A few weeks ago I penned a blog post about viewing life through the lens of motherhood. In that post, I talked about my relationship with work since having a baby six months ago, and how it has changed. On the topic of returning to work, I said:
"The ins and outs of the emotions I experienced when coming back to work are enough for an entirely different post, but I will just acknowledge here that it was hard, caused me to question myself a lot, and also that I am very happy to be past the transition period."
As I thought about the "entirely different post" I wanted to write about the incredible challenge of returning to work after having a baby, I knew that the perspective I shared could not be singular. All over the world, moms of all different cultures and occupations return to work after having (or adopting, or fostering) their babies. Some receive paid leave, some do not. Some return after a few hours, some after several months or even longer. Some return to supportive work environments with every imaginable amenity to aid their transition, while some pump in bathroom stalls.
The process of returning to work after having a child is just that: a process. It constantly evolves over time, and is unique to every mother that goes through it.
For this article, I chose to ask four very impressive and very different (in personality, family makeup, time back at work, and occupation) women about their experiences returning to the workforce after having their children. Their responses comforted me and normalized my feelings as much as they did surprise and inspire me. I'll do my best to summarize them here, as well as compare their experiences to me own.
Through the Lens of Motherhood: Returning to Work
All four of the women I spoke to have impressive careers: as educational administrators, as entrepreneurs, as medical professionals, as creative directors. All are highly educated and highly motivated.
While these women share plenty of admirable attributes and have all earned the respect of their colleagues and organizations, they were each awarded very different amounts of leave when they had their children. The United States does not federally mandate any paid parental leave, and the variety these women experienced– from two weeks to fourteen– reflects that lack of regulation. Several of them added time on to their leaves using their vacation, transitioned back part time, or simply went unpaid.
I was fortunate to have an incredibly supportive co-founder and amazing team that encouraged me to take three months of leave after having Louise. I don't think any amount of time would have felt like enough, though.
I experienced a very clear "uh-oh" moment when I realized that my maternity leave was coming to a rapid close. I had been lucky enough to have had multiple friends come to visit Louise, Reid, and I from out of town over the course of my leave. When the last set of visitors headed back to the airport, my heart sank into my stomach as the dread set in and the clock seemed to move at hyper speed.
When asked what made them nervous or anxious in the weeks leading up to returning to work, one of the women replied, "Everything made me nervous and anxious!" Reading that response, I laughed out loud. Nothing could have rang truer for my experience. Some of us worried that our babies would starve without us there to breastfeed them. Others worried that they would miss key milestones in their babies' development. Others worried that without constant snuggles with their mama that the baby would prefer their new caregiver.
Regardless of what the fear was, it was there, and it was powerful. The tears, the dread, and even the underlying excitement for adult interaction (and the guilt that comes along with that excitement) made the last few weeks of maternity leave extremely emotional for all of the women I spoke with. And we thought the hormonal mood swings were almost over!
The First Day
The first day back was overwhelming, for myself and for the moms I spoke to. The sharp juxtaposition between overwhelming longing for our babies combined with excitement and pride to be reentering the workforce stung sharply, especially on that first day back. Although most of the moms that I spoke to came back to supportive work environments, there were several uncomfortable interactions and policies that had to be overcome.
One mom was informed that the only designated space to pump was in a room 20 minutes away from her office. As she spoke to her colleagues, she watched as they did the math in their heads: "pump 3x/day, 20 minute walk, 20+ minutes to pump..." and felt their doubts about her ability to be productive. These types of conversations can be extremely shaming to working mothers of infants, who are the only employees that have to manage this barrier. For this mom, the shaming felt intentional.
The New Normal...
All of the anxieties that culminated over the few weeks before returning to work and all of the emotions we experienced as we came back ended in possibly the most anticlimactic way ever: establishing a new, normal work and home life routine. Whether the moms I spoke to had been back at work for one month or a few years, all said that their initial fears about things like bottle feeding subsided as they and their babies adjusted to life with a working mom.
...Comes with New Questions
Although all of us adjusted, we still struggle with questions and anxieties as a part of our "new normal." We all struggle with missing our children all day, and even if we love working or want it to be a core part of our identities, we still "should" all over ourselves, saying things like, "I should be the one teaching them that, I should be there to see that." These "shoulds" are stronger in some moments than others, and are almost wholly dependent on what our children are going through at the moment. Baby not sleeping well at daycare (or at night)? We should be the one to enforce their nap schedule. Toddler begging us to stay home with them and not go to work? We should be spending more of our time focusing on just them.
The research shows us that even in heterosexual couples where both the mother and father work full time, women are spending almost double the amount of time as their partners on childcare and housework. We bear the burden of the emotional labor that goes into running a household and raising a healthy family. This reality causes us to question our careers more than our spouses, and causes us to question ourselves: Can we do it all? Do we have to?
The Secret Sauce
I asked the women I spoke to about this piece to share tips, tricks, and advice for other mothers or future mothers about entering the workforce after having a child. The two themes that emerged from their answers are the purest, truest advice that can be applied to any personal struggle one might be going through, children or no children. I cannot recommend it enough:
- Form a network of support: Support is the key to getting through a bad day, a bad week, a bad year. Having a partner that supports you as a mother, professional, and roommate (it may not sound romantic, but it is true!) is a key piece of managing the stress of being a working new parent. Also, having friends that are going through similar stages of life can be a true saving grace: for our careers, for our children, and for our marriages. I could not put it better than a fellow mom and great friend that kindly answered my questions for this post: "Having other friends who are going through this season of life has been invaluable. Being able to send a quick text - asking a question, sharing joy, or expressing frustrations - provides support and allows me to feel like I can handle this whole mom thing." Most of the time our dreams of frequent coffee dates and swinging side by side with our babies at the park are just that– dreams (that are frequently interrupted by fevers and opposite sleep schedules)– but the simple, reassuring texts are all it really takes to feel 100% better.
- Find the humor in the struggle. If you don't laugh, you'll cry: Never has this been truer for me than during this stage of my life. Again, I could not put it better than this fellow mom and fellow entrepreneur that I greatly admire: "Find humor, practice humor (with only MILD self-deprecation). Never use humor to downplay what you do, but when you leak through your blouse in the middle of a presentation, just casually mention how someone is losing their lunch. I think we are counting on each other to help normalize motherhood in the workplace, and humor is a perfect medium."
The world of working motherhood is full of contradictions, and navigating them is extremely tricky. It is up to us as women to not only feel them, but to talk about them. As one of these moms beautifully put it, "Find comfort in the paradoxical world of motherhood. There is a pandemic of contradictions out there for working moms. You will feel them, but when you name them you can begin to externalize them. This has helped me study the system and then navigate it better. And make me feel a little less bat shit crazy."
If you find that the women in your organization could use help navigating the system and the paradoxical world of motherhood, we can help.