Hello, Mamma. So you are heading back to work, eh? Your maternity leave is fast coming to an end and here we go? Or maybe you are six months pregnant and trying to plan out a maternity leave that will be an ideal balance: something that will give you the most time possible with baby AND keep things humming at work – you don’t want them to think they can get along without you, right?
In this essay, for what it’s worth, I’ll share my own experiences and give you a couple insights on how you may want to prepare for this, and then how to handle it when the time to go back comes. Your life will be different from mine, but maybe you’ll get some ideas hearing about my journey.
Darling, if you are like me, this is going to be hard. Now, don’t panic. You are going to be all right and your baby will be fine too, but going back to work after your entire world is changed is going to be hard. While we’re at it, parenting is hard. Nothing good comes easy, and this is going to be the best thing that has ever happened to you.
Before I say another word, you should know that I have done this back-to-work thing three times. Three babies, three maternity leaves, three back-to-works. And, because I am about to tell you just how tough it is, you need to know before we start, that not only did my kids and I survive, we thrived. They are three of the most wonderful and accomplished teenagers you would ever want to meet. They still love me and hug me and talk to me. My eldest is a National Merit scholar in an honors engineering college who does mission trips in the summer. My daughter is a straight-A student, breath-takingly lovely, and voted most-likely-to-be-president by her sixth grade class. My youngest is my gentle giant. His national test scores are in the mid-to-high 90’s, and he excels at making us all laugh, daily. They have never, ever looked at me and said, “Whatever.” They’ve never cussed at me or said they hate me, although they have fervently disagreed with me sometimes. They write me notes and call and text, and still throw their legs in my lap when we are sitting on the sofa reading.
My point is this: My kids are great and they still love me. Even though I went back to work when they were six weeks old. Even though. So hear my story, get ready, and take heart.
Now keeping that happy ending picture in mind, let’s talk about the end of that maternity leave of yours.
This leaving-the-baby thing? If you are anything like me, this will be the hardest thing you have ever done. I have been a hard-driving over-achiever my entire life. I graduated from college in three and a half years. I routinely worked twelve hour days before I had baby, travelled for work for six weeks at a time, had every intention of owning and running my own business sooner rather than later.
And then I became a mother.
After I gave birth, it wasn’t that I didn’t still love my work, it just paled in comparison to how much I loved being a mother. All those things that had seemed so important before – they just sort of faded in the brilliant light of this amazing new identity and relationship.
I’m not exaggerating: leaving baby to go back to work was the hardest thing I have ever done. The first time, the second time and the third time. I hated it.
The transition from drunk-with-happy-new-mother to drunk-with-exhaustion-working-mother is rather a rough one. Yes, it is. Being realistic about what you are getting into is going to help you handle it well. Nobody ever starts a marathon thinking, “Well, this little walk-in-the-park should be done in about fifteen minutes… easy-peasy.” No, you prepare, you dig in, and you know what you are getting into.
So, here’s what you are getting into: You’ll need to find childcare you trust, you’ll need to figure out how to keep your home running, and you need to decide whether or not to keep nursing. You are also going to be more tired than you knew a body could be. You will occasionally feel a flash of blazing hatred for the single guy you work with who invites everyone to happy hour.
And it is all going to work out.
First: Baby is going to need a lot of care in these first few weeks, months, years. Somebody you trust will have to be there during the day, or you will be insane with pain and worry. You will want to know everything that happened while you were gone, including how much the baby ate and pooped, so have some sort of written record-keeping prepared. Also, some part of you will hate your caregiver; I did; it’s okay. Your brain can know she’s good with baby and your heart can hate her for it, and you can still somehow manage to smile when you pick baby up at the end of the day. It shouldn’t be easy to leave your baby, so forgive yourself this emotion.
As far as your home goes, you will need to set up a baton-passing-relay race of care with your husband or some other partner when you get home from work at night so that you have a chance to eat, get some sleep, keep the house some near version of clean and most importantly, so you can get time with your baby. Get to know your crockpot — it may be the only way you ever see hot food at night for a while. If grandma wants to come over and do laundry, say yes. Every single girlfriend who offers to bring you dinner, say yes to her too.
Also, decide now whether you’ll want to keep nursing – if you choose to go with breast milk (better for baby, less expensive by a mile, and a heavenly way to reconnect after work) you’ll need to choose a pump, procure the pump, and practice with the pump, before you head back. Get advice from a lactation consultant if you can, because the first time on that pump is, shall we say, surprising? They can help you choose the right model for you. The hand-held model didn’t work AT ALL for me (ow,ow,ow), however, the electric was just fine. And because accidents happen, store up as much breast milk as you can in the freezer. (Label it with the date and use the oldest first so it doesn’t go bad.) That way, if you accidentally spill a bottle of that liquid gold, you won’t be panicked about what to feed the baby.
So, plan, plan, plan and then here we go. Find a suit that still fits your post-baby body, put your earrings in, square your shoulders, and head back.
Fair warning, sister: that first day back is a killer.
Be gentle with yourself. If possible, come back part-time to give yourself a chance to transition back. I had a six-week maternity leave. I negotiated with my bosses (three maternity leaves, three different companies, three different bosses) to take four full weeks off, and then take the last 10 days of maternity leave to come back part-time for the next four week: My days off and on looked like this for those last four weeks:
- M-T, work, W-F, off.
- M-T, work, W-F, off.
- M-W, work, Th-F, off.
- M-W, work, Th-F, off.
- Back full time.
My first day back from my first maternity leave just about did me in. My baby was four weeks old. Massively hard-working and ambitious, I had just had a football-field sized space in my heart open up that I didn’t know was there before. The space was filled with love for baby – this very small person who had completely taken over my life. He entranced me utterly. I was in no way ready to go back, but I made three-quarters of our family income, and so back to work I went. I was still twenty pounds overweight, did not fit into any of my work clothes, and was getting by on less sleep than I knew was humanly possible prior to giving birth. My hormones were still adjusting, my husband and I had managed to have sex once since the birth, and in THIS shape mentally and physically, I headed back to work.
Daycare was going to be provided by my cousin whom I love and trust. She ran an in-home daycare located ten minutes from my house. She loved me. She loved my son. I was nauseous at the thought of her taking care of him.
We planned for Husband to drop me off at the airport. (Note to reader: that my first day back involved a business trip was just flat out stupid. Don’t do this.) I had to fly out to see customers I hadn’t seen in a month. Husband would bring baby to daycare from the airport, and then pick baby up at night. We had a dozen bags of breast milk frozen in storage at home. Daycare Cousin was ready, and had called me the night before to wish me luck. (You feel disaster looming, don’t you?)
Husband dropped me off at the airport and I started sobbing. And I couldn’t stop. He finally got frustrated with me, told me I was scaring the baby, and left. I felt, as that car pulled away, as though a piece of my body and soul was being ripped apart.
(I know – this is tough stuff, no getting around it. Take a minute, remember my happy ending.)
I sobbed all the way through security. I’m sure hundreds of people stared at me at the airport that day. I didn’t stop crying till I sat down in the plane.
But I did eventually stop. I managed. It was painful, and I was so, so sad, and I managed. I’m sorry, I have no magic formula for you to make the pain go away. I simply had to work, and so I did. I got through that trip, and the next one. I took comfort in that 5 pound beast of an electric breast pump because it meant that I could still feed my baby and I could maintain the ability to nurse when I got home (heaven, heaven on earth). I took comfort in the calls from my cousin who told me that baby had 6 ounces of milk and then slept for an hour. I RACED home at the end of the day.
I asked three males bosses, on three first days back, if it was alright if I used the company account when overnighting my breast milk back home when on a multi-day business trip. To a man, they blushed, and stammered, and looked at their feet, and somehow stuttered out something like “Buh, buh, BREAST MILK?! (eye-balls pop out of head) …uh, well, why, uh, um …of COURSE! Well, I, uh, yes, …yes, uh, yes, of course you can!” And then, to a man, they shook my hand, and high-tailed it back to their car as fast as they could go. (THAT little piece of going back I did enjoy. Hilarious.)
As you are dealing with the pain of leaving, keep the blessings of being a working mom in mind, it helps: One blessing of working is that, for better and for worse, you will always have a deficit of time with your kids. You will always be hungry for them. This, in my opinion, is ultimately a good thing. How much better to be a mom who CAN’T WAIT to get home and scoop her children up and hear about their day and love them and hug them and feed them and kiss them. How wonderful to be excited to be with your kids!
A second blessing is that, in my limited experience, there is a better balance of power in the home when both spouses work. I’m sure I’ll piss off all manner of people by saying this, but as I say, in my limited experience, I don’t hesitate to ask to spend money on things I value, because I am part of the team that brings the money in. My husband and I also share the housework which I appreciate because I hate doing dishes and he is a better cook than I am. A well balanced marriage is, in my opinion, a healthy one.
Finally, I have reached the point in my life when my kids have started leaving and creating their own lives. I have found that although I deeply mourn the loss of their childhood, I am spared the internal searching, the “what is my role now?” that my stay-at-home mom friends have felt. I can dive more deeply now into the career that, although somewhat slower-growing (by my choice) than my childless friend’s careers have been, has been building all this time.
So hang in there darling. You will survive, baby will survive. You will. Have your plan in place and work your plan. You are going to be tired, no getting around it. You are going to miss your baby. But you will also treasure the time with baby when you are home and that is a good thing. Take pictures, write things down, because your brain is going to be more than a little fuzzy some days, and many of these treasured moments will need a little reminder to bring them back ten years from now.
One important thought to leave you with, and this is big: there will come days in your work life when you will have to choose to disappoint your work or disappoint your kid. Choose very, very carefully when that time comes, Mamma. Our actions are where our values become apparent. We may work, but, I hope, our family still comes first.
Good luck, darling.