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I Struggled at Work after Maternity Leave – Here’s How I Got Through It

Many women struggle after returning to work as a new mom. But, that struggle often goes unspoken. Missy Meggison breaks the silence and shares tips for surviving the self-doubt and overwhelm that new moms often feel when they return to work after maternity leave.

 

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I don’t like saying “no” to a project at work. Then, I got pregnant. 

I’ve always taken pride in being the person my colleagues can count on to take on projects, clean things up, and (hopefully) make things better. This wasn’t an issue in the first 15 years of my career. 

Ever the helper, I often overloaded myself. Nevertheless, I said what I meant, did what I said, and held up my end of the deal. I knew what was expected of me, and people knew what kind of work product they could expect from me. If I said I was on it, I was. 

I really didn't think having a baby would change things that much.

While I knew a baby would shake things up, I felt solid in my career. I work remotely, so I knew with proper planning, I’d be able to take care of my baby and work. I mapped out how all that would look. I ran through it with my husband time and time again. We talked about who would be responsible for what and when. I planned and planned and planned. Surely I thought I’d be able to do it all and “have it all”—whatever that meant. I could handle it. 

My daughter was born in late Fall of 2021 and wow. I thought that I had planned accordingly, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. 

 

Everything I had known about myself personally and professionally changed. Full stop. 

I felt overwhelmed and lost when I returned to work after seven weeks of maternity leave. 

I had never taken that much time off in my life. I had so much to catch up on. I wasn’t sleeping very much, and I wasn’t sharp. I felt slow—mentally and physically. I didn’t feel like the fixer, doer, or helper that I knew myself to be. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause here to say that my colleagues are amazing. No one accused me of being lazy (my secret biggest fear). No one gave me side-eyes when I forgot to prepare something for a meeting or completely lost my thought mid-discussion. No one asked where I was when I disappeared for 30 minutes to feed my daughter. They didn't question the late night emails. They gave me space and grace. 

Despite the kindness of my colleagues, I struggled. 

My remote position affords me the luxury of controlling when I interact with people. No one can barge in on me. I rarely have impromptu meetings; if they happen, I can always say I’ll be ready in a few minutes and compose myself. 

 

No one knew how badly I struggled in those first few months and how inadequate I felt. I told no one.  

After a few months, my self-doubt became impossible to deal with. The more I worried, the worse things seemed to get. 

Finally, I decided that the only way I would find relief was to ask for a peer evaluation.

My colleagues had already received peer evaluations while I was on maternity leave. Since our company is small, everyone gets feedback from everyone else. Though I did not relish the vulnerability of asking for other’s opinions, I had to know what they thought. 

If I asked how badly I was doing and where I was failing, I could correct it. 

 

I prepared myself for the worst. But, that’s not what happened. 

I knew that everyone would give a laundry list of complaints of how I was dropping the ball, how I was impossible to work with because I couldn’t be relied on, and how they were picking up all the slack. After all, that's how I felt.

Instead, I was told that I was hitting my marks and that I could be relied on. My colleagues appreciated my contributions and didn’t feel like I was letting them down. I knew at that moment that I had two choices. I could continue with my self-doubting narrative or trust what they said. 

I chose to trust, and I cried when I read their words. (I’ll blame that on post-pregnancy hormones because I am not a crier, but that’s what happened.)

Looking back, I think that cry melted away the stress I had been carrying alone for so many months. It dissolved the weight I had put on myself to be perfect.

My colleagues knew I was stretched thin as a new mom. They gave me the grace to ease into my new life. 

Actions that I took to mean “I’m not reliable anymore” were really them giving me space to find my footing. I would have known that if I had actually communicated with them. 

 

After I received the feedback, I made some changes. 

1. I started being more open about where I was, what I could do, and, more importantly, what I couldn’t do. 

When my colleagues and I devised a plan to tackle a project, I trusted that they conveyed their needs and that the solution worked for both of us. I focused more on efficiency than volume. When I couldn’t get to something, or if I bit off more than I could chew, I communicated that. Almost immediately, I felt relief from the pressure I was putting on myself.

2. I don’t suffer under the weight of trying to do it all anymore. 

I have learned that I don’t need to keep everything to myself. I don’t have to be so guarded all the time. If I communicate with others and allow myself to get vulnerable, we can have meaningful conversations to reach solutions. 

Letting my guard down has allowed me to focus on my work. It's cut out the tremendous distraction that comes with feeling grossly inadequate. It’s allowed me to be present while communicating with others, and it's allowed me to find a piece of myself again and to feel like I am a productive part of the team. 

Most importantly, when I spend time with my daughter, I am not thinking about who I am letting down, what project I am falling behind on, or what needs to be done next. I can be fully present with her.