27 September 2023

Returning to the office: Managing maternal separation anxiety

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Kellie Scott* discusses her experience with maternal separation anxiety following maternity leave.

Towards the end of my maternity leave I was overwhelmed by the thought of returning to work.

For 12 months I’d happily spent almost every minute with my son Lane.

Leaving him with anyone other than my partner made me feel physically ill.

I’d done some trial runs with family members, and introduced him to day care ahead of time hoping that would make things easier.

But intrusive thoughts about his wellbeing dominated our time apart.

My chest would feel tight with worry.

There were even times he was right there in my arms, but I would cry, not being able to process the feeling that it was unnatural for us to be separated.

After all, I knew other mums who were relishing in child-free time.

And they deserved to — parenting is relentless.

But why didn’t I feel the same way?

Even though I knew my worry about returning to work had nothing to do with the work itself — I was excited to start writing again — I didn’t want to pay the price of being apart from my baby.

Maternal separation anxiety explained

I’ve always been a bit of a worry wart (at least that’s how a teacher in primary school once described me), but this was a level of anxiousness I hadn’t experienced before.

During one of those 1am breastfeeding Google rabbit holes, I came across the term “maternal separation anxiety”.

It’s defined as the worry and concern a mother feels about leaving her child for short-term separations.

I thought it was only the babies that struggled being apart from their caregivers.

Maternal separation anxiety is a normal and healthy developmental process that wires mums to care and protect for their baby, says Carla Anderson, a clinical perinatal psychologist.

But mums can struggle when it goes into “overdrive”.

“Anxiety keeps us safe, but it becomes a problem if it takes over our daily lives,” Ms Anderson says.

“It can lead to more clinical levels of anxiety.”

Parents in Ms Anderson’s clinic share worries ranging from not trusting other people to keep their baby safe, to simply missing being away from them.

Understanding your ‘why’

Gabrielle Gleeson is a career coach and counsellor who specialises in working with parents.

She’s also a mum of five.

The mums she works with can have conflicting emotions about going back to their job.

“[They might feel] excitement to be back in the ‘adult world’ contributing and focusing on stimulating work and earning money again, while simultaneously feeling a longing to be with their child, or concern for their child’s wellbeing,” Ms Gleeson says.

In the context of returning to work, Ms Gleeson says knowing your “why” helps with the transition.

“The clearer you feel about what you are doing, the less anxious you might feel about it,” she says.

“For example: ‘I’m going back to work because I want to earn X amount of money, which will enable me to feel less stressed about my debts. And if I’m less stressed about my debts, I will be able to better focus on my children or do nice activities’.

That might be your ‘why’.”

Transparent communication with the people caring for your child is important, says Ms Anderson.

“If you are having someone else care for your baby, make sure you tell them ‘I am feeling anxious about this’, so they understand it’s activating some anxiety.”

Asking for support will also be helpful during this time.

That might be negotiating flexible working arrangements with an employer, or talking to a partner about how they can step up.

Ms Gleeson says those conversations can sometimes be difficult, but worthwhile.

And those chats should be welcomed by partners, employers and other supporters.

“We need to normalise this anxiety and validate what mums are feeling,” Ms Anderson says.

“Someone asking how mum is feeling about being away from baby might open the door for that conversation.”

Being kind to myself and focusing on my baby’s strengths

Lane’s educators have been incredibly supportive — working with me to make sure my son and I felt comfortable during this transition.

We’re in a better place now, but if I had my time again, I would be more explicit about the anxiety I was feeling (although it seems they sensed it).

Going easy on myself has helped me through some hard moments.

I remind myself a lot of the worry may be pointless, but it’s part of what makes me a good mum.

Ms Anderson says mindfulness strategies are a great tool.

Also focusing on your baby’s capabilities rather than vulnerabilities can be effective.

“When you’re feeling anxious it’s because we are focusing on the ways in which the baby is vulnerable,” she says.

“Sometimes it can be helpful to think about ‘what are my baby’s strengths that will mean they will be OK without me for the short-term?’

“Also know it can be helpful for a child’s development having some short-term separation.”

I’m still working on being clear about what I need from everyone in our village, and initiating those difficult conversations about what I’m struggling with.

What other mums reading this might find reassuring though is that the more you do that, the easier it becomes.

*Kellie Scott is a digital journalist based at the ABC Brisbane office.

This article first appeared at abc.net.au.

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