My first weeks with L were blue skies and rainbows and sunshine. I loved everything about our life together under the roof of our little brick house–the midnight snuggles, wispy baby hair, long, lazy mornings all curled up in bed as a family.
But there was a storm cloud looming on the horizon–I only had maternity leave for 8 weeks (and paid maternity leave for only 6 weeks) and then I had to hand my baby off and go back to work.
To keep with the storm metaphor, I’d spotted the clouds from a long way off. As soon as I found out I was pregnant and got over the initial hurdles of finding a job with benefits and moving to a new town, I began to worry about what would happen when I had to go back to work.
I couldn’t imagine handing my baby off to some stranger. Even just thinking about it broke my heart–and the articles about tiny infants coming home with illnesses, about separation anxiety, about SIDS rates at in-home care centers—all made me feel like I was on the verge of simultaneously drowning and puking. Even reading about good experiences made me feel sick.
Separation aside, there was also the sheer cost of childcare. The best places cost upwards of $800 a month for an infant—the same amount as our mortgage. And while we could’ve made it happen if we needed to (with lots of beans and rice), it would’ve meant not putting money toward our savings goals.
Thankfully, my little sister happened to be looking for a change in her own life, and offered to come nanny for us. She wanted time to study for entrance exams to graduate school and we happened to have a shed in our backyard that could be transformed into a cozy tiny house for her.
The depth of my gratitude toward her for taking care of L—especially in those early days—is hard to describe. Millions of parents in the world don’t have that kind of support network. They’re forced to choose between pricey day care centers or still expensive, unregulated in-home care.
They have to hand their tiny, itty bitty baby off to a stranger at a time when every hormone in their body is screaming that they should be with their baby. They have to make choices about paying for daycare or paying off loans, building savings, and putting fresh and healthy food on the table.
So I feel incredibly lucky to have Jenna (who also happens to be an EMT and an excellent muffin-maker—how lucky are we?!). But even with the knowledge that L was in the hands of my beloved sister, going back to work tore at something deep within me.
I started off slow. When L was 6 weeks old I started working for a few hours a day. That was awesome—Jenna had moved in at that point, and so she’d take care of L while I banged out work. This gave everyone time to adjust to the new arrangement—Jenna learned how to heat up bottles, L learned how to take a bottle, I learned how to pump (and learned that I’d need to wear clothes that allowed me to pump in the office)—all while we were under the same roof. For the hours I went into the office, it was a fun opportunity to dress up and talk to other adults before coming home and snuggling up with my baby. It was the perfect mix.
Then, at 8 weeks after L’s arrival on the planet—when he was still just a little bread loaf of a human being—the day came for me to return to work full time. Even with our preparations, it was awful. I handed L over at 7:30 a.m., and Jordan and I climbed into the car.
Tears streamed down my face the entire drive in. I couldn’t stop thinking, “This is unnatural. I’m not meant to be away from him so soon. He needs me.” Study after study about how women’s bodies adapt to their infants’ needs ran through my mind. I felt jealous of all of the species of the world that get uninterrupted time with their infants—that don’t have to go to work. I felt even more jealous of my mom friends who didn’t have to work. Who were able to stay home with their kids full time, while I’d have to drive away each morning and feel my heart break.
I pulled it together before I got to work, put on a cheery face so that they wouldn’t think I was ungrateful to be there. Bizarrely, I felt like I owed my job for letting me have maternity leave. I felt indebted. Like by having a child so soon into my employment, I was letting them down.
My office was brand new—it felt odd, wrong even, to sit in that pristine environment—with my gleaming desk and giant-screened Mac, and pull out my boob. To do something so very animal in the human space of my office. While I pumped, I calculated the amount of time I’d spend away from L each week.
I worked 9 hours a day, 5 days a week. That was 45 hours. 45 hours out of 168. Only 26% of my time gone—though it wasn’t reassuring to me that most of that time was spent sleeping. That I only got brief evenings and mornings with my son before being torn away from him again.
I tried to be reassured though. At least 74% of the time I’d be the one caring for him. That had to count for something, right?
When I got home that evening and shared my numbers with Jenna, she quickly pointed out that I hadn’t accounted for the time we spent commuting—one hour per day. In reality, I was away from L for 50 hours a week.
I felt simultaneously furious with her for pointing out a reality that I didn’t want to accept, and horribly, sickly trapped. This wasn’t okay—10 hours away from my baby each day. 10 hours stuck at a desk, doing a job that I felt perfectly mediocre about. 41% of my work week away from L. There was no way I could go through my life like that. It wasn’t living to go through life like that.
My despair made things difficult between me and Jenna. When L hit new milestones while I was at work, I felt rabidly envious of her. When he ignored me and smiled at her after she handed him back to me at the end of the day, I wanted to weep.
[I want to note that these difficulties didn’t have anything to do with the way Jenna took care of L, and were in no way her fault–she’s been amazing since day one; it was purely that I wanted to be the one caring for him. I can’t imagine what my stress and anxiety levels would’ve been like if anyone but her had been caring for him during the day].
I felt desperate. I’d spend each pumping break brainstorming ways to make life work for me. Maybe Jordan would quit his PhD and get a job with a salary, so that I could stay home? Maybe I could sneak L into the office? Maybe we could all just run away to Alaska and live in a cabin and sell pottery for a living. Or maybe—just maybe—my boss would let me work from home.
As that was obviously the most realistic scenario, I spent hours drafting the conversation with Jordan. I was so nervous about it that it took me months to broach the topic. Then, finally, I tentatively brought up the subject of working from home.
My boss was not encouraging. It wasn’t something that was usually done in our department. It took an entire process to make it happen, and I’d have to be able to justify how it benefited my employer. The rules were rigid.
I wish I’d had the guts to tell her that it’d benefit my employer because I’d have been willing to stay at that job. Because I’d have been happy—a real life person instead of a paper cut out sitting at a desk, whiling away the hours until I could get back to my baby (this is not to say that I didn’t do my job—I just felt hollow inside while doing it).
But I didn’t. Instead, I started looking for new jobs. Even if I couldn’t find a position where I’d be able to work remotely, at the very least I could find something I was passionate about—so that my time away from L was well spent.
In the meantime, I attended a support group for new moms. When we went around and shared our struggles with the attendant therapist, I told them about how hard it’d been leaving L during the day.
Both the therapist and other mom were sympathetic. Then the therapist said, “You need to change your mentality from ‘I can’t do this, this is unnatural,’ to ‘I have to do this, and doing this creates a better life for my child.’”
At the time, I wasn’t super happy with that advice. I didn’t want to be told to change my mindset. I wanted a systemic change in the United States. I wanted better maternity leave for moms, workplaces that were family friendly, affordable childcare, the ability to work from home.
But she was right. That isn’t the reality in the United States right now. And as we’re not able to move to Canada, something else had to give. And it’d have to be my attitude.
When I reframed things in my brain, and started thinking about how my job enabled me to give L healthcare, a roof over his head, healthy groceries (to be consumed via my breast milk), a cushy, private office to pump in, some of my desperation disappeared. I still felt hollow, but at least I was no longer frantically trying to escape.
Even without the desperation, when a job opening popped up across campus doing science communications, I jumped at it.
I got the position, but faced a month of unemployment before it began (due to HR moving more slowly than molasses). Not having a paycheck was incredibly stressful, but that month off gave me important perspective on what it might be like to stay home full-time with my kid.
And while I loved it (it really was glorious–I napped each day, read Little Women out loud with Jenna, and spent long hours working in the garden), it made me realize that there were pros to working outside of the home.
For example, while working full time, I was so desperate to be with L that I relished every moment with him. It’s easy to be tuned in when you wait for ten hours just to be with your kid.
But by spending all day with L, that intense quality time got diluted. Sometimes I’d be nursing him, scrolling through Instagram on my phone, only to realize that he’d been watching me, waiting for my eyes to meet his before he smiled. I also no longer relished those nighttime wake ups–while beforehand, I’d yearned for the moments I’d get to pull his sleepy little body out of his crib for a midnight snuggle.
I realized that I’d have to work harder to spend high quality time with him–and that made me wonder what kind of job I’d do as a permanent stay-at-home mom. What if working outside of the home actually made me a better mom? It was the first time I’d contemplated the possibility.
When my new job finally started, it was clear that it wouldn’t be easy—that it would force me to continue to expand my own abilities. But the challenges excited me, instead of exhausting me. I loved the work—the opportunity to talk to researchers, to think about the world’s natural resource problems.
But—best of all—it has helped me to strike the perfect balance between working and momming. When I asked my new boss about working from home, he said, “As long as you’re getting your work done, do what makes you happy.”
I don’t think I’ve ever been happier–not only in getting to be with my child–but also in deep, unwavering satisfaction with my job. I already enjoyed my job. Now I love it, and feel deep loyalty toward it. I’m willing to fight for it–to constantly strive to improve and get better, just so that I can keep it.
By working from home, I’ve realized that I enjoy my days in the office, too. I like getting dressed and having adult conversations, forming new relationships and feeling part of a team. Now I appreciate the three days a week that I’m there, instead of dreading them. Not to mention it gives me just the right amount of time away from L to keep me focused when I’m with him.
And the rest of the time, I can set up camp at our dilapidated dining room table—my little boy crawling around nearby, sunshine streaming in through our kitchen windows, graphics about stream health pulled up on my screen. Quite honestly, being a working mom has never felt so wonderful.
All of this has made me realize that working and having kids doesn’t have to be about “doing it all” or “having it all” (two phrases that are commonly applied to women who work and have children), and that if your job makes you feel like you are trying to do it all, maybe you need to find a new one.
While the therapist at that mom group may have been right–and sometimes we simply have to adapt our mindset to the situation at hand–there are times when living with a stressful situation just isn’t worth it. It may require taking a chance, or trying something new, or dealing with the hassle of finding a new position, but it’s important to find a solution that works for you.
(If you can–Jordan, who is constantly pushing me to reexamine my beliefs and thoughts for the better–pointed out that it’s a privilege to have the security to find a new job. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, that isn’t possible. This is why we need better maternity leave policies in the United States–so that no parent is forced to choose between survival and those precious first weeks with their child. So that no parent is stuck in a job where they feel like they’re drowning).
Having a child, taking maternity leave, and valuing your family don’t negate your rights in the workplace. You have a right to negotiate for flexibility. You have a right to make your job livable for you–so that you can continue to do it sustainably. And a good employer will understand that they benefit simply by having happy employees.
Moms through the ages have found creative ways to meld their multi-faceted identities gracefully. A woman in town opened a business selling used children’s goods so that she could be with her child full-time. Recently, I interviewed a lawyer who told me about bringing her infant sons to court so that she could litigate while still spending time with them. Growing up, my best friend’s mom nannied us–and through caring for us and other kids was able to also be with her own children. And one of my good friends tells stories about how her own mom brought her into the office with her.
Those are just a few examples of how people have shaped their lives and careers to find balance, and there are millions more out there.
But ultimately, the onus shouldn’t be on the individual to make it work for them. Parents need support. We need a societal shift toward family-friendly workplaces, with ample parental leave when a new child joins the family and policies that support the multi-faceted identities that parents juggle.
Are you a parent who has struggled to find a balance between working and having children? And parent or not–how have you shaped your own life to meet your needs?