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The 10 Hardest Things About Maternity Leave (and How to Deal)

You thought childbirth was going to be tough? Wait until you navigate those weeks as a going-back-to-work mom.

1. Watching the clock.
Standard maternity leave lasts just 12 weeks (if you're lucky) -- and you’ll constantly focus on how that seems like a teeny sliver of time. But that just makes things worse. Instead of obsessing about how few days of freedom you actually have, focus on living in the moment, says Heather Wittenberg, PsyD, a family psychologist and founder of BabyShrink.com. “Yes, it’s going to hurt like hell to drop your baby off that first day, week or even year,” she says. “But it’s part of the cliff dive that is becoming a parent, and you will get through it.” Wittenberg (aka Dr. Heather) adds that many moms who ask their employers for flextime or job-sharing alternatives are far happier with their work/parenting balance -- and are far more likely to get it than those who don’t ask. So you might start strategizing a new work situation while you're savoring extra cuddle time with baby.

2. Trying to cram too much in.
Lots of moms have great, grand plans for maternity leave -- scrapbooking, reorganizing the closets and perfecting your peach pie recipe might be on your list. After all, when was the last time you had a vacation this long? Except there’s a slight chance you forgot about a few minor details, including postpartum pain, the baby blues (aka, the hormonal roller-coaster ride of becoming a mom), exhaustion and the tiny, helpless baby you’re now tasked with caring for around the clock. “This is what I call the transition from fantasy parenting to reality parenting,” says Wittenberg. “With a newborn, sometimes night turns into day without us even noticing it. Right now is the time for you to get to know and enjoy your baby. Everything else can wait.” Don't stress yourself out with that other stuff. Do your best to try to let it go.

3. Worrying about what's going on at work (or the fact that you're not).
Like it or not, our jobs often define us -- or at the very least, get inside our heads. Are you being missed? Have you been replaced? Is everything going to be in shambles when you return? But know that soon you’ll likely be able to put it into perspective much better. “Your brain actually undergoes a physical transformation when you become a mom,” says Wittenberg. “Your abilities to organize and prioritize are getting even stronger.” What feels overwhelming right now -- how on earth will you balance the demands of work and baby? -- will in time become second nature, she says: “Moms learn how to work smarter, not harder.” So realize that your anxiety is normal for now, but have faith in yourself -- you'll figure it all out.

4. Getting anxious about missing milestones.
Many moms hold their breath, waiting for that first smile, rollover, giggle, clap or even flicker of recognition. But it doesn’t happen right away -- and realizing that you may miss many of these milestones when you go back to work can be heartbreaking. “This is another way we beat ourselves up as parents,” says Wittenberg. “A lot of ‘firsts’ are mostly overblown Hallmark moments. You have to remember that it may be the first smile or wave, but it absolutely won’t be her last.”

5. Trying to squeeze into your old work wardrobe.
Okay, so you’re lounging around in sweat pants and nursing tops now, but you’re going to have to squeeze into something remotely professional in a matter of weeks, and your maternity gear isn't going to cut it. And don't kid yourself about fitting into your pre-pregnancy pencil skirts and skinny trousers. You're going to have to suck it up and purchase some work clothing that fits you right now -- no matter how temporary a state your body's in. Believe us, it will cost you some dough, but it will make you feel so much better. “Feeling comfortable in your skin has a huge impact on your overall health and well-being, which directly affects your baby,” says Wittenberg. “Go to Target and buy a cute skirt or get lunch with friends. You have to take care of yourself, too.”

6. Envying your partner.
He gets up in the morning, showers, dresses and leaves...just like that! He may be the most involved, supportive dad in the world, but he’s not tethered to a living being 24/7, his nipples belong to him alone, and he can go and do whatever he wants whenever he wants. You, on the other hand, have a hard time handing over your baby long enough for a quick shower. “We’re hardwired to protect and obsess about our babies in a way our partners aren’t,” says Wittenberg. “That’s why he can merrily leave you both behind and trot off to the office without a care in the world.” Just remind yourself that, while you may occasionally envy the freedom he seems to take totally for granted, you also probably wouldn’t change places with him for anything in the world.

7. Feeling isolated.
Here’s a dirty little secret: Babies can be, well, boring. And even if yours keeps you hustling all day long, you’ll be saner if you get adult conversation and a change of scenery from time to time. “Surround yourself with other moms whom you can join forces with,” encourages Kimberley Clayton Blaine, MA, MFT, author of What Smart Mothers Know and executive producer of TheGoToMom.tv. “There’s nothing more fruitful or empowering than two women sharing their experiences.” So head out for a power walk or coffee with a pal whenever the opportunity arises. Don’t have someone to call? Join a local mom support group or playgroup.

8. Agonizing about child care.
You created this perfect, stunning being -- and now you’re going to have to hand it over to some stranger and trust that this person will love and protect it as you do. After you do your vigilant due diligence -- getting recommendations, visiting child care centers, doing nanny background checks -- the only choice is to trust and let go. “Establish a good relationship with your caregiver, but keep a list of backup options too,” says Wittenberg. “After all, circumstances can change, and caregivers can get sick or move or change professions. Having a backup plan makes it much less stressful to return to work.”

9. Not being able to say where the time goes.
Feed, sleep, repeat -- that's your new reality. New-mommy days tend to pass in an identical blur, and at the end of the day, when your husband asks, “What did you do today?” sometimes it’s a hard question to answer. “Everything is so new, and that time-warp feeling is very real and part of the adjustment process,” says Wittenberg. Forget trying to explain yourself to people -- you’re bonding with your baby, which is a full-time job and then some -- and just try to enjoy the moments (you know, those nice ones, in between the screaming).

10. Embracing the chaos.
At work, you know what’s expected of you, and you’re probably pretty great at those tasks or you wouldn’t be employed in the first place. Being a mom isn’t so clear-cut -- there's no job description, to-do list or performance evaluation -- and there’s definitely no clocking out at 5 p.m. “It’s hard to thrive when you’re simply trying to survive,” says Wittenberg. “Know that it’s perfectly fine and normal if you haven’t showered and your bed’s not made and you’re ordering pizza for dinner again. Having a baby throws a major wrench into things, and there’s no way to be prepared for it. The good news is that things that take you forever today -- like those 20 minutes just getting your baby into her car seat -- will soon become second nature. Normal will come later. Right now, it’s okay to just stumble through the best you can.”

Plus, more from The Bump:

Going Back to Work After Baby

What It's Really Like to Be a Working Mom

Maternity Leave Around the World

-- Jenna McCarthy

See More: Mommy Life , Newborn Basics , Post-birth Recovery