Mothers who continue to work have been found to have more ambitious daughters and kinder sons, according to research out of Harvard Business School. But facing the prospect of returning to work after an often-too-short maternity leave can make the drumbeat of “I have to quit” loud in your ears.
I surveyed 732 working moms, and they reported that it took an average of almost six months after delivery to start feeling normal again emotionally. The vast majority were back at work months before that point, though. Your fuse is short, your nighttime sleep is shorter; it’s only natural that the desire to quit can become a fixation and a distraction.
Here are the five things I’ve found in my research that silence the drumbeat and get you through, sanity and career intact.
1. Remember That The Discomfort Is Temporary
Know that this transitional time is temporary, and it will hurt less. Every learning curve has an apex. “We all accept to varying degrees that there will be a learning curve with new motherhood,” says psychotherapist Sarah Best. “Taking care of a baby is a new kind of job. But there’s this assumption that returning to work is going to be the same as always, the same role, the same job, that it should feel easy. But the fact is, you’ve never been a working mom before. It’s a totally new scenario.” When you find yourself being self-critical, Best advises, “Remind yourself: Oh, yeah, this is only day four. I may be a pro at my job, but I’m an absolute beginner at being a working mom.”
Occasionally, Best will have a patient who, after three months back at work, truly feels like she needs to make a major change. But much, much more often, the women who tell her at week two that they need to quit come back a month or two later with a different story entirely: “They say,” notes Best, “‘I’m so glad I’m back at the office; I don’t think I would have been able to stay home!’”
2. Think About What You Get Out Of Work . . .
Simple but true: Women’s perception of their work as rewarding is the single biggest predictor of whether they’ll resume their employment, according to research published in 2013 in the Maternal and Child Health Journal. More than their occupation level. More than their education. More than their husband’s paycheck! Carolyn Pirak, LCSW, founding director of the Bringing Baby Home program at The Gottman Institute, advises new moms to “Think, why did you choose to work in the first place? Did you choose to work only for money, or because you love the work and the people? You did at some point choose to work where you work.
So, now that you have a baby, are you getting just money from your job . . . or are you getting esteem and confidence, too?”
I’ll add: Are you getting experience that will keep you moving upward so you can make cultural, institutional change for new parents from within?
Speaking of moving upward, a lot of what you get out of not quitting is that several years from now, you won’t be an at-home mom who quit. Blunt, but there it is.
Liisa Hunter, who works in marketing solutions on a global sales team for Facebook, says she found this idea really motivating and true when she returned after the birth of her first son. “I remember a colleague saying to me—and this was so poignant—that this is the most difficult time in your life right now as a mom,” Liisa says. “She said, ‘But you need to understand that in five years, your son will go to kindergarten, and in that time, you’ll either have moved up in your career from here to here’—I still remember her gesturing with her hands—’or you will be calling me, trying to get back into the workforce.'”
It’s ironic that such a chaotic time could give you a sense of calm, but that’s a sentiment I heard repeatedly in my interviews. “The moment I went back to doing my work again, I just felt more like myself. I felt like more of an adult,” says Hannah, an interior designer who has her own small firm. “I loved being at home with my baby, but I realized that I’d felt really adrift.” Work gives you destination, goals, purpose.
3. . . . And Realize What Work Gets Out Of You!
Everyone works harder and more happily when they feel valued. So make a list—yes, really, a bulleted list—of all the things your boss and colleagues and the greater industry get out of having you, ass flattened in that chair, doing your job.
These three months, this whole lifetime, really, is riddled with compromises. No one’s saying you won’t have to compromise to stick with your career. But research out of Australia has shown that if you are able to see the value you bring to your work—if you feel valued by your managers and coworkers—you’ll feel more confident in those compromises. So make the list. Go on.
4. Consider Phasing Back In For Better Focus
Focus is an enormous issue when you first go back; phasing back in really helps, according to numerous studies and many of the mothers I spoke with. Unsurprisingly, women who experience those distracting “daily re-entry regrets” most likely intend to leave their jobs. Also unsurprising—but so important—is the fact that women with shorter leaves have more of those regrets. If you can extend your leave, even only part-time, you increase your chances of staying at work long term.
Marcy Axelrad, a lawyer and human resources expert in Boston, worked two days a week when she first came back to work, then three days, “and that’s when I realized, yeah, my baby’s fine,” she says. “I’ve got a great, great caregiver at home and he’s happy. So then I came back full-time.” Now the global senior director of talent operations at the online furniture retailer Wayfair, Axelrad is the brains behind the company’s family-friendly policies. She’s seen it time and time again: “That flexibility is one of the reasons why our working moms come back after their leave. And most do eventually come back full-time.”
Do not underestimate your rights to do a phase-in and the positive impact it can have on workplace culture. Many companies have an established written policy. And even those that don’t might have had a precedent set by other new moms. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows you to take your 12 weeks over the course of the year (if your company is cool with this kind of intermittent leave). Do your research! When we ask for something for ourselves, we’re really asking for all the moms who follow us, too. So if you can, please do.
5. Enjoy A Bit Of Success (It Sustains You)
If you are in the “I have to quit” doldrums, this is the time to do the easiest thing on your list first. Hell, write things on your to-do list that you’ve already done just so you can scratch through them. Success is extremely motivating. So whatever it takes for you to feel like you’re doing a good job—clocking in at 8:58 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., or meeting with that college sophomore who wants to hear about your career path, or introducing your boss to an impressive new contact (really, just a five-minute email)—do it. You’ll be happier coming to work tomorrow. Because you are coming back tomorrow!
Lauren Smith Brody is the founder of The Fifth Trimester movement, which helps businesses and new parents work together to create a more family-friendly workplace culture. A longtime leader in the women’s magazine industry, Lauren was most recently the executive editor of Glamour magazine. Raised in Ohio, Texas, and Georgia, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two young sons.