In three weeks, I will return to work after maternity leave.
Before my first was born (he is almost 2), I didn’t understand what was so difficult about returning to work after maternity leave. I was no naive! I watched as colleagues of mine, physicians who had spent years in training and who had accrued sizable debt, decreased their hours to part-time or dropped out of the workforce completely. I vividly remember discussing this with my husband in utter disbelief: “How can they do that? What a waste of all those years!”
Fast forward to 2014: the second we brought my son X home from the hospital, I remember thinking “I can never go back to work again.” My baby boy, my heart, had finally arrived. Despite our struggle with infertility, despite a minor scare at the hospital after his birth – here he was. How could I leave him!? It didn’t help that X refused to sleep longer than 30-60 minutes at a time day OR night unless someone held him. I was exhausted – a zombie subsisting on coffee and snuggles from this warm little being. I’m sure that all of the postpartum emotions did nothing to help my vocational morale. There were days when I couldn’t even get it together to leave the house ONCE. How was I going to wake up early, shower, get dressed in something other than nursing tanks and sweat pants (or maternity pants for that matter – why aren’t huge elastic waistbands trending? It’s a genius design!), and then interact with patients, diagnose their conditions, and actually treat them? All while pumping 3 times during the day? It seemed impossible.
I was fortunate to have a generous maternity leave. 18 weeks of paid leave may not seem generous if you live outside of the US or work at Netflix, but I felt so lucky to have it, especially considering that I had only worked 3 months prior to going out on leave. I count my blessings every day that my employer and colleagues are family-friendly and supportive. It makes working mamahood a lot less stressful. And to any employers reading this: longer maternity leaves will help your company. Moms will return to work MUCH better prepared for peak performance. They will be less sleep-deprived, less upset at having to leave their newborn in someone else’s care, and they will be so grateful for your generosity that they will work their butts off.
So how did I go back to work, and how has that experience prepared me this time around? I wish I could say something like “I wanted to set a good example for my children” or “I couldn’t imagine my life without adult interaction and the ability to use my brain”, but it would not be true and it would also be inaccurate, as I truly believe that you can set a good example, have adult interaction and use your brain as a stay-at-home mom. At the end of the day, it boiled down to necessity and fear of regret:
- I had to go back to work. We live in an expensive region and we needed my salary to continue living there comfortably and to accomplish our long-term financial goals. We had just settled in the area and it seemed premature to flee so quickly.
- Teenagers can be terrible people. Having been a terrible teenager myself (I used to tell my own mother to go back to work full-time so that she would stay out of my hair – terrible, right?), I envisioned myself frantically second-guessing my life decision when this adorable infant turned into an unbearable adolescent. How marketable would I be in a competitive practice environment after taking so much time off?
And so I counted down the days with dread and cried at the drop of a hat until the actual day came. When it did, I learned that there was much to enjoy about work. Some were hugely gratifying – interacting with my patients again, truly helping people, feeling challenged, learning and being inspired by my amazing colleagues – while others were small but also enjoyable – eating with both hands, using the restroom without an infant, speaking to human beings who could respond with words.
Of course, everything is rosier now. At the time, it was incredibly difficult. Leaving our baby with someone who was, at the time, a stranger, was HARD. Tearing myself away from him in order to arrive at clinic on time was often painful as it meant rushing, pumping instead of nursing, or not reading our usual books. Some mornings I would leave before he woke up, which broke my heart. I was also upset when I could not be there all day when he was sick, or when I learned that he had learned something new in my absence, or when our caregiver did not adhere to the routine I so carefully laid out. Lack of control is terrible when you are a control freak! Eventually, these things stung less. I saw that he was well-cared for and that he was thriving. He knew who his mama was and loved her. I cherished our time together and spent every moment at home trying to be as present as possible.
This time around, I am better prepared to deal with these emotions because I know that it all works out. X has so benefited from spending time with caregivers other than myself. Each has taught him something unique and special, and I feel fortunate that my baby, Y, will have the same opportunity.
At the end of the day, we all do what is best for our sanity. There is no “right” decision and I am so embarrassed to have ever judged mothers in the past for doing what they felt was best. Motherhood has certainly been a humbling experience. For mamas out there who are returning to work or deciding whether to return to work, I’ll share the two bits of advice I found most helpful:
- Find great childcare. You will never be able to focus on work 100% if you do not believe that your child is being well cared for. Trust your instincts, don’t settle, and change arrangements as soon as possible if something feels “off”.
- Do not make any drastic career decisions during your baby’s first year of life. Sleep deprivation, raging hormones, the postpartum state – these variables do not encourage a clear mind. It is so important to take a step back and look at the big picture and this can be very difficult to do when your time is consumed by an infant’s needs (which is 24/7).
Good luck to any moms returning to work and any moms who have decided to work at home. Mamahood is not for the faint of heart!