This might come as a surprise to you, but separation anxiety is not just for the babies!
Many new mothers find it hard to settle back to work after their maternity leave has ended. Leaving their child with daycare, or even family members can be an anxious experience for some. There’s also the challenge of getting back into the swing of things in the office.
The truth is that it’s perfectly normal to feel this way when you are away from your baby for so many hours a day for the first time. Many mothers find it agonizing to make that decision to return to the workforce and leave their precious charge in the care of doting grandparents or childcare centres. And the initial separation and first few weeks are tough on both parents and child*.
Grace is one such mama who faced the tough choice between being a full-time SAHM (stay at home mum) and going back to her career as a nurse. In January this year, she left her then-8-month-old daughter, Isabel, with in-house childcare services and returned to her job as a registered nurse, doing research in one of the public hospitals. It was by no means an easy decision.
1. What thoughts went through your mind when you were deciding whether or not to return to work after giving birth?
It was such a huge struggle for me to make that decision! By then, I had already taken an extra three months of no-pay leave (on top of the mandated four months of maternity leave). We had a daily routine down pat. I enjoyed the freedom and space to meet up with other SAHMs for playdates, and I could organise my time according to my own preferences. But internally, I also grappled with the idea of being a full-time SAHM. I feared the loss of my personal identity and worried about losing my clinical skills and knowledge and being meaningfully occupied at home. On the other hand, I struggled with whether I was being a bad mother for choosing to return to work since we were financially stable enough for me to be a stay home mum.
2. In the end, what made you decide to return to your job?
Mainly, I wanted to keep myself updated in my profession. The clincher was when I managed to get a slot in the infant care at my hospital for Isabel.
3. How did your husband feel about this decision?
He was awesome! He supported my decision all the way and left the decision entirely to me.
4. How did you psychologically prepare yourself and your child for the big change?
Emotionally, I think there is only so much you can prepare yourself for that first day of separation. I tried to spend more time with her but at the same time, tried to expose her to more people one month before, because she was at the stage (7-8 months) where stranger anxiety was setting in. Every night, my husband and I, who are Christians, prayed together with her. I also managed to work out with my supervisor to start work properly a few days later than originally planned, so that we could ease her into the long childcare hours on a gradual basis.
5. What was the first day like?
Well, the first day was most traumatic for her and me. Isabel was/is very attached to me, and so when we left her that first day, she basically bawled for the whole morning. She only survived a few hours in school and when we went to pick her up (earlier than expected – the centre called), she had not drunk any milk nor slept at, and her eyes were red and puffy. So “poor thing”…
My first day at work was also very nerve-wracking since I was starting in a new department. I had to familiarise myself with the job scope and get used to working with a new group of people. On top of that, it was challenging to fit in regular sessions to express milk for Isabel.
6. Since then, how has the journey been like?
The journey has steadily improved. It’s now almost two months since Isabel started school, and while she still cries when I leave her in the morning, she doesn’t stay upset for long. She has a lot of energy, is extremely inquisitive by nature and loves to interact with others, so we believe that sending her to school was really a good move.
I guess the only thing that my husband and I would wish for is more couple time. With our long working hours (he’s a doctor at another hospital) and our minimal house-help, that is something that we need to really work hard at achieving.
7. What would you share with other mums who are in the midst of deciding whether or not to return to work after their maternity leave?
Whatever decision you make, be sure of it and don’t let what others say to sway you, because what may suit them may not suit you.
Many mothers do have trouble dealing with the initial separation from their babies. It usually gets easier with time, but if you feel that you are not getting any more comfortable with the situation, perhaps you need to rethink your decision to work full-time or get professional help.
If you find yourself constantly worrying about your baby, to the point of not being able to work or concentrate, consider talking to your doctor or a trained counsellor.
By Dorothea Chow
Did you experience back to work anxieties? How did you overcome them?
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