ARE YOU IN OR ARE YOU OUT? The End of Maternity Leave
Author: Kitty Bartell
Sleep deprived is a given. Your home is in a state of perpetual clutter, and you haven’t seen the bottom of the laundry hamper in forever. Cooking has become a catch-as-catch-can affair; you haven’t had a mani-pedi in weeks; your gray roots (horror) are taking over; and you haven’t looked closely at your very cute husband in a very long time—he’s looking a bit the worse-for-wear, too. Willingly, happily, blissfully adapting to the deprivation, clutter, and chaos, you have loved (mostly) every minute of your maternity leave, but the time to return to work is fast approaching… or is it?
With the United States having one of the most limited maternity leave policies in the world, going back to work after having a baby is often the only option for some new mothers. For others, the idea of going to work and leaving their fragile, precious, bundle in someone else’s care in unthinkable. Of course, some do not question their desire or ability to return to work at the end of maternity leave; however, making the decision whether to go, or not to go, weighs heavily on a majority of new mothers as they approach the end of their leave.
Angela Fortino and her husband thought they could make it work financially for her to stay home when her maternity leave from her retail management position on Hilton Head ended in early April. However, Angela knew she wanted to go back. “Even before I had the baby, I knew I wanted to go back to work. I love being with my baby, but we feel good about our daycare, and it’s important to us to not have to live paycheck to paycheck.”
Echoing Fortino’s desire to return to work, Nicki Linebaugh, a local banker did experience a significant internal tug-of-war over going back. “I love my job; the challenge, the people, the friendships, and honestly, the money. We planned this baby, and I thought I would be okay with going right back to work after eight weeks off. With five brothers and sisters, I was kind of left to myself growing up; my parents weren’t really protective. I am surprised at how protective I feel about our son. I am back at work, but I worry every day if I am doing the right thing. Before I went back, we made lists of all the pros and cons, and even now, they are really worthless when I pick up my son from the babysitter and realize I missed something else today.”
The Internet, the local bookstore, your pediatrician’s office, the neighborhood barbecue, the church coffee, dinner at your in-law’s, your sister’s yoga group… are all voluminous resources for learning the pluses and minuses of returning to work, for both you and your baby. Naming them here would be fruitless, because you have probably heard them all, and if you haven’t, you will. As a mother who did not return to work, and then did after a time, I suggest taking inventory of your feelings and finances, and then remember that nothing lasts forever. You are stepping into the unknown, and if one choice doesn’t work well, you may regroup and try again.
Bluffton healthcare executive Linda Adler and her husband wanted to buck the traditional childcare system when it was time for her to return to work after the birth of their son. “It was important to us that our baby didn’t spend 40 to 50 hours a week at daycare. We are lucky because we both have jobs that allow us to adjust our schedules so that one of us can usually be with the baby. I work at home a lot, and when we need extra help, our families jump in. I keep thinking that time will fly and before we know it he will be in school. We both want to be a part of this time in his life.”
With the trend toward flexible work schedules and more creative solutions to the work/parenting balance, an out-of-the-box childcare option may be a better fit for some families. The following could inspire ideas for new ways to approach your family’s care options:
• Find a stay-at-home parent who would love to be your child’s nanny. The hourly rate would be significantly less than a traditional nanny set-up, with the trade-off being the nanny could bring her child to work. Find the right person, and everybody wins; your child stays at home and your caregiver earns some money while still being her own child’s caregiver. These arrangements can be highly flexible without the minimums (hours or pay) required in more traditional arrangements.
• Make it a family affair. Knowing your child is with a loving family member goes a long way towards assuaging the back-to-work guilt and provides long-term peace of mind. Any manner of arrangement is possible when there are family members willing and able to meet your childcare needs. Even part-time traditional childcare, combined with a couple days a week with a grandma, grandpa, aunt, or uncle, gives your child special bonding time with relatives, and lessens your financial burden and eases your concerns.
• Job share the baby care by setting up a co-op with a few families with similar parenting philosophies. No money changes hands; however, a point system helps to keep the swapping fair. Couples may also be able to get creative with their own schedules and share the care.
Working mother—a rather redundant idea; after all, try to name a mom who doesn’t work plenty hard. Who could blame her for running headlong back to work after weeks of exhaustion, diaper changes, breast feeding, cooking, cleaning, and being on-call 24/7?
However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 83 percent of all mothers do 78 percent of all the business of caring for the household and the family regardless of their professional endeavors outside the home. Clearly, returning to work after maternity leave may not lighten the workload of motherhood; but for some, the financial, social, and mental benefits are well worth the trade-offs.
“The cost of our daycare is almost the same as I make every month,” said Annie Rodriguez, a new mom who went back to work after the birth of her daughter for reasons other than money. “I couldn’t imagine not keeping in the loop with my co-workers, or continuing building my career. I knew I would lose traction career-wise if I took the years off before my daughter goes to school. She is doing great in daycare, and I feel confident that I will teach her some important lessons by being a successful business woman.”
Whether by choice or by necessity, if returning to work, you are going to be a bit rusty. You don’t want to find yourself in a meeting absent-mindedly looking around for his sweet little face, or worrying that his nappy has not been changed in due time. In the effort to achieve as seamless a reentry back into the workplace as is possible, the following may be of some help:
• Prior to your return, schedule a meeting with your boss, preferably away from the office. Things to cover may include: changes or reorganization of personnel or leadership since you’ve been gone; your boss’s priorities upon your return; or options for a flexible work schedule. Now is the time to ask if you would like to modify your schedule or possibly work from home. If you don’t ask, you may never know what options are available to you that may benefit you and your newborn.
• Ease in. Return to work from maternity leave mid-week, or even better, part time for a few days. This will give both you and your baby a little time to get used to being away from each other, and allow you to work out any kinks in your system.
• Always be prepared. Breast pump, bag for pump, nursing pads, framed photo of the baby, healthy snacks (you will forget to eat or wait until you’re starving), and dinners. While you are still on leave, make a few meals for the freezer. The less stress the better during your transition period.
• Get yourself looking and feeling good: clothes, haircut and color, mani-pedi. Likely you are not back in your pre-pregnancy clothes, and returning triumphantly to work in ill-fitting, tight skirts and tops will undermine your concentration and your confidence. Treat yourself to a couple new well-fitting outfits; the benefits will be evident.
Should I stay or should I go? Just as you have your newborn sleeping in reasonable stretches, you have mastered the fine art of breast feeding, your other children no longer want you to return the new addition from wherever it may have come, and your husband is singing in the shower again, you are thinking about upsetting this delicate balance by returning to work. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, it may sting a bit, but you’ll be just fine.