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The End of a (Maternity Leave) Era

Sep01

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At some point after your baby was born — you don’t remember exactly when, it was hazy — you called or emailed somebody at work to let them know the details, and along with their congratulations you also received a date. A return date. Six, eight, twelve weeks in the future, maybe more, if you’re lucky (please don’t rub it in, CANADA). You probably didn’t even think much about the date at the time — oh God, who could possibly think about going back to work while stitches are healing and boobs are leaking and at best you have only a vague-ish sense of what day it is.
And then. The date creeps closer and closer. Until it’s uncomfortably close. Maybe you’re excited to return to your old life, outside of burp rags and bathrobes. Maybe you’re upset but don’t see that you have much of a choice. Maybe you’re conflicted and unsure about how you really feel.
The whole end-of-maternity-leave topic has so many sub-topics that I highly doubt this will be my only column on the issue, but for today let’s stick to the simplest (haaaa! ha ha haaaaaaaa!) scenario: maternity leave is up, you go back to work, the end.
I went back to work when Noah was 12 weeks old. On my birthday, and I felt incredibly sorry for myself about that, but I was out of vacation and personal days so I didn’t even mention it to anyone. My “easing in” plan involved a couple half-days before New Year’s Day, and then boom. Back at full-time right after that. And let me tell you: I did not want to go back. Like, my objections to the whole thing were violent. I was jealous of anyone who didn’t have to go back to work AND of anyone who truly wanted to go back to work, because either option sounded a hell of a lot better than crying in the daycare parking lot every morning because I couldn’t bear to leave mah baaaayyybeeeee.
But you know what? I’m so glad I had to do that. I’m gladder that I didn’t have to KEEP doing that, don’t get me wrong, but still. I think I always would have wondered, if I’d just quit my job while still on maternity leave and never at least tried the work-outside-the-home thing. You ladies have my utmost admiration, because that is HARD. Not just on the heart and baaaayyybeeeeee hysterics, but just…fundamentally, logistically hard. I mean, I think every option (SAHM, WAHM, etc.) is hard, and we’re all probably better suited to one option than another. I was a lousy WOHM. Someday I’m sure I’ll do it again and probably be thrilled about it (look at meeee! I’m leaving the house! I’m talking to other grown-ups! I’m valued for skills beyond my ability to portray myself as a jackass on the Internet!), but at the time, it was not a good fit. I’m still glad I tried it on, though, for a little while.
A few things I learned and/or would do differently, if I had to go back and do it again:
1. Revisit all the daycare centers you’re considering before making your final decision. We got on a slew of waitlists while I was pregnant, and while I called them all after Noah was born to find out our chances of getting a spot, I basically picked the first one that said they had a definite opening and handed over a non-refundable deposit before really thinking about it. This was a panicked move, and I later regretted it. The center was fine and all, but it wasn’t ideal for a lot of reasons and I think if we’d taken the time to revisit a few of the centers AFTER Noah was born, we would have seen those reasons. Three months’ pregnant vs. actual three-month-old baby. Our perspective and priorities changed a lot.
2. Speaking of daycare, pick one that is central for both you AND your partner. We made the huge mistake of going with a center close to my job (i.e. nowhere close to our house or Jason’s job). I wanted to be close enough to nurse him during the day. Of course, I barely had time to pump at work, much less get in the car and drive even 10 minutes down the road to nurse and then drive back. And then Noah weaned a month later anyway. But I was stuck being the sole parent who could drop him off and pick him up. If he was sick, I lost the time at work. If I was sick, I either had to drive 20 minutes up and 20 minutes back just to have a couple hours of a sick day to myself (still a luxury, of course, considering I get zero sick hours while working at home). But I think the geographical mistake of our daycare contributed heavily to my stress and dissatisfaction levels.
3. Treat yourself to some nice work clothes that FIT. Look, if you’re going back at 12 weeks or earlier, your old wardrobe might not fit. (My wardrobe consisted of tailored suits — not very forgiving to a little post-baby paunch or even a couple extra pounds.) I didn’t spend a fortune on “fat clothes” or anything, but I did hit up a suiting event at a local store and bought some nice well-fitting clothes for my first days back. Hearing my coworkers compliment me — even on something silly like a new blazer — was a huge confidence booster. I didn’t exactly feel like the pulled-together businesswoman at the time, but dammit, I was going to dress the part.
4. Know your pumping rights and options. It’s a good idea to talk to your job BEFORE you go back to make sure that you will indeed be provided with a place to pump (that is NOT the bathroom, no thank you), and that your boss is aware (and comfortable) with your pumping schedule. I was lucky — I had a private office. But two weeks before I went back I called our operations manager and asked him to install a lock on my door. Then I called back to ensure that it had been done. The pumping schedule thing can be tricky if you’re hourly (non-exempt), but you are entitled to breaks. Either way, it’s also a good idea to investigate the laws of your state — if there are special provisions for pumping mothers, or other rules governing breaks — in case you are met with complaints or resistance or roadblocks from a jerkwad boss. (Your lactation consultant, LLL chapter or Department of Labor’s website are good places to start.) See more below.
5. Ease in, if at all possible. My two or three half-days? Before starting back full-time, 40+ hours a week? So not enough. I should have spoken up and tried to negotiate something a little gentler — working from home, coming back part-time, even if it meant a little less money. I was just not up to it, physically (so. very. tired.) or emotionally (that pesky little undiagnosed postpartum anxiety disorder was RAGING right around 12 weeks). For some reason I thought that because other women came back to work full-time at 12 weeks just fine, there was no reason why I would have a problem with it. Not only did I need time to just get accustomed to the craziness of getting up and out of the house on time WITH AN INFANT, OH MY GOD, I just wasn’t firing on all cylinders. My job wasn’t quite like riding a bike, it turned out.
Oh, and let’s call this an unofficial number six (my numbered-list OCD won’t let me actually post six items): ignore anybody and everybody who doesn’t agree with your decision to go back to work. (It can be hard, I know. I…uh…got a lot of this, from family and anonymous Internet people and even my coworkers.) In fact, that’s all I’m even going to say about it. Mommy War Peace Zone, RIGHT HERE.
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Amalah is currently on vacation and this article was written before news of the Totes/Isotoner Pumping case– where a pumping mom was fired for pumping breaks (for shame!)– hit the wires on Friday.
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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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15 Responses to “The End of a (Maternity Leave) Era”

  1. Cheryl S. Sep 01 at 11:02 am Reply Reply

    Thank you for posting this. I’m a WOHM because I have no other choice. But, even if I did, I would choose to work part time. I just need it for myself.
    I second easing back into the groove. Coming back full time was HARD. HARD. HARD.
    Amen on the daycare. We chose one close to my home so we have LOTS of options if we get in a bind.
    I have to add a tip to your article. If you have a good relationship with your family (I know some people don’t) and they are close, ASK FOR HELP. I cannot tell you how much my mom and dad have helped us since my daughter was born.
    Finally, NO MORE MOMMY WAR!!!!! We ALL love our children. We ALL work like dogs to do the best we can for them.

  2. CherylH Sep 01 at 11:17 am Reply Reply

    OMG, this post is so timely for me. I just returned to full time work THIS WEEK, and my baby is 7 months old. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to quit, work part time, or go back full time, so my boss was generous enough to let me go part time for 5 months after my 8 week maternity leave was up. I so much appreciate that opportunity, because I learned one very important thing: I am NOT cut out to be a full time SAHM!!!
    I love my son with all my heart and soul, but just the afternoons I had with him were draining, stressful, and often frustrating (and he’s an easy baby)! I started late with the whole having a baby thing (34 years old), so my career was well established beforehand.
    I still struggle with the mommy guilt, like – I *should* WANT to stay at home with my son, so am I a horribly selfish mom for not wanting to, but I figure if I forced it and quit my career anyway, he would suffer for it, because I’d end up resenting him and the whole situation. I feel so much better about myself, my “value” as a woman, my abilities as a mom (and a stepmom), and, of course, our family finances, now that I’m back in the saddle.
    Although, many kudos go out to my boss for the fact that she’s willing to let me ease back in part time again after our next child is born (and ha-ha, my hubby thinks that’ll be next year)!

  3. Meghan Sep 01 at 11:21 am Reply Reply

    another great post. and i identify with your list of what you would do differently. i am a WOHM and it happens to be the right fit for me. eventhough that is the case and i still work outside the home, i knew i needed to initially try it out and see how it went.
    i am one of those people who changed their minds about daycare location after the baby was born. it turned out to be the best decision i ever made. we ended up going with an in-home provider that is a mere 2 miles away from our house. i truly believe i would not feel as comfortable at work without her caring for our son.
    also (as are in the throws of trying for #2) i couldn’t agree more about easing in. even after 14 weeks i was a mess at work for a good 2 months. the sleep deprivation nearly killed me. my hope for the next one is to take the 12 weeks off and then the last 4 (DC gives 16 weeks FMLA) as part-time. it is the only way i can fathom getting used to getting out of the house with (GASP!) two kids.

  4. chiquita Sep 01 at 11:29 am Reply Reply

    If you hate going back to work, set a deadline (I would suggest 2 months) before making drastic changes. My first week back was pretty awful, but it got much better. Don’t make snap decisions when your emotions are so raw.
    I would be an awful SAHM, but I wish I could work less. It is a goal I hope to reach before daughter goes to kindergarten.
    Thank you for this: “I think every option (SAHM, WAHM, etc.) is hard, and we’re all probably better suited to one option than another.”

  5. Kate Sep 01 at 12:12 pm Reply Reply

    AMEN to everything you said. My baby is 4 1/2 months old, and only THIS WEEK, am I starting to feel like I might actually be able to function in my job as a WOHM. This past month and a half has been a joke in terms of productivity at work, if I’m being honest. I’m thankful I haven’t been fired. When you are that severely sleep deprived, how are you supposed to be a good employee.
    And I completely agree that we need to stop judging other mom’s for their decisions about work. You never know someone’s situation. For myself, I don’t think I could stay at home with my daughter…there were times during maternity leave that I honestly thought I was going to go crazy. But HUGE kudos to those that do stay home because that job is way harder than any WOH job I can think of.
    We got lucky with our first daycare choice. It’s turned out to be great. But if it didn’t, I would’ve gone crazy worrying about my baby.

  6. Michelle Sep 01 at 1:10 pm Reply Reply

    Yes, very timely as I just e-mailed my boss yesterday with my proposed start back to work date.
    When I had my first baby just over 3 years ago, I absolutely had to go back to work since my husband had been laid off due to a reorg less than a month after our son was born. So yeah…not much choice. But I asked to be able to work from home one day a week. Primarly this helped out when my husband had job interviews. My husband got a new job when our son was nearly 6 months old so that’s when he started daycare (my son not my husband! :)
    I understand what you are saying about the daycare location but more importantly, I believe you have to be 100% comfortable with the daycare situation you choose (whether home day care, nanny or daycare center). I just wasn’t comfortable with home day care even though I could have found one closer to home and we didn’t really have the budget for a nanny. But we did find a fabulous center that was minutes from my office (like 2 buildings down in the same office park). I was able to go everyday at lunch and feed/rock my baby down for his afternoon nap. Picking him up when sick was a snap and yeah, I did 98% of the dropoff/pickup but it was pretty painless. Even after I changed jobs that made dropping off at this daycare less than ideal, we stayed because I loved the center so much.
    I just had my 2nd son a month ago and things are going to be quite a bit different this time around. We will be changing daycare centers because while I loved the old one for infants/toddlers…I wasn’t so keen on the preschool program. Plus I was able to negotiate a 4 day work week (32 hours) with my workplace and the old daycare wouldn’t do a part time schedule. Neither my husband or I work close to home but both will drive by the daycare. Plus it is right around the corner from where I will be catching the train so that simplifies some of the logistics.
    But still…it is going to be hard when I go back to work; managing both the commute and 2 kids at daycare. Luckily I am going to back work in the fall and have lots of federal holidays to break up the weeks and make life a little shorter. Plus my workplace is very chill with me working from home occasionally when I have a sick kid (although my husband pitches in here as well).

  7. miriam Sep 01 at 6:44 pm Reply Reply

    I go back to work next week (!!). I can’t wait to feed her at 2am and then wake up at 5am to go to work. She’s been waking up at 6 or 630 but that’s too late– so much for getting in the morning feed before I leave for work! And usually I don’t get home until 630, so I’ll miss the evening feed too. Good thing I only work 3 days a week on that schedule… thank god I have two mornings off a week so I can have a little baby time!
    I enjoy a little SAHM time, but if I had her all day every day I’d explode– and I was feeling guilty about that (didn’t my mom do it?) just like cherylH.

  8. Heather Sep 01 at 11:41 pm Reply Reply

    Great post, and timely for me as well. I’m looking for a job and daycare right now. And I’m fuh-reaking out about leaving my 11 month old baby. I’m also nervous about telling my mother-in-law and all my other “in-laws” about going back to work. I know that they won’t understand (because I’m constantly getting comments from them, like, “Can you imagine ever leaving him?”). Your post is very helpful to me…thank you!

  9. Kate Sep 02 at 7:39 am Reply Reply

    I really applaud the unofficial #6. I went back to teaching at 7 weeks and I was SO READY at that point. Like everyone else out there, I LOVE my baby, but I am NOT a baby person, you know? (That being said, I really loved having the summer to spend with him now that he was 7 months old and old enough to do stuff).
    Nevertheless, the first few days were tough, and having my coworkers say things like, “I don’t know how you can come to school and leave your baby,” in THAT tone didn’t help anything. Why do women do that? Isn’t it all hard enough without us also being judgmental towards each other?
    Anyway, I now tell all pregnant women, just wait and see how you’re going to feel. Plan to go back to work, but know that there’s absolutely no way to predict how you’re going to feel after giving birth. And whatever decision you make, THAT is the right decision for you and your baby.

  10. eva Sep 02 at 1:49 pm Reply Reply

    As a Canadian I got 18 weeks for maternity leave + 35 weeks for parental leave, then I took my 4 weeks of vacation, so I had 13 months off with my daughter. It was heavenly! I also however pay HUGE taxes to get this benefit – on m ylast cheque my income tax was $711.68, my Employment Insurance premium was $58.51. I know how lucky we are to have our jobs protected for a full year, but financially, we really do save up for it by paying taxes and EI premiums (we receive EI of around $800 minus income taxes every 2 weeks while on mat leave). Just wanted to ensure Americans don’t think we get a totally free ride:)
    Going back to work full time was not as hard as I thought it would be. I should feel guiliter than I do – Megan is in a fantastic daycare, I work close to home, and enjoy my job. If you don’t like your job though, oh my lord it would suck to leave your baby every day. Or if you just feel like the formerly totally fulfilling awesome job now feels petty compared to raising a child. Such a tough loaded issue.
    Easing in could be good, so could using vacation days to take long weekends or Wednesdays off whenever possible. Great post!
    ps – I can’t CAN’T imagine going back to work after 12 weeks. Oh that would suck. Megan still woke up 3 times a night at that age and I really didn’t find my time with her as enjoyable at 12 weeks as I did from 6-13 months.

  11. Jalonzo Sep 02 at 5:45 pm Reply Reply

    Wow – what a timely post. My son is ten weeks old and I am going back to work. As a university professor my time is pretty flexible, but I am so glad that daycare starts next week. I have been trying to work at home and when I am with baby I feel guilty for not doing work and when I am working I feel like I am neglecting my baby (even though he’s, you know, sound asleep.)
    Ack – at least with daycare I will know when I am supposed to be working….(on the other hand I might use that first day to catch up on sleep)

  12. Anyabeth Sep 02 at 6:43 pm Reply Reply

    Brilliant. I went back after 12 weeks and jumped right back into a very intense schedule. I think I faked being able to do it all really well but I was so unhappy and stressed. More than a year later I am going through a career change and I have gotten so many comments from people about how of course I should be home with my baby. I really hate how people are really cruel to mothers no matter what they do. It’s all hard and we don’t need to be fighting out between ourselves.

  13. Natalie Sep 03 at 1:13 pm Reply Reply

    My mom just called me, and I could hear my 8 month old in the background playing …heartbreaking…
    I am sure I have said this here before..know your rights in regards to this issue! FORCE your HR person to sit down with you during your pregnancy.
    My HR person was (she was just fired) so scatter-brained. She emailed me that I had 6 weeks extended sick leave (we don’t ‘do’ ML here she informed me)plus my two weeks of vacay and two weeks of normal sick leave. So great I thought! 8 weeks at least..three weeks into my ‘extended sick leave’ her assistant called me and said you run out of pay next week; are you coming back then? WAIT? WHAT?
    Apparently there was no extended sick leave for me, it had been voted down by the board so all I got was the right to use up my four weeks of sick/vacay and then have my position held until I returned. My husband is a construction worker and my college loans are so high I had no choice. At four weeks I had to go back, and cry everyday while I tried desperatly to pump in the bathroom with an extension cord that ran under the stall to a plug near one of the faucets.
    Everyday I am angry at this institution (some nonprofit we are) for forcing me back 4 weeks early while my daughter was still only sleeping two hours at a time and on a sleep all day awake all night schedule.
    I wish I could work from home but until i hit the lottery or someone decides they really need to a pay an anthropologist/museum educator 80,000 a year I am stuck at work missing my baby.
    The choice is hard for everyone and personal to each situation. There are no rights or wrongs but I would bet 10 to 1 that no matter what you decide at some point you will feel guilty and wonder if you made the right choice..
    yay mom guilt!

  14. Caitlin Sep 06 at 3:29 pm Reply Reply

    I’m Canadian, but am self-employed, so no paid maternity leave for me. However we do have a good situation with my husband’s job, so I don’t have to work very much.
    But just a shout out to American mums (and anyone else who doesn’t have access to good maternity leave). Your system doesn’t have to be like this forever! You can raise your voices and work at getting it changed. You live in a democracy, and rules and regulations get changed all the time.
    Kudos to all of you who have gone back to work at 8 or 12 weeks, but seriously? Should you HAVE to do it? NO WAY! For most people it sounds like absolute misery.
    Speak up! Call your Representative or Senator or whoever and tell them what you think! It might not change for you but it might change for when your grandchildren are born.

  15. emilia Sep 09 at 11:35 am Reply Reply

    Nice to hear the comments of other WOHMs here…it seems that the vast majority of my friends and neighbors are SAHMs and I get sooooooooooo tired of the “how can you leave him at daycare everyday?” “I could never let a stranger take care of my baby” “don’t you miss all of the important moments?” “you must cry every day when you leave him at daycare…” etc etc.
    I can never say what’s really in my mind-that I love my job and am proud of my work and income, feel that my child is well-adjusted and happier than many, that I AM part of the important moments, that I don’t have the patience to be home all day with my child, that I spent 8 years in school and have a ton of student loan debt in order to reach my goals, and maybe my son and future children will someday be proud that their mom is a doctor and helps people that need need it. So while I wish I had more time with him and hope to cut back my work hours a bit soon, the time I have is truly quality time.
    So I agree…end the mommy wars…to all of my SAHM friends–I honestly never judge or question your choice and am glad you are happy–please stop with the comments and respect my choice. I already feel guilty often enough-I don’t need more! Let’s support each other!

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