Several years ago, my colleague Annie wrote a blog about coming back to work after maternity leave. I remember welcoming her back, trying to do all the right things in what I knew was a difficult transition. I hadn’t been through it yet myself, so I’m sure I muddled my way through, offering a hug or to grab lunch. A few years later, I was in the same boat. Or rather, I’m sure there was a boat, but I was drowning next to it in a sea of my own tears.
It sounds dramatic, but it felt truly impossible. In the weeks leading up to my return to work, I started scheming workarounds. Maybe I could stay home with my baby during the day and work all night. “That could be survivable and great!” thought hazy, postpartum me. It turns out that’s not a viable option for anyone, so off I went. On my first day back, I needed an actual physical push to get me out the door (thanks, Mom). And upon walking into the office, I immediately started crying. I met two new colleagues for the first time through tears. No doubt the blubbering inspired confidence in my leadership.
I asked a few friends with kids, as well as one of my sisters, if it would always be this impossible. When one said, “I promise it will get better, and you will even enjoy working and finding your new groove,” I responded with a very mature and rational “I just don’t believe you.”
It wasn’t the work itself that was a struggle; I like my work, my colleagues, and my clients, and I’m proud of what we do and energized by being a part of it. And yet—being away from my baby felt not just impossible but wrong.
Those first several weeks were defined by starts and stops. I’d be plugging away when all of a sudden I’d have to turn off my camera mid meeting or close an office door while I cried. I’d try to start again, break down again, and then sit alone in my feelings until I could be somewhat functional. A big part of my transition back to work came down to accepting that, for a little while, “somewhat functional” would have to do. As a person who is used to being highly productive, it was hard to be in that gear. I remember someone telling me that she is a better parent because she works. I kept waiting to feel that way but instead found myself overcome with worry, self-doubt, and guilt, feeling like I couldn’t keep up with both parenting and work.
Then very slowly, over time, I started to find my new groove. Some days go really well: I’ll squeeze in a ten-minute workout in the morning, make an appointment with the pediatrician on my way to work, have an especially productive or energizing day with colleagues and clients, play at the park with my little one on our way home, enjoy dinner as a family, and crank out a few more things after he’s asleep. These are days when I remind myself I can do it—and feel good about it, too.
Of course, these days are balanced by ones that do not go as well: days when my toddler cries out for me, arms outstretched, as my husband takes him to school, after which I slump on the floor crying and wondering what I’m doing with my life; days when I’m distracted by thoughts about if he’s eating well enough or whether I responded the right way to his tantrum. And on the other side are the days I’m thinking about work instead of being fully engaged in what feels like our already limited time together during the week—cuing guilt and anguish about my priorities.
But this is all part of the new groove: accepting that some days are better than others and that everything is in flux. And as my child grows and changes, learns new skills, develops preferences, desires independence—the whole “growing up” thing—some things get easier while some get harder. And this will, I know, go on for…well, ever. Those distractions will take new shape, become more emotionally draining.
Change is the constant. And managing change, adapting as best I can in any given moment, has helped me both at work and at home. With more change ahead as our family expands this summer, we’ll figure it all out again. And again, and again. But I know it can be done. What once felt impossible became, over time, possible then manageable then—believe it!—rewarding. Most of the time.
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