How to Deal With Maternity Leave Guilt


pregnant woman


Elaine McGhee
Elaine McGhee
My final days at work before going on my first maternity leave felt like the black-and-white tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz. Swirling around me were a tangled web of work commitments and the impending feeling that my world will be flipped upside-down when the baby arrived. Some days I was able to reach the stillness of the center of the storm, watching the world spin around me, but most days I was in a feverish spin with the rest of it.
Not knowing how to deal with the immensity of the unknown once baby arrived, I dug my heels in even harder. I worked more, thinking, “How would they get it all done without me?”  I felt bad about leaving for three months (after all, I had never taken a break longer than my three-week wedding/honeymoon). My guilt about going on maternity leave was manifesting as feelings of obligation, anxiety and insecurity that drove me to overwork.

What are the signs that you feel guilty about going on maternity leave?

Previously I had defined my self-worth by my performance review ratings. If I didn’t work, how would I define myself? Who would I be after returning from maternity leave? 
If you’ve suffered from pre-maternity leave guilt, you’ve probably experienced the following:
• Feeling anxious about leaving your boss with your responsibilities while away
• Feeling like work projects will be unfinished or fail because you won’t be there
• Worry that your co-workers’ and managers’ perceptions of you as an invaluable team member will fade 
• Wondering whether your job security is at risk
• Feeling like you will miss out on important project or career advancement
• Worry that you will not want to come back after having a child
On the surface, those all sound legit — but at the heart of it, if you really dig deep, going on maternity leave will mean that you will change. You will physically change, your priorities will shift to the baby, your relationship to the value of work might change and so on. Change is scary. 

How can you cope with maternity leave guilt?

First, make sure all your ducks are in a row. Our maternity leave checklist can help you organize everything before you head out; it covers negotiations with your boss, making plans for coverage and more.
Next, lift your glass of sparkling water. Let’s cheers to the fact that your guilt means you care about your job, your career and the people you work with. But let’s explore the motives behind the feeling so you can foster a healthy attitude and avoid the all-too-common female response: guilt!

1. Physical demands.

Let’s start with the most obvious demand placed on a pregnant working woman: her physical demands. The last trimester is physically exhausting. As a busy working professional you may not be giving yourself enough rest, walks and breaks. It’s critical to tend to your physical wellbeing so you have the stamina for work and home.
Tip: Schedule in a physical break on work days, whether it’s walking at break time or stretching in the afternoon. On one of the 20 bathroom trips, take a detour outside for some fresh air. Use Kegal Trainer app to get the most important muscles in shape for childbirth. 

2. Mental distraction.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker at Psychology Today says there are pros and cons to mom guilt. The emotions can motivate you to take action or force you to look at some hidden emotions eating away at you. But guilt is an acute and often reoccurring form of stress that can take a toll on a working mother. And the feelings of guilt about going on maternity leave can be especially heavy. 
Tip: Keep your mind free from additional stressful thoughts. Allow for moments of quiet, restful time in your day. It can be as quick and easy as taking three seconds to breathe before you get out of your car. This will help to leave work stress at work.

3. Share your plan.

One of the biggest areas of stress and guilt for the pregnant moms I coach is the lack of a transition plan. This is not the time to do this alone. Talk to other new moms at your office, consult with your HR team and speak to your spouse about what how you would like your post-maternity leave experience to pan out.
Tip: Create a maternity leave plan well in advance of your last day. This plan should start off reassuring the organization of your commitment, explaining who will do the work while you are away and how your responsibilities will be assigned. 
This plan also needs to advocate for a “transition phase” once you are back at work. All too often working mothers begin a whole new cycle of guilt upon their return. Clearly stating your need for flex hours or reduced workload for a certain timeframe will mitigate the work pressure, especially during those first weeks back at the office. 

Returning from maternity leave

When I returned, I couldn’t see my own feet, let alone see how I could do it all. My guilt welled up because I didn’t get a plan together that clearly communicated how my work would be covered — and I didn’t have the courage to assert a humane transition period. 
When I finally communicated my plan and voiced my fears to my husband who was more than willing to help, my guilt subsided. 
So before you depart on leave, make sure you have a plan, a self-care regimen and a healthy outlook on your return! 
Elaine is a Working Mom Support Coach on a mission de-stress maternity leave and propel a nation of thriving working mothers. From her own emotionally traumatic return-to-work after her first daughter (HOT MESS!), was born. She coaches new moms on of return-to-work readiness, time management and mindful living. And consults for corporations on paternity transition planning and work/life policies to retain and nurture working parents.

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