your conversations

Make your direct reports feel heard, seen, and valued as individuals first. Ask them how they’re doing personally before diving into questions about the baby. Because new parents have so many responsibilities, it’s easy to feel dismissed, overlooked, or neglected as a person. 

When chatting with new parents, avoid the cliches like, “enjoy every moment” or “you must be over the moon,” etc. These phrases, even when well intentioned, can make parents feel guilty if they’re struggling mentally and not currently experiencing all of those fuzzy, positive emotions.

In your 1:1s, use one of these conversation starters for new parents returning to work:

  • “Welcome back! I understand that transitioning back to work after leave can be challenging. How are you feeling and adjusting?”

  • “Your wellbeing is important to me. How are you managing self-care and finding time for yourself outside of work?”

  • “I want to make sure you have everything you need to transition smoothly back into work. Is there anything specific I can do to support you?”

  • “Let's discuss your workload and priorities now that you're back. How are you feeling about diving back into your projects?”

  • “As you settle back in, please feel free to share any feedback or suggestions on how we can improve our support for working parents.”

  • “I'm glad to have you back on the team. Remember, it's okay to take things one step at a time as you readjust to work life. We're here to support you.”

Offer to help prioritize or delegate tasks

Managers play a crucial role in helping new parents prioritize tasks and delegate effectively upon their return to work. Schedule a meeting to discuss their current workload, upcoming deadlines, and any new projects or priorities. Together, you can identify the most critical tasks that require immediate attention, as well as those that can be delegated or deferred. Help them set realistic expectations about what they can accomplish in the initial weeks back at work.

“Since most moms are often overwhelmed upon their return to work, it’s crucial for managers to keep an open line of communication so their employees can have space to share their needs and challenges. ‘What do you need?’ can be a simple yet powerful open-ended question to pose during check-ins.” 

Offer resources, tools, and support to help the parent succeed in completing delegated tasks, such as access to training and mentorship. Be flexible and open to adjusting priorities and delegations as circumstances change and evolve.

Encourage parents to prioritize their health

Health should be the number one priority for returning parents. Managers can help create a workplace culture that prioritizes mental health and wellbeing, aiming to support new parents as they navigate the challenges of returning to work after having a child.

Emphasize the importance of work-life balance, leading by example, and discourage new parents from overworking to catch up. Make sure parents take regular breaks throughout the day to rest and recharge, and schedule regular check-ins with them to discuss workloads and stress levels. 

Do your best to create a non-judgmental, psychologically safe atmosphere where your employees can feel comfortable discussing their mental health concerns, and offer resources and information about mental health support services, such as employee assistance programs, counseling services, or mental health hotlines. Acknowledge and celebrate parents’ accomplishments, both big and small, as they return to work to boost their confidence and reinforce a healthy work environment.

Read more: A Word-for-Word Guide to Discussing Mental Health with Direct Reports

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