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After a long, strange maternity leave, moms like me are heading back to work

In the blink of a pandemic, our babies have become toddlers. Now it's time to navigate the workplace for the first time as parents.
Moms whose maternity leaves slide into the pandemic are emerging from a 2-year-long isolation, in some cases, and returning to the workplace.
Moms whose maternity leaves slide into the pandemic are emerging from a 2-year-long isolation, in some cases, and returning to the workplace. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

The week of Thanksgiving in 2019, I left my workplace in New York City excited for the long weekend. I was nine months pregnant and exhausted. Hours after Thanksgiving dinner, while trying to sleep off the stuffing and pie, my water broke — two weeks early.

I haven't been back to the office since.

My maternity leave ran right into the pandemic and instead of going back to work in person, I began to work from home. And, well, I'm still here.

Across the country, millions of Americans have started to return to their offices for the first time in nearly a year and a half. It's weird for everyone; especially so for new moms.

Those returning to work are the lucky ones: Essential workers never had the option of working from home, and many women were victims of layoffs during the pandemic.

But for many moms who had pre-pandemic babies and took a maternity leave, it's been a very long time since they've endured the slog of commuting or experienced the joy of seeing their favorite coworkers. Or put on real pants.

"I went straight from wearing maternity clothes into wearing postpartum sweatpants into pandemic sweatpants, and I don't know that I own clothes anymore that are work-appropriate," said Nikki Dunagan, a writer in Atlanta whose maternity leave ended just before the pandemic began. "The last time I wore business clothes was very early in my pregnancy, so I highly doubt those fit anymore. I don't even know where they are, to be honest."

The isolation of new motherhood, multiplied

She's not alone. There’s an entire cohort of new moms who worked at places that shut down during the pandemic and who have, at this point, been home for almost two years. It may feel even longer. (Dads, too, although let's be honest: Parental leave, at least in the U.S., is most available to mothers, when it's available at all.)

Jovanna Billington, a colleague who works as a senior producer for NBC News, had planned to return to work after her maternity leave ended in April 2020. While Billington loved the time she had at home with her baby, she also suffered from postpartum depression while on leave. She was eager to go back to the office and interact with adults again.

"I was really excited," she said. "I was missing that piece of who I was. I felt isolated at home. Which is funny, because then I ended up feeling really isolated. Next thing I know, my entire team went home. The office was completely empty."

Lindsay Admon, an obstetrician in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was two months into her maternity leave when the pandemic began — right around the time, she said, when she was ready to break out of the newborn cocoon and start getting out of the house with her daughter.

"It was isolating," she said. "As my maternity leave was supposed to be winding down, that's when COVID was ramping up. So I was stuck in the house longer than planned. It was lonely, going from a very busy lifestyle to being in the house with my daughter all day."

Maternity leave can already be an isolating experience. Add a pandemic, and some moms found that the loneliness factor multiplied.

Wavering between eagerness and dread

Other moms saw the additional time at home as a blessing, almost like an extended maternity leave — at least in the beginning. I personally welcomed the news that I wouldn't be going back to the office right away when my leave ended. The transition back to work after having a baby can be harsh. You go from being with your child 24/7 to spending the entire day without them. I thought working from home for a few weeks (little did I know) while I eased myself back into the corporate life would make that transition less cruel. And, for a little while, it did. I never had to lug a breast pump into a conference room, and for that, I am grateful.

But now we've been home for so long that our babies have turned into full-blown toddlers. When my team returns to the office later this fall, it will have been nearly two years since I was last there.

As moms prepare to return to the office, some find that their emotions are swinging between eagerness and dread. We'll have to figure out how to navigate the workplace as parents for the first time — how to work around child care schedules, how to pack kid-friendly lunches, how to handle the separation anxiety that is sure to come.

Moms have already had to pivot so many times during the pandemic — this is yet another shift we’ll have to make.

“I was so excited to go back to the office and then I got so used to working from home, and I got nervous and scared to leave my son,” Billington said. “I was like, I don’t know how to go back to work now. How do you fit it all in? How do you get home in time to cook them dinner? All these new anxieties started to pop up.”

Billington hasn't returned to the office yet, but she has begun doing field work and shoots that take her out of the apartment. “It’s been good,” she said. “It’s still a balance, and I still haven’t figured it out.”