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    Are you a new mom returning to work? Here's what you need to do to take care of your mental health

    Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal 8 Mins Read

    Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal

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    Written by Dr Meghna Singhal and published on 07 January 2022.

    A mother’s mental health has implications for not only her own well-being but that of her child’s. Read on to see how you can take care of your mental health as a returning-to-work mom

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    Are you a new mom returning to work? Here's what you need to do to take care of your mental health

    Research has shown that it takes women a full year to recover psychologically from the upheaval of childbirth.

    A full year! Let that sink in.

    Fortunately for us Indian women, under the Maternity Benefit Act, 2017, we are now offered up to six months paid maternity leave to adjust to this life transition.

    This is good news for everyone. We know that women who return to work prior to six months after giving birth are at a greater risk of postpartum depression. We also know that a mother’s mental health has implications for not only her own well-being but that of her child’s. Specifically, better maternal mental health contributes to a better mother-baby relationship, which in turn predicts better long-term outcomes for the child.

    Considering how important is sound mental health for the new mother, how do we learn to prioritize our mental health as returning-to-work mothers? How do we learn to work through our unpleasant emotional states?

    Separation Anxiety

    You will no longer be able to see every minute of the day the tiny human being you’ve been with 24/7 up until now. While you pick up your office bag and step out of the door, handing over your baby to the caretaker may feel like a stab in the heart. Separation anxiety is real, and you will feel it much more acutely in the first few days (and weeks) after returning to work.

    If your baby starts to wail when you say goodbye or drop him off at a daycare, it’s a good sign. It means that your baby understands you and feels connected to you. It shows that your baby is growing and understanding the world around her.

    Here’s how you can make this separation easier for yourself and the baby:

    • Start to ‘wean’ yourself before returning to work. The nanny you were planning on hiring or your family member (mom or mother-in-law) who has agreed to take care of your baby -- have them start a few weeks before you return to work. This will allow you some time to yourself (to get organized and run errands) and your baby time to bond with other caregivers and get used to being away from you.
    • Separation anxiety first appears in babies between eight months and 1 year. Try not to change the routine or introduce new caregivers during this period if you can help it. You can even keep a lovey or an item of your clothing, which carries your comforting scent, in your baby’s crib or diaper bag.
    • Talk to your baby. Narrate what’s going on. You could say, “I’m now going to give you three goodbye kisses, and then I’ll go to the office. You’ll be safe here with (insert name).” When you walk out, you can say: “When I come back from work, we’ll play peekaboo. Remember mommy always comes back home to you.” And keep calm yourself, since your baby can pick up on your emotional reactions.

    Guilt

    Mommy guilt is real, especially if you’re new at working motherhood. You might feel that you’re unable to do the most important job you’ve ever had, or you might compare yourself to other moms who seem to have it all together, while you’re struggling to get even the most basic things done.

    Here’s how you can reserve self-judgment and banish mommy guilt:

    • Set boundaries with negative people. Maybe your mother-in-law rubs it in that you prioritize your job over your baby. Or your neighbor asks how you can leave your baby in charge of a stranger. Avoid such negativity -- leave the room (or end the phone call) when your mother-in-law starts her guilt trip. Wave to your neighbor instead of engaging in a conversation. Know that some people will always make you feel guilty, no matter what you do.
    • Make the most of your time together. Instead of rushing to finish chores, spend some more time with your baby. Some days, pick up your child early from day-care (or come home early) and spend time playing, cuddling, or giving your baby a long soapy bath. Declare one weekend day errand-free and spend it just being a mom.
    • Don’t beat yourself up for missing your baby’s small and big moments (such as the first time your baby stands unsupported or gobbles a piece of omelet by herself). Leave standing instructions to the caretaker to take plenty of photos and videos of developmental milestones or special moments, so you and your partner can relive the event together later.

    Fatigue

    Oh, the sheer exhaustion of juggling work, a tiny person, and a household! Fatigue is one of the most common outcomes of new motherhood. Your brain is foggy, you haven’t slept a full night in months, and you constantly feel the pressure to do more. Pressure to get more done -- keep the house clean, feed your family healthy meals, breastfeed your baby and introduce solids successfully, and be a pro at work.

    Here’s what you can do to ease off the pressure and beat the fatigue (or at least reduce it):

    • Realize that it’s okay to let things go. You don’t need your house to be spic and span all the time. You don’t have to fold laundry on the very day it’s washed. And you really don’t have to ensure that your tiny tot is toilet-trained by age 1! It’s okay to relax your standards and do what you can manage.
    • Outsource what you can. If you are particular about something, such as ensuring that every meal is healthy and home-cooked, opt to outsource that task. Could you hire a person to come and cook? Or cut veggies to reduce your load?

    Spousal support: How your partner can pitch in

    Here are some ways in which your partner’s involvement can help support your mental health:

    If you’re doing the middle-of-the-night wakeups to feed and burp the baby, enlist your partner’s support to wake up in the morning and handle the baby from 6 am onwards so you can get some extra sleep. Your partner may have a full day of work ahead of him but there is no reason why he can’t take care of the baby for an hour, while he eats breakfast and gets dressed (and enjoy that special one-on-one time with the baby as a bonus).

    Share the load with your partner. Discuss with your partner what part of the load he can take; even seemingly small tasks can take up a lot of mental space. Then put up a whiteboard in which each person writes their chores for the week (or day) and ticks them off as they complete it. Or put it on your and your partner’s online calendars as a reminder.

    Keep the lines of communication open with your partner. Talk to your partner about your feelings and thoughts -- not just stuff about the baby. Tell him that all you’re doing is unloading and are not expecting any solutions or advice from him (unless you are!).


    Postpartum Depression (PPD)

    In the first few weeks of childbirth, most new moms feel sad, anxious, tired, and overwhelmed. Called ‘baby blues’, these feelings get better within a few weeks. However, for some women, they don’t get better. Crying spells, mood fluctuating between sadness and irritability, low energy levels that make it difficult to perform day-to-day activities, poor self-confidence and changes in appetite leading to changes in body weight — if these symptoms don’t go away after two weeks or make it hard for you to take care of your baby, it’s called postpartum depression. It is a serious condition and should not be ignored.

    It is important to reach out to a mental health practitioner (psychiatrist or psychotherapist) at the earliest if sadness persists for more than two weeks. Over and above that, here are some ways you can navigate your way through PPD:

    • Create a strong bond with your baby. Emotional bonding with the baby allows her to feel comforted and contributes to her socio-emotional and physical development. Cuddling your baby, soothing her, singing to her, offering skin-to-skin contact, massaging the baby, and other ways in which you can be lovingly attentive help develop a secure attachment with the baby. It not only benefits your child but also benefits you by releasing endorphins that make you feel happier and more confident as a mother.
    • Take care of yourself. Go for a walk or do yoga, practice mindfulness meditation, get enough sleep, take a long shower -- these simple lifestyle choices can improve your mood and your health, and help you feel more like yourself again.
    • Build a support network. Having positive social interactions and emotional support help deal with PPD. Seek other women who are facing a similar transition into motherhood, such as by connecting with other new moms at your workplace or in your baby’s day-care. Try out baby and toddler classes, or join your local mom's Facebook groups, which offer various kinds of support. Make time for your relationship with your partner.
    • Returning to work as a new mother isn’t easy. But if you are mindful of taking care of your mental health, you’ll be able to tide over this challenging time.
    Your Action Plan

    • Reflect on how you can beat mommy guilt. Don’t doubt how wonderful you are as a mother. Think about how to draw boundaries with people who make you feel bad about yourself.
    • Talk to your baby. Narrate what’s going on. Spend time cuddling, soothing, reading, singing, massaging -- all of which help create a secure attachment with your baby.


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