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How to survive maternal separation anxiety when returning to work

Mom kissing baby

You’ve spent a lovely period forming an attachment with your little one, sniffing in that baby scent and getting your head around being the parent to a brand new human being. And now it’s time to emerge from your postpartum bubble and return to the world of work.

The thought of being separated from your baby may leave you with a mixture of feelings: excitement to have adult company; anxiety about how your little one will cope; perhaps sadness that you will miss special moments with your baby; and uncertainty about whether anyone else could care for him the way you would.

Maternal separation anxiety can be normal to a certain degree. It encompasses worry, sadness and guilt when separated from your infant for short periods of time.

It’s hard leaving your child, and it’s meant to be - biologically and emotionally you are meant to be attached and want to keep your child safe and nurtured by being present. However, these feelings may be more prevalent when there is inadequate social support for a mother.

Tips that may soften this transition period for you:

  1. Remember that this is normal. Separations are part of life. While your early weeks with your infant may find the two of you snuggled up at home, you will slowly start venturing out on your own. Quick outings are a good icebreaker, e.g. running to the shop to pick up a couple of groceries, or going for a coffee on your own or with a friend.
  2. Make sure that you say goodbye. This helps your little one to learn that you sometimes leave, but that you also return. Try not to draw out these partings too much.
  3. Select your caregiver carefully. Leaving your baby with someone that you trust makes the latter point easier to manage. Take time to get to know your little one’s caregiver. For some, this may be a trusted family member like a parent or aunt. Allowing for a “handover” period where you can see how they interact with your little one can help to allay concerns you might have. Invite them to assist while you are still on maternity leave. This gives them the opportunity to observe how you parent and will give you the opportunity to share your routine, and ways of doing things. That being said, you need to establish what differences you can overlook and what would be non-negotiable. This would be a fluid thought process that changes as your baby develops.
  4. Consider your workplace. How supportive is your workplace is and how flexible can they be? It may be possible for you to negotiate more flexible working hours or shorter working hours away from your baby with some working from home for a period of time.
  5. Know your rights. Be aware of your rights as a mother in the workplace as this empowers you to be able to negotiate conditions from an informed point of view. For example, if you are a breastfeeding mom who wishes to express milk during the workday, find out how the law and company policy support you.
  6. Take care of yourself. We all know what this means but often struggle with ensuring that we have what we need, be it food, a nap, a yoga session, or a long talk with someone who gets us. Taking care of your own physical and emotional health helps to stave off stress symptoms which makes it easier for us to manage change.

When should you worry about the stress and anxiety that you are experiencing?

If you experience excessive anxiety about being separated from your little one, so much so that it that impacts upon your wellbeing, you are encouraged to consult your healthcare professional. Look out for the following:

  • you sleep much more OR less than usual
  • you have a shift in appetite (eating more OR less)
  • you find it difficult to concentrate
  • you experience social withdrawal
  • your mood is low, and you find little pleasure in life

Parenting can be overwhelming at the best of times and even more so when there are significant transitions within the family. It is essential to bear in mind that parenting is not meant to take place in a vacuum, though.

Finding, maintaining and making use of your support systems (friends, family, mom groups, therapy) can help make the challenges more manageable.

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