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Reentry After the Parenting Sabbatical

A Black woman with her daughter at an intersection.

Ah, parenthood. That time when you took a leap of faith and surrendered your professional self in the service of becoming someone's mom or dad.

That is what you did, right? Gave up your entire sense of self and walked away from your career, which was, at the time, your whole life. It may sound dramatic, but it has been suggested that people out of work quickly become strangers to themselves. And once you leave the old you behind, it can feel as though you can’t go back.

If you're nodding your head, please keep reading. It's time to start believing that reintegration of your perceived, separate selves, is possible.

Parenting is not a "break"

Having worked as a full-time oncology social worker in a major medical center before my parenting sabbatical, I had already established my sense of identity, my sense of self, and my purpose—or so I thought. Yet during my sabbatical, slowly but surely, my name had changed. People no longer called me Jennifer. I wasn’t even Jenn; I became "Jaden's mom."

In the beginning, I was okay with this—I actually really liked it. My role as Jaden's mom felt as vital and important as the work I used to do at the hospital. There was a sense of productive satisfaction in the daily ticking of boxes which signaled his survival. Wake up. Change diaper. Feed. Nap. Wake up. Change diaper. Feed. Walk and Nap. Play. Feed. Bathe. Bottle. Bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Then came the day when I started missing my morning coffee routine, reminiscing about holding the mug in one hand while studying my patient census for the day, and reading about the newly diagnosed or those being transitioned to hospice. That role was vital and important, too. I missed making medical rounds, and I missed the nursing station where I would spend time with other team members chatting about life.

I began to worry that becoming an expert in burping had diminished my professional skill set. The work I had done with patients and families around literal matters of life and death was no longer part of my daily narrative. What had I become? What did it say about who I would be? Was I still capable of facilitating a family meeting? How could I get back out there?

I had internalized my parenting sabbatical as "time off." My confidence lagged. My sense of professional agency had been compromised.

And then came the cognitive reframe.

You are not your work

Maybe I hadn’t run a support group in a while, but that didn’t mean I had forgotten how to do it. I was still a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Sure, I was feeling out of practice, but, by making slight tweaks to the thought patterns interfering with my confidence, I was able to reframe my situation. I reminded myself of all that I had done to earn that degree. I went to school and studied (hard!). I wrote really long papers and spent hours participating in practice demonstrations. I successfully interned at agencies who then hired me.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 55% of the workforce derives a sense of identity from their job. If you are one of those 55%, then it's likely a prolonged professional absence can leave you feeling as if you're out in the cold when it comes to your professional community. Your former colleagues haven't been changing diapers, warming bottles, playing peek-a-boo, or walking around with spittle on their shoulders. They've been really working. All you've been doing, 24/7 (ahem, full-time), is shaping a tiny human being. Anyone can do that, right?


The parenting sabbatical is an opportunity for growth

As a parent, you've unwittingly taken life courses in the areas of child development, self-reflection, morality, and patience. You've embarked on a journey that, some might argue, is the most socially responsible one out there.

And, you are the person you were when you left, only with a serious new skill set. Not only can you still write a grant and manage five researchers, someone else literally depends on you for their daily existence.

Don’t forget, there are also ways to stay connected while you’re working the kid gig. Keep in touch with your colleagues and contacts. Stay informed through professional publication subscriptions. Maintain memberships in professional organizations. Receive job alerts to see what’s happening in your industry so that you’re still plugged in.

I am not the first parent to have fallen into the abyss of professional insecurity, nor are you. In my psychotherapy practice, it is a common topic of discussion. Am I still relevant when I am not Emily's mom? Am I still good enough to keep up with my team? It has been so long since I have been a professional, what if I can't perform anymore?

If you take one piece of information away from this article, let it be this: A parenting sabbatical is planned time away. It is not a break.

My parenting sabbatical enhanced my personhood and I am happy to report that I returned to my professional life as Jennifer, Jaden's mom.

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About the Author | Jennifer Abcug, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in New York City, where she specializes in women’s life transitions. Prior to this, she counseled patients and families at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Convinced the earth moved after reading Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” the question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” has become a focal point of Jennifer’s practice.

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