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The Heart-Shattering Feeling of Going Back to Work After Having a Baby

I just had a baby and I’m angry.

Let me clarify: I just had a baby six months ago, I’ve been back at work for three of them now, and I’m angry.

Maybe my visceral rage is really just sadness and hopelessness because of how overwhelming it feels to make it all work: Being present at work while also being there for my family and my three month old, and trying to override the feeling of heartbreak every time I leave him.

First off, I want to say that I recognize the immense privilege I have in being able to work for myself and own my own business. Three years ago, my best friend, Deena Margolin, and I started an Instagram page for toddler parents called Big Little Feelings, a platform we were desperate for ourselves and couldn’t find anywhere: a place for real toddler tips, easy and digestible, that actually work. In three short years, we have amassed 3 million followers, and are busier than ever. And while I feel so fortunate to have my dream career, it doesn’t leave room for much of a maternity leave, if any. Our business, our revenue, our relevancy is all tied to social media. Content never sleeps, and one day off, let alone weeks, or months, would directly impact our business and revenue. Behind the scenes, we spend 25-35 hours on content alone each week, newborn baby or not, plus 10-20 hours on running our business and other fast moving projects. And with 10 employees, it’s not just our livelihood at stake. Deena and I have to show up, day in and day out, with no days off.

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Similarly to my career, I also fought hard for this baby. After countless negative pregnancy tests, a secondary infertility diagnosis, and a miscarriage that nearly broke me, my world quickly started to revolve around getting pregnant. I used every fertility app under the sun; cut alcohol; followed the “fertility” diet religiously; I even hired a spiritual healer who led me through a ritual involving burying an egg in my backyard under a full moon. In the end, IVF brought me this beautiful little babe I ached for.

As he turned three months and I had to go back to work, I found myself wanting to continue to be with him all day, especially while he is this little and changing rapidly every day. I craved the closeness, still in the stage of wanting him to be on my body physically and feeding every few hours. I wanted to be the one to soothe him when he’s fussy; I wanted to witness the milestones, the first laugh, the rolling over; I wanted to show him the trees, the world; I wanted to see him learn and grow. After all I had been through, after everything our family had faced, it feels wrong to leave him nine hours a day.

Read More: As People Return to Offices, It’s Back to Misery for America’s Working Moms

I knew I wasn’t alone in these feelings. And I knew that I’ve been lucky compared to the vast majority of American parents. Despite being one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the U.S. is the only developed nation that doesn’t offer paid parental leave on a national level. Only 21% of U.S. workers have access to paid parental leave through their employers, and the U.S. remains 1 of 6 countries that doesn’t offer national paid parental leave. In fact, according to a recent 2023 study by Abt Associates, nearly 1 in 4 women return to work within two weeks of giving birth, with three-quarters of the women citing financial struggle as the reason why they return to work.

Overwhelmed and tired, I shared my story on Big Little Feelings’ Instagram and asked our community if this heart shattering feeling of going back to work postpartum is normal. The answers poured into our DMs and came in two wildly consistent forms: support and solidarity.

The first answer came from those living outside the U.S., residing in countries with government mandated policies for parental leave spanning one to two years on average. These parents were horrified by my return to work and reassured me that, yes, it is completely normal to feel this way. They simply could not fathom a world where they’d have to leave their babies that young.

“I took a 12-month paid maternity leave with my first son and an 18-month leave with my second (12 months of it was paid),” one woman from Canada shared. “The 18-month leave was amazing…I now work two-three days a week. They’re only young once and I can’t get that time back. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to do that.”

Another woman from Sweden said, “I was at home with my first for one year and after that his dad was home with him for 14 months. It was amazing getting to be home for such a long time.” She continued to say that it was amazing to see her partner find his own path as a parent—and they can still take off more time in future to be with their children, if needed.

Much ink has been spilled about the benefits of paid parental leave and its long-lasting effects. Recent studies demonstrate a link between paid parental leave and a lower likelihood of postpartum depression, lower psychological distress, and better mood among mothers. Paid maternity leave is also linked with a higher quality of mother-child interactions and beneficial impact on infant attachment. It’s no wonder these nations offer paid parental leave.

Messages of commiseration poured in too, many of them from the U.S.. They shared stories of sobbing every morning, dropping their babies off at daycare, or leaving them in someone else’s care far earlier than they were ready.

“I had to go back to work at seven weeks and was only back in the office for a few weeks before going out on disability for postpartum anxiety,” one woman shared. “It was a terrible experience of having to leave my newborn and deal with the stress of pumping in the office.”

Another revealed, “Even thinking about it still makes me cry. I am a NICU nurse, my leave was a total of 12 weeks. Five weeks that was half paid, the rest was unpaid. When I returned to work…I struggled so bad. Sometimes I would go four straight days without seeing my baby.”

Unsurprisingly, factor in systemic racism and socio-economic disparities in the U.S., BIPOC working mothers are put at even more of a disadvantage. Access to paid parental leave and childcare are dependent on employers, and BIPOC women have more difficulty obtaining them due to our inequitable workforce and culture. Women in our society are punished for having children, and many of these mothers, who have the same emotions and pressure to go back to work, are navigating it more or less on their own, with far less resources. In a 2023 study examining the impact of anticipated pregnancy and accessing employment, reported incidents of discrimination(both formal and informal) have increased, disproportionately impacting BIPOC women, especially Black women. It is also telling that there is very little literature or research available on these intersections, and only qualitative research.

It’s clear there’s little to no support during postpartum weeks, not to mention support for those who want more time with their babies. More abysmal is the stark realization that, once they did return to work, parents found themselves in situations where pumping and breastfeeding was impossible (even though the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its official recommendation on the length of breastfeeding from one year to two), caring for sick children with constant illness from daycare felt insurmountable, and postpartum anxiety and depression felt inevitable.

We expect so much from new parents, and yet, we lack basic care and support to ensure these recommendations are feasible.We need to have the capacity, structure, and support to choose when and how to go back to work—regardless of financial ability. Above all, we need government mandated policies supporting parents in the incredibly raw and vulnerable postpartum period, in addition to workspace policies supporting parents in the years that follow.

Until then, every morning, I start my work day and go through the exact same thing thousands of American parents described in our DM’s: My heart feels like it twists out of my chest as I kiss my baby goodbye. Every time I hand him off to a caregiver, it feels as though my soul leaves my body. I wonder when the day will come where I stop sobbing after letting him go. “Be normal,” I tell myself. “Normal people leave their babies all the time.”

I hold him tight before handing him off and spend far too long talking about the weather so I can get four extra minutes of holding him to my chest. I deeply inhale, smelling his hair and taking his scent in.

When I exhale, I let go. When I peel him off of my body, it aches. When I run out of the room, I sob. When will I stop sobbing? When will it be easier?

I spend the rest of my day walking on a tightrope of guilt—guilt while I’m at work for not being with my baby, and guilt while I’m with my baby for not hitting my deadlines. A tightrope, I have learned, too many parents in our country also walk daily.

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