“Is it normal to just feel dead inside about your work?” a mama recently asked me a few weeks after her return to work from maternity leave. She continued, “like whatever you are doing in the office isn’t important and feel like it used to feel? I have this awful feeling when I sign on every day. And I’ve noticed other new moms seem to feel the same way, too.”
Deep breaths here, mama. This is big stuff. Worth breathing into and sitting with. Here are my musings on this really important subject, in no particular order.
All the Feelings are Normal Feelings
Good for you, first of all, for paying attention to how you are feeling about your return to work. So many of us simply shove our feelings down and get on with our days, ignoring them until they rupture at some point in the future. (“What we resist persists,” the saying goes.)
If, upon your return to work after leave, you’re asking, “is it normal to feel X,” the answer is YES. No matter what “X” actually is. In this piece I listed a sampling of 24 of the words mamas have used in the Mindful Return course to describe how they feel upon coming back to work after maternity leave. You’ll see, they are absolutely all over the map.
COVID Caveats about Work
Second, be sure to keep in perspective the specific historical moment we’re in. You returned to work remotely and during a pandemic. And you simply “log in” to start your day. That scene bears no similarity to the return-to-work of yesteryear. Yes, that return involved the hassles of commuting but also the joys of interpersonal office connections.
Oh, how much easier it can be to feel connected to a work mission, when we’re connected to others! And that connection is so lacking in our workplaces right now. “It’s a very short path to depression and burnout,” noted Dr. Darrell Kirch at an Association of American Medical College keynote, “if you lose your sense of mission and connection to colleagues.”
I know it may be hard to tease apart how much of what you’re feeling is part of the overall dark heaviness of this year and not being able to enter a work space that is physically separated from home life. Ultimately it may not matter. When it’s time for a change, it’s time for a change. But it’s worth thinking about the global context.
Shifting Priorities and Values
What I’m hearing behind your question about whether your feelings are normal is also perhaps a query, “why is this happening, and what, if anything, should I do about it?”
I interviewed my husband, Jason Levin, a career coach with Ready Set Launch LLC, over breakfast this morning about these questions. We reflected on how common it is for identity and values shifts to happen when we undergo major life changes, among them the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, and a serious illness. What we find most important and worth worrying about can shift so abruptly in these moments.
“What is a job, but work, people, meaning, and mission?” Jason mused. He also said to consider asking whether the problems you were trying to solve before baby arrived are the same problems that you want to be solving now. Ask yourself, “For me, what are the problems that are worth solving?” he advised.
Those problems that feel worth the effort of solving now, with baby in your life, may indeed be very different than those that seemed worth solving a mere few months ago. And that’s potentially both very frustrating and very normal.
Is Change Urgent or Not?
As a self-proclaimed “activator” according to the Clifton StrengthsFinder, I have a bias toward action. When I see a problem, I want to solve it. Immediately. Both a blessing and a curse, this trait means I tend not to wallow for long, but it also means I can jump too quickly to a state of “fixing.”
As a culture, I find we are often so anxious to move away from uncomfortable feelings that we take action to stifle them as fast as we can, to avoid having to be with them. This may be the perfect moment to sit in the discomfort of what you’re feeling around your work, and to really dig into what your feelings are trying to tell you here. Take white space for yourself to help you get clearer.
Perhaps you’re in a toxic job situation that simply needs to end – and fast. I don’t know. But I think it’s worth discerning whether the state you’re in is toxic or simply uncomfortable. If the latter, it may be worth reminding yourself to breathe and experiment with finding ways to bring more joy into your current work environment, before leaving it.
Also, generally speaking, I advise folks who are not in toxic work situations not to make sudden moves the first few months back from parental leave. I’ll speak for myself in saying that my entire world view was colored, in the first year after having each of my babies, by serious sleep-deprivation, hormones, and a general disorientation to the world I thought I knew. By a year after each of my son’s births, I felt more like “myself” and thought differently about things.
Finally, to quote my husband, “you can’t ignore money issues.” It may or may not be financially viable for you to make a sudden move, or finances may affect the type of change you are able to make. Money considerations are real, too, and financial insecurity can increase stress and anxiety.
You Never Lost Value, Mama
I think it’s worth reminding you, mama, that you never lost value, or skills, or abilities, when you had your child (or children). As you contemplate options, remember your worth. Put this watercolor, created by a Mindful Return alum, on your desk if you need a daily reminder of the awesome ninja skills parenthood is giving you.
Perhaps you’ve now asked yourself what problems are, to you, now worth solving. And let’s assume for a moment that you can’t solve those problems in your current role. You can then ask, “What kinds of work roles solve those types of problems?” and “Who are the employers working on those problems?”
Remember that there are plenty of people who change jobs when they are pregnant and have little ones in tow. It happens all the time. (Read Starting a New Job When You’re Also a New (or Newish) Parent to help you with that transition, if you get to that point.)
Don’t Do This Work Alone
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing in seeking help and support from your village. For me, it’s been helpful to have a therapist, mom groups, and mentors. (And to be sure, it hasn’t hurt to live with a career coach!)
Find and stay connected to your people, mama. Participate in your employer’s working parent affinity group or employee resource group (ERG) if it has one. (If you lead this group, be sure to join the Working Parent Group Network to get connected to other leaders of parent and caregiver ERGs.) If your employer doesn’t have such a group, consider starting one.
There’s a world of working parents out there who have your back, mama. And I’m raising my hand to count myself as one of them.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave