Returning to Work: How to Survive & How to Cut Yourself Some Slack Already
Five months ago I had the most delicious little girl in the whole world. Perfectly chubby thighs? Check. Sleeps through the night? Check. Always smiling and/or laughing? Double check. In short, I’m half-way convinced that the hospital made a horrendous mistake by giving me someone else’s happy-go-lucky girl, and by giving my screaming, ill-tempered child to some poor, innocent parents who are probably at this instant cursing the day they decided to conceive a child.
Then what’s the problem? My maternity/personal leave ends in one month. Even though I’ve always loved working — so much so that my mother’s response to being told that I was pregnant was to ask whether it was a mistake (no, it was not) rather than to offer her congratulations — I’m finding that I am dreading going back to work. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: I don’t dread going back to work, but I do dread putting my baby in day care.
Not because I’m taking sides on the debate on whether it is better to have a stay-at-home mother. (We’ve all seen the hate-filled messages on the web: “Why are you going to have a kid if you’re going to have someone else — e.g., the day-care provider — raise them?” Of course, the other side isn’t much better: “You’re not returning to work?” — where “working” is invoked as a poorly-disguised synonym for “contributing to society.” What type of role model are you?”) No, I’m dreading leaving her because it takes my breath away how much I love this beautiful, perfect child. And because, selfishly, I want to be the one to share her “firsts”: the first time she talks, the first time she takes a faltering step. And also, although it pains me to admit it publicly because I know that I’m being less than rational, because I am scared that she will love her daycare provider more.
Had you told me that I would have dreaded leaving my baby in day care before she was born, I would have been skeptical, which makes this all the more difficult to deal with. My goals have changed. Even more surprising, I’ve changed, in ways that I’ve never anticipated.
I know that you put Noah in daycare before you ultimately decided to work from home, so I hoped that you could share a little about your experience. How did you/do you continue to balance it all? What advice can you give for a new mother who will be returning back to work?
Thanks in advance!
I was nodding my head the whole time I read your question — yes! yes! I know! totally! — and incidentally nodded it so vigorously that my sunglasses fell off the top of my head and hit the keyboard. And I’d been LOOKING ALL OVER for my sunglasses. So…thanks for that.
Stay at Home or Return to Work?
Now, to your rather tall-order of a question. I think it took me sufficiently long enough to get to your question that you are already back at work. Perhaps things are going swimmingly. Perhaps not. Personally, when I look back on the five (six?) months or so I spent working full-time post-baby, I’m floored by how much I sucked at it.
Before I had a baby, I was (if I do say so myself) ridiculously GOOD at my job — one of the youngest managing editors, all signs pointing to a rapid rise through the ranks, generally considered to be one of the most prolific writers who could generally nail anything on her first draft, beloved by my authors and an absolute eagle eye for spelling, grammar and the passive voice. Then the simple little hiccup of the daycare drop-off and pick-up and the hours spent wondering what my baaaaaybeeeeee was doing during the day sent everything into a tailspin. I was always running late. I couldn’t keep my schedule organized. I started making mistakes and resenting my job and realizing that no matter how “family friendly” my office seemed before — I actually wasn’t going to get another promotion unless I worked that overtime and made further concessions re: time with my family.
But I am so, so glad I gave it a shot. I NEEDED to give it a shot. Making a decision in the heady early days of “baby love” — a decision that will indeed affect the rest of my life, my marriage, my future career and earning power — would have been a mistake. The adjustment period for new moms is HUGE, no matter what decision they make. Staying home, working full-time, part-time, freelancing from home…these are all big changes and I think we get so ready to defend and stand by our choices that we sometimes aren’t very easy on ourselves.
There are going to be days when you hate your decision. ANY decision. I work from home at a slightly more-than-part-time basis. I am good at my job. I am a prolific writer who can generally nail anything on my first draft. My employers love me. I love what I do and I am every bit as satisfied as I ever was at my office job. And yet I still have days where bleeeeeeeeeaaaaaaargh I’m burnt out and Noah’s annoying me and I just wish I could LEAVE THE HOUSE and TALK WITH ADULTS outside of email and pppffffffffffttttttttttttity.
So. All of this rambling about my own self is to make one obvious point: what you’re feeling is normal, no matter what the decision or circumstances. It doesn’t immediately mean you’re making the WRONG decision. Perhaps, down the road, you will decide there is a BETTER decision for you and your daughter and significant other.
(Just don’t expect THAT decision to necessarily always be unicorns and rainbows and perfectly-balanced home-cooked breakfasts, you know?)
Whew. Talky today! And I still haven’t even gotten to my bullet points! Because OF COURSE I HAVE BULLET POINTS.
How to Go Back to Work Without Losing Your Mind
1. Divide responsibility. Do NOT put yourself in the position of being solely responsible for pick-up, drop-off, waking, feeding, preparing bottles, packing clothes, etc.
2. Streamline. Make bottles the night before. Mix formula by the pitcherful. Lay out clothes, shower at night, put bags and dry-cleaning and everything you need to take each day right in the foyer. If your baby has a cubby or drawer at daycare, fill it up with EVERYTHING you could POSSIBLY need, beyond what the center or caretaker “requires.”
3. Take care of yourself. Vitamins. Sleep. Whatever immunity-boosting health-store quack product you dig. I was prepared for Noah to get sick from daycare — we were completely unprepared for the onslaught of adult-sized germs he’d bring home and pass to us.
4. Don’t be the Martyr Mom. Yes, you spend a decent chunk of time away from your daughter during the day. You still don’t need to spend the REST of your days playing a pointless game of catch-up. She won’t love anyone like her mama. She won’t think you’ve abandoned her further if you insist she sleep in her crib. An occasional nighttime babysitter does NOT equal further neglect of parental duties. You are allowed to get a pedicure or a haircut by yourself on the weekends.
5. Set a mental deadline for reassessing. The first month (or two, or three) back is hard. It’s just going to be hard. You may feel a tremendous amount of relief to be Back Among the Potty-Trained, you may just straight-up hate everyone and everything and fantasize daily about quitting…or about leaving your baby in daycare one night and driving off to Vegas. Give yourself time to get over the initial hump, but set a deadline for reassessing the situation and your decision in case the hump seems to last longer than you’re willing to live with. Six months, maybe. Or three. Or a year.
6. Remember that it’s not always an either/or situation. So…you give it six months and decide that you hate your job. They’ve changed your job description and responsibilities since you’ve been back. You have a new boss or new coworkers and it’s not working out. Stay rational and remember that this could have happened pre-baby as well, and your default choice wouldn’t have been “quit and stay home.” Sometimes even working moms need to just find new jobs. Maybe working part-time is better. Maybe your reservations about daycare are more about your daughter’s specific center or nanny than your decision to work. When you reassess your decision (and I don’t think there’s a parent out there who DOESN’T occasionally question their situation and ponder the alternatives, even if they end up keeping everything as-is), make sure you look at it from all the many, many possible angles.
Published August 25, 2008. Last updated April 17, 2018.