What really happens to your body when you return to work after maternity leave

There is nothing quite like that first morning back to work after your maternity leave. And if you haven't experienced it, it's hard to explain. After our son was born, I dreaded my return to work. After an unexpected stay in the NICU and three months inside during a particularly cold winter, I knew I was ready to get out of the house. I needed something, but at the same time, the thought of leaving my son was heart wrenching.

My first day back to work, I set out everything I would need. I had work clothes that actually fit, a pump and bottles, and healthy snacks, but I still wasn't ready. I sat in the rocking chair in his room staring at that perfect little face and cried.

Every day, new mothers return to work after maternity leave and the transition can be more difficult than expected. From anxiety to troubles with breastfeeding, mothers face new challenges in the workplace, but are rising to meet them. Here are some of the changes you could experience when going back to work, and tips to make them easier.

You may feel more anxious

You're being thrown into a completely new environment. Even if everything around you at the office is the same as it was three months ago, you have changed. You are a new person now, and it can be challenging to find your groove again. Many new moms experience separation anxiety when leaving the baby for the first time, especially all day.

If you find yourself feeling anxious about how your baby is doing during the day, make sure to check in regularly. Call your partner or daycare whenever you need a little pick-me-up. Another way to avoid some anxiety is making a backup childcare plan. Babies and caregivers get sick—a lot. Make sure you have a plan B all lined up for when this happens. Ask your in-laws or neighbors if they'd ever be able to help out.

If your anxiety worsens or feels like it's consuming all of your thoughts, it could be something more. Talk with your OB if you're concerned about postpartum depression.

You could feel overwhelmed with work

Hopefully you have a kind boss who allows you to ease back into work rather than jumping into a full workload. However, even easing back in can feel foreign. You haven't used this part of your brain in months, so even little things like remembering your email password take extra mental energy.

First, be gentle with yourself. You just created a human being! It's okay if you need a little transition time. Make a list of all of your responsibilities and ask for help when you need it.

And remember you're probably doing a better job than you think. We're usually our own worst critics, so try taking a step back and noticing what you're doing right at work. "I'm a better boss now that I'm a mom," mother of two Sue Hermann told Parents. "I'm more willing to delegate, more able to think outside of the box, and definitely better able to multitask."

Leaving your baby will be painful

It doesn't matter how much you love your job. Leaving your new baby for the first time feels unnatural, and there's a physical reason for that. After you give birth, your brain is flooded with hormones to help you bond with your new baby. It's this intense bond that makes being apart so hard.

"In new moms, there are changes in many of the brain areas," maternal brain researcher Pilyoung Kim told The Atlantic. "Growth in brain regions involved in emotion regulation, empathy-related regions, but also what we call maternal motivation—and I think this region could be largely related to obsessive-compulsive behaviors. In animals and humans during the postpartum period, there's an enormous desire to take care of their own child."

Breastfeeding can be a little tricky

It's no surprise that women who return to work are less likely to continue breastfeeding than those who stay at home. Breastfeeding is not easy for anyone in the beginning, but then having to figure out when to pump can feel impossible.

A study in the Journal of Human Lactation (yep, that's a real journal) found that mothers who return to work before their child is three months old have a more difficult time continuing breastfeeding than those who are still home.

The best thing you can do for you and your sweet baby is to go in with a plan. Talk with your supervisor about how many pumping breaks you'll need and where there is a clean, private room for you to use. Pack up all of your supplies each night to avoid a chaotic morning of trying to get the baby ready and pack up everything you need.

There may be some leakage

So once you've mastered pumping at work, get ready to say hello to a new issue: leakage. In between pumpings and feedings, your breasts may leak milk. Everyone is different, so it could be a few drops or it could soak through your shirt.

Our bodies start to produce milk when the hormone oxytocin is released. Therefore anything that triggers that oxytocin rush could also cause leaking. "Your body is designed to make healthy milk," Laura Viehmann, M.D., clinical instructor in pediatrics at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, in Providence told Parents. "Anything that makes you think of your baby, like saying her name, talking about her, or even hearing another baby cry, causes your body to release oxytocin."

You'll feel REALLY tired

Chances are your baby will still be waking at night to eat when you return to work. If you were exhausted on maternity leave, now imagine having to get up at 6 a.m. and function in an office all day. If you plan to return to work before your baby is six weeks old, know that working more than 20 hours per week will leave you feeling exhausted.

Make sure you're being gentle with yourself. Your body will be depleted from sleep deprivation, so take care of yourself. Pack nourishing lunches and snacks to get you through the day. Sign up for a gentle yoga class. Your body is going through a lot, and you need to keep your strength up to care for that tiny human who depends on you for everything. Practicing self-care is one of the best things you can do for your baby.

Say hello to mom guilt

Now that you're a mother, you are in a special club of amazing women who constantly beat themselves up for not being perfect. I don't know any mother, working out of the home or not, who doesn't wonder if she's doing the right thing for her children. Remember that working does not make you a bad mom.

"You might feel guilty about leaving your baby in someone else's care — or you might feel guilty about being eager to go back to your old life," Karol Ladd, coauthor of The Frazzled Factor: Relief for Working Moms told Parents.

Find special time throughout the week just for you and baby. You could wake up a few minutes earlier so you have time to hang out together in the rocking chair or go for a walk after the daycare pick-up. If you're having a low point at work, pull out your phone to look at your latest pics of that baby. Studies show that simply looking at pictures of their babies helps mothers feel less anxious and less depressed.

You may feel a bit relieved and that's okay

We humans are social creatures. We need human connection to live our best lives. It's important for everyone, especially new mothers, to get that contact that we all crave. After being home with a new baby, it's natural to need to get out of the house. You may even look forward to seeing your work friends and going to the bathroom alone.

Take advantage of your new social time. Stop by the coffee shop and grab a latte. Make lunch plans with coworkers. Relish in the new adult time. You've earned it!

You'll need to take some time off

Depending on when you return to work, you and your new baby will have some doctor's appointments to attend, so make sure you still have some vacation time left. Your follow-up visit will most likely be about six weeks after delivery. Hopefully you're still on maternity leave at that point, but if not, make sure you schedule that appointment.

"Now that you have a baby to take care of, you need to take even better care of yourself," Judith Reichman, a gynecologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles told Fit Pregnancy. Assuming that everything is healed, you won't need another OB follow-up appointment for a year.

Your new baby on the other hand is a bit more high-maintenance. Get ready to make friends with your pediatrician, because you two will be seeing a lot of each other. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, new babies should visit the doctor when they are two days old, one month, two months, four months, six months, nine months, and 12 months. While some pediatricians offer evening appointments for working parents, these time slots go quick. Make sure to schedule the appointment far in advance so you can coordinate the time with work. Talk to your partner about who will be able to take off work for the appointments.

Our disappearing maternity leaves

For most mothers, no amount of maternity leave will ever leave you feeling ready to leave your baby. That bond is just too strong. However, many women are having to leave their babies earlier and earlier. Women are returning to work sooner, so the transition can be even more difficult. Texas Optometrist Erin Taylor told TODAY that she returned to work just two weeks after her daughter was born. "People thought I was absolutely crazy," said Taylor. "But I was, like, you tell me: Who's gonna pay the bills?"

In the United States, the average maternity leave is just ten weeks. Sadly, 16 percent of moms can only take one to four months off due to career or financial concerns, and 33 percent of women take no time off at all!

No matter how long your maternity leave is, focus on taking care of you and your baby. Be gentle with yourself as you navigate this new world as a working mother. Remember, you're doing so much better than you think.

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