I recently discovered the term (and accompanying book) “fifth trimester” to describe the transition of returning to work after having a baby. While the fourth trimester, or “lying in” period, is the time you’re able to bond with the baby and focus on healing yourself, the fifth trimester is all about returning to relative normalcy. Every trimester brings with it its own challenges, but the fifth is arguably the most challenging. The physical exhaustion that a newborn brings along with the return to a faster pace can take a huge toll. However, this is nothing compared to the emotional challenges of leaving one’s baby behind, oftentimes with a stranger. I just returned from maternity leave, myself, this past week. While it’s my third child, it doesn’t get any easier. One of the only things that helps ease the pain - as with many of the challenges of each of having kids - is the realization that it is a phase and it will get easier. I’ve also recognized that my saving grace this time around, especially when we have to juggle it with the normal day-to-day stresses of having older kids - making meals, school drop-offs, sitter drop-offs, groceries and errands, household chores, etc etc etc - is self care.
Self care sounds like a cliche catch phrase (and, to an extent, it is) these days, but a couple of articles gave me a new view on it. The article I prefer most is this one, which talks about the fact that “self care” is just as much about doing things that are good for us, whether they’re enjoyable or not. (It’s kind of like eating broccoli...with the occasional ice cream treat for dessert.) Combine this with the gentle views of this article, which are about self-advocating, giving yourself the time you need and deserve, and taking care of yourself as much as you do your family, and you get to the heart and the good of self care. So, here are some self care tips that have helped my mindset when returning to work that will hopefully help you if you’re entering your “fifth trimester”, as well: Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. When it comes to my actual workload, I’m easing back into it by prioritizing the “needs” versus the “can be done later” tasks. At home, dishes come before laundry, a clean table comes before vacuuming, and family time comes before social media time. Important doctor appointments get scheduled, less important appointments that can wait are pushed to the back burner. It’s helpful to boil things down to their essence and let the rest rise as steam. Pick and choose your favorites. Guilty pleasures are no longer guilty, but there’s not time for all the “that fills my cup” activities I’d like to do. So, while I may not have time to get to a yoga class, I can try to fit one in at home here and there using YouTube. I have a list of podcasts I’d like to listen to or YouTubers I’d like to watch, but I pick my favorites to pack more of an enjoyable punch. There are only so many hours in the day, so make the time count by picking your absolute FAVORITE self care activity to best rejuvenate YOUR spirit (not the hip ones just because others seem to cherish them). Be your own advocate. In most (if not all) states, there are rules and laws in place to help us in our journey back into the workplace - namely, regarding expressing breastmilk. If you hit a wall with your work, be politely firm that this is a necessity. Luckily, I didn’t come up against any issues, but I have in the past and I know that the views of fellow workers or bosses (whether female or male) are a bit...antiquated. So, read up on your state’s laws and inform your workplace administrator, as well. Schedule and make the most of your time. Much as picking only your favorite self care activities helps use your time wisely, creating a daily schedule and making the most of your time helps alleviate the mental stress of the constant fluttering in your brain. I’m getting up earlier (ugh) and using every minute until I finally sit down and nurse the baby one more time before bed. My time after bringing my son home from school is taken up with getting his homework done, checking his folder, getting his snack, water bottle, and some of the kids’ lunches set up for the next day, making dinner, showering, and setting out the next day’s outfit. In the morning (when, let’s admit it, we’re often still in too sleepy a fog to actually make decisions), it’s much easier to ASSEMBLE lunches than it is to start from scratch or decide what I’m going to make or wear that day. This may be a pain, but it’s SO helpful to my state of mind. Allow yourself downtime. It’s hard for people who don’t have kids (or who are from a different generation) to understand this. My husband returned from his two-week “paternity leave” and had messages that said, “Hope you had a nice vacation!” and “Hope you’re feeling well-rested!” Seriously. So, when you tell friends you need some downtime or opt out of a family event to have some quiet(-ish) time at home, people may scoff that you’ve HAD “all this time off.” Don’t fall victim. For all the mental and physical stress you deal with during work days, you need the solitude and peace of your own time to decompress. Consider this your permission slip! Find the joy during the day. This is another taboo topic, especially since it’s hard to admit that there’s ANY joy when you’re missing your baby, but our emotions don’t live in a vacuum; we’re allowed to be melancholy with a twinge of fun or happiness now and then. For example, simply being able to get into the car without the added heft of a carseat, anxiety of a fussy baby, and worry that goes along with bringing another human being along with you can be so freeing. So, while I may miss the heck out of that little squish, that one action of leaving the house is SO MUCH EASIER and I take a moment to appreciate both things: the love and yearning I feel for my baby but the caretaker who allows me that moment of independence. It’s okay to have a tear in your eye when you leave but to recognize the exhilaration of freedom. It’s. Okay.
If you’re heading back to work, I shared some additional tips my last time around that might be helpful. Be sure to chime in down below as to how you handle leaving your little one or vent about any fears you may have. We're all here to listen and hold each other up, in good times and in bad!