How do you transition back to work after having a child? It’s a question that every working mom has to answer for herself. Because of the unique nature of each workplace, maternity leave and birth, mothers come up with very different answers.
I reached out to five different moms to ask them how they handled the transition back to work, as well as details on their maternity leave process, the hardest part of returning to the workplace and their advice for other moms who want to continue working after the baby is born.
Here’s a quick introduction to the moms who shared their insights:
- Becky Beach, e-commerce owner and business coach at MomBeach, where moms learn how to work from home
- Alexandra Fung, CEO of Upparent, a recommendation sharing site for parents
- Slisha Kankariya, CMO of With Clarity, which offers finely crafted engagement rings you can try on at home
- Amy Martin, process engineer and blogger at Two Little Pandas, a blog about life and travel with twins
- Kathleen T. Payne, a clinical psychologist currently working in private practice
What was your maternity leave experience like, and how did you handle the transition back to work?
Beach: I went on Family Medical Leave for three months after the birth of my son. I had a very difficult pregnancy, a C-section, so was still having pain. When I returned to work, my job had changed significantly! They now wanted me to code in PHP when I am a front end developer that only knows HTML and CSS. I didn’t know PHP very well. It became so stressful that I decided to quit a month later. I then started my own business, an e-commerce store, so I could stay home with my child.
Fung: My kids are 12, 10 and 2, with another one on the way. Although my first was born while I was in law school, the other two (soon three) have been born while I was working and I have taken maternity leave and subsequently returned to work for each of them. Having child care in place that I trusted and felt comfortable with was the number one thing that made the transition back to work successful, as well as a clear understanding with my husband (who was also either working or going to school full-time) about how we shared equally, if not identically, in our childcare and household responsibilities.
Clear communication was also important at work, where I needed to find a private place and time to pump and store breast milk, and where I had an additional and important incentive to maintain a more predictable schedule (such as leaving the office by a certain time) to avoid disrupting child care plans. Advance planning and preparation, such as for dinner arrangements, wardrobe for each day (for all of us!), and extraordinary plans at either work or home also went a long way in making the transition as smooth as possible.
Kankariya: Returning to work after the birth of a child is hard in any scenario. One might say that it is even harder in a startup where you are a co-founder. Startup founders rarely take breaks from working on their business, whether it’s day or night. When I went back to the office after the birth of my child, I was better able to connect with team members and work collaboratively on projects. While I was away on maternity leave, things had changed as the pace at which a startup grows is furiously fast. Therefore, the first few weeks were about realigning with everyone on the team to ensure that we were on the same page in terms of goals and vision. The next step was reintegrating and ensuring that priority projects were being worked on and I could personally feel that progress is being made.
Martin: I’m a mother of twins, and also a process engineer working for an engineering firm. I went back to work after just 12 weeks, but I was able to work part-time. Working part-time was a huge benefit in the first year because so many little things came up: doctor’s appointments, sickness beyond what our nanny could handle, or just a rough night where I hadn’t gotten enough sleep to even drive to work. However, while my company allowed me to work part-time, I was also penalized for it. I wasn’t given the “fun” or higher-profile projects, or anything that had a strict deadline, so I certainly didn’t feel like I was very successful at work. At the same time, being away from home made me feel like I was failing there, as well. I wanted so badly to achieve a new balance of work and home, but, instead, I felt I was failing everywhere.
If I did it again, I think I would go back part-time at first, but I’d give a date at which I was ready to work full-time and make more of an effort to ensure my boss and coworkers knew I was still committed to the work but needed a few extra months to get there.
Payne: I was working for the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] as a psychologist during both of my pregnancies. Thankfully, I worked on a team for a residential unit for PTSD veterans and the clinical team worked with me to manage my caseload while I was away on 12-week maternity leave (both times). I did return to hundreds of emails, which I had to sort through upon my return. One thing that eased my transition back to work was having my husband take some paternity leave the first week I went back. I also returned to work on a Thursday, so the first workweek back was much more tolerable. I pumped on a schedule, and my oldest son’s daycare was very close to my office, so I would nurse him on my lunch breaks. The daycare providers also would text me updates and pictures every now and then, which helped me get through the days.
How did you structure your maternity leave? Was it paid or unpaid?
Beach: In Texas, you get Family Medical Leave for three months unpaid and your job is protected while you are gone. I had told them in advance I would be using the FML after my son’s birth.
Fung: I have been at two different jobs over my maternity leaves. The first offered unpaid leave, and I used as much PTO [paid time off] as I had available to cover my time away. The second was while I was working on the website I helped to co-found, so I continued to be paid but chose not to take much time away to continue to build the business.
Kankariya: My pregnancy was the first instance of our startup having to offer a maternity plan. That being said, as a company, we have a flexible policy of paid and sick leave. I was able to take maternity leave while working from home and then reintegrate back to work by balancing some work-from-home hours with days back at the office at a gradual pace. Because we are an e-commerce startup, I am blessed with the fact that much of my work can be done remotely when necessary.
Martin: I was not eligible for FMLA because I had been at my company for less than one year. My state (Washington) allows for the use of short-term disability for maternity leave, so I received partial pay (around 50% pay) for six weeks through short-term disability, then I was given an additional six weeks off unpaid.
Payne: My leave was structured around the babies’ needs, mostly; I exclusively breastfed, so I always was attached. Short term disability wasn’t an option. I used approximately two to three weeks of sick leave and annual leave that I had accrued and went on FMLA for the rest of the time (unpaid).
What was the hardest part of going back to work after maternity leave?
Beach: It was the pain because I had a c-section, and I wasn’t able to sit for long periods of time. The work was now different because they wanted me to use PHP when I didn’t know the language well. It got really stressful. I knew it was time to quit when I got so overwhelmed that I felt like crying. The job was completely different than before I left.
Fung: Leaving baby! It is so important and necessary to have that time to bond with baby and adjust to your new reality as a family, and having to spend so much time away from him or her after an intense period of getting to know one another is challenging, no matter how much you may love your work or feel ready to get back to it. (I should note that I have been fortunate in my current job to have the flexibility to work remotely, so I do not need to spend such long periods away from the newest little one as I did at previous positions.)
Kankariya: The hardest part was not only leaving my baby at home without me being there, but also was understanding that I need to establish a work/life balance. With a startup, you get used to working or thinking about work nonstop. A baby changes that. You have to prevent yourself from thinking about work all the time so that you can be fully present for your child — even if you are just playing.
Martin: The hardest part was definitely the sleep deprivation. But also, just feeling like I was not fully present at work or at home. When I was at work, I worried about what was going wrong at home, and vice versa.
Payne: The hardest part for going back for me was being away from my babies and wondering if I would be missing their important milestones. It was hard for me to think about someone else taking care of all of my children’s needs. However, I wholeheartedly believe that I am a better mother because I am away from my children during the work hours.
What advice do you have for mothers who want to return to work after their baby is born?
Beach: If you must go back to work, find a reputable daycare center that you can trust. Ask others who are using the daycare and look online for reviews. Show up unannounced without an appointment to the daycare to see how things really are. It is a reality that a mom might not be able to stay home if two paychecks are required to keep the household running. Make sure the job is accommodating of moms— like they allow time off if a child is sick or allow you to leave early if you need to for your child.
Fung: Don’t be afraid to lean on your support network — family, friends, perhaps even colleagues — as you adjust to your new normal, and to ask for help or set reasonable boundaries as may become necessary in the process.
Kankariya: My advice would be to remember to set aside even half an hour for yourself where you are focusing on yourself in a nurturing positive way. Work and baby will pull you aggressively in terms of all that you must do to keep up. But denying yourself that half an hour of yoga, a massage, a run, or even a peaceful meal will prevent you from giving your best elsewhere. Keep that half hour for yourself, not your partner, child or work obligations.
Martin: My advice to new mothers going back to work would be to wait until you are really ready, if possible. I knew I wasn’t ready, but I risked losing my job if I didn’t come back. If that’s not possible, I think it helps to communicate clearly on your limitations early on, and once you are ready to dive back in, I’d be very clear that you are ready to take on more and keep asking for more. So much changes after you become a mother, and many managers assume they know what you will want based on what another mother in your company did, and it’s just not the case. Everyone is going to find a different balance that works for them.
Payne: I would urge mothers returning to work after birth to listen to their gut. If something feels right (or off), trust it. And, to remember that we are our children’s first and primary role model. Returning to work is teaching our children the importance of work/life balance, commitment and making time to share our gifts with the world.
Nicole Dieker is a full-time freelance writer. Her work regularly appears on Bankrate, Lifehacker, The Write Life and numerous other sites. She is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency.