Dear Businesslady: “Does This Get Easier?”

Advice for the beleaguered and be-babied

Hey, Businesslady.

This is my first full week back to work after 8 weeks off for “maternity leave,” aka short term disability due to birth. I could have taken another 4 weeks, but they would have been unpaid and I’m our family’s only breadwinner.

I feel resentful about the fact that I have to be back in the swing of things when I don’t feel emotionally or physically ready. My body has healed, but I ache all the time from not sleeping enough. I’m anxious about being away from my baby for so many hours during the day.

Little issues that didn’t used to bother me with coworkers are much more annoying now because I’m having to deal with them instead of being home. Also, while I was gone, a number of systems I put in place haven’t been kept up, so I’m not just getting to come back to this month’s work, but what’s piled up since I’ve been gone.

Does this get easier? I feel like I’m one step away from walking out and never coming back, and I genuinely liked my job before I got pregnant, even if it did have frustrations.

Would it be unreasonable to start searching for a new job now? I should mention I was given a 10% raise before I left for maternity leave.

— {Frownyface Emoji}

Dear Frowny,

I am not a parent myself, but I imagine there are a lot of parents nodding along in recognition right now.

And despite my lack of offspring, I understand your predicament more than you might think. I’ve mentioned before that my appendix did its best to kill me a few years ago, and that ordeal kept me out of the office for two full months. Obviously a near-deadly abdominal infection is not at all the same thing as childbirth, but there are certain similarities between that experience and yours: it inaugurated a weird understanding of my own body, it gave me time to get a level of distance from my job that no vacation or run-of-the-mill illness can provide, and it dramatically altered my outlook on life overall.

Before being hospitalized, I’d been reasonably complacent about my professional situation — I knew I didn’t want to stay in the same position forever, but I didn’t feel a particularly urgent need to shake things up. In the long aftermath, my perspective shifted, and I started the job search that led to where I’m at today.

There was also an intermediate period between those two stages, and I was reminded of that time when I read your account above. I was physically weak. I was still reeling from a traumatic experience (in your case, perhaps dramatic, but still). I was hyperaware that there was SO MUCH MORE TO LIFE than working.

I vividly remember sitting in a meeting — a boring meeting, but also an inoffensive and necessary one — when I actually almost snapped. Like you, I was overcome by the urge to get up from the table, walk out into the sunshine, and leave forever. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that it would have been profoundly disturbing for my coworkers — and, you know, unprofessional. Plus, deep down I knew I couldn’t afford to do it, because I’d already lost a bunch of income during my absence despite getting FMLA leave, and I was the primary breadwinner back then too.

So I really do know where you’re coming from.

It’s certainly possible that you weren’t as happy at work as you thought you were, and that your newly established parent status has prompted that realization. Or it could be that you’re sleep deprived, going through a major life adjustment, and trying to rearrange your priorities to accommodate a complex array of new responsibilities. You’re feeling the burden of your professional obligations in a newly vivid way, while at the same time you’re less physically and mentally equipped to handle them. You’re also trying to readjust to a job that’s become more challenging due to your extended absence (even if it wasn’t as extended as you might’ve liked). I don’t think anyone could face that set of circumstances without feeling overwhelmed.

Which is why I’m hesitant to give you a “go find a new gig” pep talk. Not because I think it would be unreasonable — I’m pretty much always in favor of resume updates, info-gathering trawls through job boards, and exploratory interviews — but because I think it’s unlikely to fix any of the problems you’re currently grappling with.

It takes effort to write a good cover letter and tweak your resume to match a given position. If you’re successful, you have to wedge an interview into your schedule, and then attempt to show the hiring manager your best and sharpest self. Unless you get incredibly lucky on the first try, you’ll repeat that cycle at least a few times before an offer materializes (in addition to staying on top of your baby-care and work duties), and then, best case scenario, you’re trying to establish yourself at a brand new job. A job where you’re not “Frowny, who does great work and who just had a baby so let’s cut her some slack,” but “Frowny, the new person, just getting up to speed.”

I question whether all that would be less stressful than where you’re at now.

But I totally get why you’re scrambling around for a big, transformative change. We live in a country where parental leave is a joke and where women are practically punished for trying to have careers and children (the nerve!). If your sleep-deprived self could use a jolt of invigorating rage, I highly recommend this NYT piece by Jill Filipovic. It’s a shitty system, and you’re currently experiencing the shittiest part of it. There’s no shame in feeling resentful. And lord knows even the most banal frustrations are harder to tolerate when you’re operating on subsistence levels of sleep, if that.

Did it get easier for me? It did. Not right away, though. Eventually I transitioned into a role that was more personally fulfilling, but I doubt I would’ve been able to make that leap while I was still feeling so fragile and out-of-sorts. Better to muddle your way through the devil-you-know job and then reassess your professional prospects once you’re back at full power.

In the meantime, think about what small-scale changes can help make your life more livable. “Family’s only breadwinner” suggests that you have a partner (unless you’re throwing shade at your baby for not having a job yet, which seems a bit harsh). I hope they’re already pulling their weight in terms of diaper-wrangling and grocery acquisition and the like — but if not, well, that seems like something worth addressing. Even assuming that they’re shouldering a saintly domestic workload, that doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to ask for small things that will help you feel less stretched-thin. Sure, they’re on primary baby duty all day while you “get to” go to work — and we could debate all day about which job is harder — but ultimately you’re on the same team. That means you both need to do what you can to minimize the other person’s misery. And if you’re both at the absolute limit of your respective abilities, call in favors from anyone in your social circle who’s made even the vaguest offers of care and helpfulness. Most people will be happy for the chance to make your life less harrowing.

That’s true on the work front too. Don’t beat yourself up for being a little rusty or a lot exhausted. Take a sick day if you need to, and consider leaving early or coming in late as necessary. If you take this advice a little too enthusiastically, your manager might give you a pointed reminder about attendance expectations — but until and unless that happens, trust that you’re still within appropriate limits. Your colleagues can muddle along without you — just like they did while you were on maternity leave (while conveniently letting a bunch of stuff slide while they awaited your return, it’s worth remembering). They should have the decency to forgive and forget a few days when you Just Can’t Deal.

Finally, keep in mind that you’re still new to this. As you settle in, you’ll develop a more objective sense of whether your specific job is really the problem, or if you’re just frustrated by the demands placed on working parents. (Or maybe it’s both! Sigh.) The option of finding a new position will always be there, and with a little more recovery time, you’ll be better prepared to seize whatever opportunities come your way.

Congratulations on your little one, and may a restorative nap be in your immediate future.

— Businesslady

Questions? Email me!

Previous columns can be found here and the deep archives are here. Or you can pick up a copy of my book for even more insight and entertainment.

Businesslady is in her early 30s and a successful professional despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. She currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet. She is the author of the “fun-yet-smart” career guide Is This Working?, which you should totally buy.

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