By Morgan Michalowski, CNM, WHNP-BC, IBCLC
I gave some thought to my postpartum life, but most of it was to consider how I’d handle breastfeeding and breast pumping schedules, sleep schedules, and other immediate logistical concerns.
In retrospect, I wish someone would have talked to me about the challenges of maternity leave and urged me to start planning for my 4th and 5th trimesters early in my pregnancy.
I wish someone had told me that the average maternity leave is not long enough to get your footing as a new parent.
Up until this point—even after 10 years of working with pregnant and postpartum women—the only thing I’d heard on a regular basis was, “It’s hard, but you just have to push through it.”
I know now there is more going on. For so long, women have been told to not let family get in the way of work.
Don’t let anyone see you stumble.
Keep pumping private.
Don’t talk about your family.
The pressure to keep it all together is not helpful when you’re slogging through your 5th trimester and unsure when to persevere and when to ask for help!
You might feel like a walking mom meme. I know I did.
All of that stress and uncertainty inspired this series of posts. I realized that women needed more resources describing what they could expect in the months after they’d given birth, and more input on how normal it is to struggle with returning to work.
So whether you’re already in your 5th trimester or newly pregnant, this series is for YOU! It’s your guide to your body, baby, and world in those first months of motherhood. In this post, we’ll dive deep into your 4th month postpartum, and talk about how to cope and be kind to yourself as you make your way through this new phase of life.
Your 5th trimester: month 4 postpartum, A.K.A. “The Mental Swirl”
Here are top tips for going back to work after baby:
If you’ve been out of the office on maternity leave, this may be your first month back to work.
The rumors are true: this transition will be ROUGH. But you’ve got strength and smarts galore, and the Gravida team is here to get you prepped for all the challenges this 4-week stretch can throw at you!
If this is your first month back to work, you might feel like a total mess. That’s not your fault. Your brain isn’t truly ready to separate from your baby until at least 6 months postpartum (even if you desperately want and need a mental break from caretaking). This is true for you, your partner, or anyone engaged in intensive caretaking.
If you go back to work before 6 months, you might experience separation anxiety, sadness, or even depression. Here’s why:
Your amygdala is on high alert! Since having your baby, your brain has been vigilantly on-guard, totally focused on keeping your baby safe and alive! Downside: It can be hard to tap into the rational side of your brain, which makes normal experiences like leaving your baby feel unexpectedly scary and overwhelming.
Do you have questions for our Founder, Morgan Michalowski? Please click here to reach out.
Your oxytocin levels are surging, which helps with bonding you to your baby and motivating you to take care of them even when they’re crying non-stop. Downside: It promotes in-group versus out-group thinking, making it hard to trust others with your baby.
If you’re sleep deprived, experiencing sore joints, and battling hair loss, you’re not alone. The thought of going back to work when your body feels so fantastically out-of-whack may be absolutely mortifying.
The loss of fluid you experience after childbirth removes an extra buffer around your ligaments and joints, and the hormone relaxin makes those joints less stable. It can take up to five months for joints to return to their earlier stability levels, so you’re almost there! Since you don’t shed hair during pregnancy, plan to make up for lost time by shedding hair for at least 6 months postpartum. Here’s what you can do while you wait for your body to recalibrate:
Think about your long-term sleep strategy. It’s likely your baby won’t sleep through the night until 9 months of age.
How will you and your partner share overnight duties? How can you get a bit of rest during the day?
Moment of inspo: Arianna Huffington implemented nap rooms at the HuffPost offices. That’s how much she believes her employees should be well-rested. If you’re dragging at work, don’t push through. Instead, talk to your boss about your immediate needs. They don’t last forever, but making small changes along the way can benefit your health and make you more productive at work.
Stick to low-impact exercise while your joints stabilize to prevent long-term injuries. Swimming, biking, and gentle yoga are perfect.
To minimize hair loss, keep taking your prenatal vitamin and eat replenishing foods. There’s some evidence that a Cinnamon scalp rub can jump-start circulation and stimulate growth, if you want to give that a try, too.
Your home and work:
You may find that your schedule and surroundings are structurally set up for your old life, and may need to dedicate some time (and admittedly work) to adjust everything to fit your new life. Again, this is not your fault, and you just need to ask for flexibility at home and work. This may mean scheduling some awkward conversations with your team, HR rep, and partner to architect your world to keep up with everything that’s changed.
Things to think about at home and work:
Look for childcare early in your postpartum period, ideally during your paid maternity leave or even sooner! It’s never too early to find the right infant caregiver. The more time you spend getting to know them, the more confident you’ll feel leaving your child in their care.
With limited time and energy, it’s important to talk with your partner or support people about which chores you enjoy doing so you can delegate the rest.
Talk with your partner about dividing tasks, well-child visits, and other care-taking activities that would benefit from an open and honest conversation. If your partner is male, remember that postpartum depression in men may crop up, too, so make space for everyone’s feelings to be discussed and respected.
Freeze a handful of meals for those first weeks back before going back to work. The last thing you need to think about during this big transition is what to eat!
If possible, ask your employer to start slow. Can you work part-time for the first 2 weeks after your paid parental leave is over? Does your employer offer a ramp-up program? You need time to adjust and work out the kinks to your new schedule, so see what’s possible in your workplace.
Make sure to schedule pumping time into your calendar.
Check in with HR or management on where you can pump and store your breast milk. You might need to reserve a pumping room for your first few months back.
Breast Milk Storage Guidelines
Subscribe to download the free guide from Gravida Mom: Breast Milk Storage Guidelines
Research shows that 700 neural connections form every second during your baby’s first 1,000 days! Amazing, right? This means your baby is busy learning and growing. By 3 months, infants can sense and be affected by your mood. At this age your baby can feel happiness, fear, or loneliness, which can mean forging amazing emotional connections but also a lot of pressure on mamma! One thing you can do is talk to your baby about feelings and desires related to their behavior. This develops your baby’s mental awareness—or theory of mind—by connecting their emotions to a set of actions. An example of this is, “Oh, you’re crying! You look unhappy. Do you want a bottle? Or do you need a diaper change? Let’s figure it out!”
Here’s why this is important in the 5th trimester: if you’re going back to work and feeling sad or relieved, your baby can sense that. Don’t be afraid about your baby reading your emotions; instead, talk to your baby about how you’re feeling. Putting language to your experience is good for both of you. You might even find it creates a sweet bond or ritual that lasts for years to come.
Do you have questions for our Founder, Morgan Michalowski? Please click here to reach out.
What you can do:
If you’re pregnant:
Talk to a handful of working moms about their transitions back to work. Don’t know any? Check out Peanut app, Chicagoland Working Moms Facebook Group, or email us at Gravida! We’d love to connect you with other parents.
Start the conversation with your partner now on how to divide-and-conquer at home.
If you plan on breastfeeding and pumping, make sure to start pumping around 4-6 weeks postpartum to build a milk stash for your return to work.
Offer a bottle around week 3-4, and continue to offer at least once a week to prevent bottle refusal.
If you need to figure out how much to pump, check out our pumping calculator here.
If you’re postpartum:
If you’re having a hard time, we get it. And we’re here for you. Reach out to us here if you have questions.
Don’t be afraid of your maternal (or parental) instinct! Taking care of a baby changes your brain, and it’s gonna be good. I promise. There are so many inspiring stories from new parents describing how their baby changed the way they work (we’ll share these stories soon!)
The biggest hurdle in month 4?
Trying to figure out if the desire to quit a job you love for a baby you adore is just temporary, or something to consider seriously. Almost every new mom finds herself here, so take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. But finding what’s right for you? That takes time. And probably some hard conversations with a partner, support people, and care team to help you figure out your next steps. If you want something for yourself, something that’s just yours, and work is that thing, don’t feel guilty about loving and choosing it. If you realize that missing out on moments with your baby is too hard to stomach, it’s OK to ask for time or even take a big step back.
How to Survive the 4th Trimester Without Losing Your Mind: Month 1, Month 2, Month 3
The Best Way to Navigate Your 5th Trimester: Month 4, Month 5, Month 6