The End of a (Maternity Leave) Era
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.)
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.