The Mindful (Minefield) of Returning to Work
Updated: Mar 6
I was recently asked if I had written anything about mothers who were going back to work and the transition they experienced, particularly when it was a breastfeeding mother. I must say I can’t actually relate to their plight, as I feel that I was privileged since I did not have to return to either full time or part time work. We tightened our financial belt, and got on with life. I don’t remember now any specific conversation we had about it, or if we even discussed it at all. At the time we were blessed in not needing a second income, a situation which of course has changed completely since I had my first child almost 12 years ago. If I close my eyes and really try to imagine what life would have been like had I needed to go back to work when my babies were small, my body tenses and I feel slightly panicked. A drop in the ocean of the emotional turmoil a mother returning to work must have. On the flip side, there are the mothers who are looking forward to going back to work – they are good at what they do, and are rewarded and recognised for hard work. And let’s face it – sitting at a desk and dealing with anything in the office is easier than being at home, looking after another human being, anticipating all their needs and feeling the isolation that accompanies such activities. The paradox is that most mothers probably feel a bit of both panic and excitement at the same time.
The breastfeeding mother most likely panics more as she has to rethink how her baby will be fed and by whom. Long gone are the days of wet nurses. Depending on the age of the baby, the adjustment doesn’t usually have to be traumatic or at least not past the first couple days. Here in the UK, we are doing fairly well with a standard maternity leave of six months, and the guarantee that a woman’s position will be held for her for additional six months without pay until she must return to work. Many women in my immediate circles have taken the opportunity to spend a full year at home with their child. By law, companies in the UK must provide a place for women to pump which is not a utility closet or a toilet, and most companies readily comply without incident. However, the same is not true for women in the United States, who are expected back to work as early six weeks (eight weeks if they’ve had a caesarean section). This is an inhumane policy, when one considers that puppies are not to be separated from their canine mother. In fact, sixteen states require that puppies be at least eight weeks old before being sold, and some states mandate that a puppy be fully weaned before being sold, a process which may occur later than eight weeks for some pups and 10-12 weeks for some toy breeds. But I digress, this is a much more political and economic problem than the one that I’d rather discuss which is the tumult of emotions for the mother who feels she is abandoning her child with strangers for most of the day.
Just before I became a mother myself, I was working as supply (temp or substitute) staff for many nurseries in the Berkshire area. I’d arrive at a nursery having been sent by my agency, and promptly request to be in the nursery’s baby room. To my delight, most were very willing to accommodate this request. Day after day, in different settings I’d see the 6- to 12-month-olds being dropped off, most of them being delighted at being able to play with (aka stare into the face of) another baby. There was gentle music playing and, although it could get noisy, it was a friendly atmosphere with plenty of stimulation for them. I absolutely loved this role, but eventually sadly learned that I could not continue. I’d get cold after cold, threadworm, head lice, stomach bugs over and over again. Yes, I myself was a breastfed baby, so I don’t know the reason for my poor immune system, and I marveled at the immunity of some of the regular staff. Occasionally, mothers would send their pumped milk to be fed to their babies. This was such a sacrifice and a precious gesture in my eyes; therefore, I was particularly disgusted at some of the staff who had strong opinions about how unnecessary it was to be providing breastmilk. I wondered how they were so uneducated about to the number of antibodies that it contains. In fact, there are over three million germ-killing cells in a single teaspoon of breastmilk. And later on, during my studies I learned that when a mother kisses the head of her child, she takes in the viruses and other illness-inducing elements, and within 20 minutes of her exposure those viruses, or to airborne viruses for that matter (someone sneezing next to her in the supermarket for example) she begins making antibodies in her milk to protect her baby from those illnesses. Breastmilk thus becomes especially crucial when a baby spends time at nursery or pre-school! In fact, when a mother has an older child who nurses less, as the milk supply decreases, the concentration of immune factors increase.
Getting back to the emotional side and the physical act of breastfeeding – thankfully when some UK babies go into day care at six months, solid foods have already been introduced, and possibly a sippy cup of water, and baby takes in a little solid and perhaps a little liquid during the day. Although this small amount might worry some parents, the breastfed baby knows what s/he wants – to make up for the time away from mum by feeding for long periods in the evening and/or overnight. From the onlooker, a mother in this position might have our deepest sympathy, but if she does have support at home both emotionally from a partner and practically as well with help around the house and meals, it can be both the most blissful reunion evening after evening as the baby is provided ample food, and the best quality food to boot.
Most mothers are hopefully aware of the invaluable function of the production of milk, adjusting naturally to increased (or decreasing) needs of breastfeeding or pumping. Therefore, within a couple days (perhaps a couple of pumping sessions), she can produce milk that would be ready to go at dinnertime. For the one-year-old whose mum is returning to work, it is likely that breastfeeds have already been reduced to perhaps one or two a day, and can be adjusted to the times upon waking in the morning and a sweet cuddle and connection, relaxation and happy hormone flow before bed. As Dr Jack Newman likes to say, ‘There is so much more to breastfeeding than just breastmilk.’ And yes, this experience cannot be put into words. Keeping this wonderful connection will make the transition back to work emotionally easier and healthier. So, mum, please don’t think you have to stop altogether or pump and introduce a bottle instead of breastfeeding. Cups work very well alongside breastfeeding as they do not compete as a breast replacement the same way a teat and bottle do. I had a dear friend who simply said to me one day, ‘Oh, breastfeeding is great; my son went from breastfeeding exclusively to eventually drinking from a cup as well; no bottles were ever necessary.’ This was a revelation to me at the time as a new mother because in my brain there was a false progression of breast, bottle then cup. Of course, for every mother breastfeeding looks different, from those who managed to combi-feed, to exclusively pumping mothers, to mothers who chest feed (supplement at the breast by using a small tube to administer the formula or expressed milk while baby suckles at the breast). And the same goes for those who start working again. Breastfeeding will be different and change and evolve into something new just as it had from the beginning of the journey.