My daughter is returning to work this week, almost three months after the birth of her first child and our first grandchild, a wonderful little girl. Times have certainly changed since I returned to work when her older brother was 10-months-old and then, four years later, when she was just 6-weeks-old. But the anxieties, guilt and yes, joy, over returning to work are timeless.
My mom never worked after the birth of her first child, and I was the first of my friends to have a baby so I didn’t have anyone to give me advice. So I’ve compiled this list for her, her friends and the many other young women going through this life-changing experience.
1. “Firsts” aren’t such a big deal. A few weeks ago, my daughter mentioned feeling a little down over missing any of the baby’s “firsts,” and this got me thinking about what I wish someone would have told me: Many babies do their first “rolling over” or “sitting up” when nobody's watching. And even if someone else does see that first step or hear that first word, it will be repeated again and again. What really matters is that the baby is reaching the appropriate developmental milestones and that the adults applaud and appreciate each new accomplishment.
2. There are many ways to be a good mom and employee, and you don’t have to be rigid. You might have noticed above that I went back to work when my daughter was 6-weeks-old, and I had a 4-year-old as well. The newspaper where I worked was undergoing a major revamping and it was all hands on deck, so I agreed to come back WAY too soon. I did have help with the kids, but I still got up every morning at 4 a.m. to pump. I wanted to breastfeed exclusively, when, actually, supplementing with formula would have made life easier. But I wasn’t willing to open my mind to different ways of doing things. So I went to work, came home at lunchtime to nurse her (I did live close!) and returned to the office. I was exhausted and very stressed most of the time. This was my perception of being the “perfect” mom and the “perfect” employee. My biggest takeaway: Do what’s right for you and your family and learn to say no. And change your mind if you realize something isn’t working.
3. Don’t be afraid to criticize your support systems. We had day babysitters when my son was young and hired a live-in when my daughter was born, even though the sitter actually took home more money each week than I was netting. I valued the help so much that I would overlook small things that bothered me because I didn’t want to create hostilities or have to look for a new nanny. I’ve since learned from years of managing that there are nice ways to tell people you have issues with aspects of their performance—and that if someone really isn’t right, it’s best to let them go even if that means a major inconvenience. Accepting behavior that doesn’t feel comfortable isn’t OK; your child’s welfare is at stake. When my son was a year old, a friend watched him along with her same-aged son. I saw my child wince a few times. I hesitated to say anything because she was a good friend. Then, I found out her son was biting mine—and she had decided not to tell us. What else would she keep from us? That ended the relationship.
4. Ignore “well-intentioned” comments. From your vast network of friends and family, there will be people who don’t understand why you are going back to work. They may offer their “sympathy” or just talk about how much better their own situations are. Don’t believe it or let it hurt you. Everyone does things for different reasons and you are doing what is best for you and your family. Feel good about that decision.
5. Ask for all kinds of help. If you are overwhelmed at work, or at home, ask for even the simplest kind of help—could you take out the garbage? Could you make six copies for me? Whatever it is, people understand that you have always helped others and they will help you.
6. Enjoy being at work. There is a great deal of satisfaction in doing adult work well and there is also, especially after being home with an infant, a lot of pleasure in the adult camaraderie of an office environment. There’s no reason to feel guilty about liking your job or being at the office.
7. And finally, situations can change and you can change. I was a Baby Boomer feminist, and always said I would work full-time when I had children. I did, and I’m glad I did because my work has been meaningful to me and to others. But as your work and family situations evolve, if you have to make other decisions, be flexible. You have many years to raise your child and to work—and I have every confidence you will succeed at both.