There are many parents out there—both first-time and the more seasoned variety—who choose to stay home to rear their babies. And that is awesome. But for many, that is simply not an option.
When our daughter was born six years ago, I felt like I was a little bit older than the average first-time parent at age thirty-one. Whether or not that’s true, I have no idea. I’d been working for several years at a university and felt like I was carving my career path, one position at a time. Each new position brought on increasing responsibility, a little more money, and the continued promise of something bigger and better. I was working on a master’s degree in my field and really liked my job, something I knew I was lucky to experience. You could say I was career focused. I had no interest in giving up my job.
In my unyielding quest to keep things well-planned and organized, here’s how I thought it would work:
- Deliver baby. Whew! That’d be easy.
- Bring baby home and commence maternity leave, lasting six weeks, during which time I would check into the office at regular intervals to prove my worth.
- Deposit baby at childcare center.
- Return to work forty-two days post-partum, promptly at 8 a.m., stay until 5 p.m.
- Shed baby weight.
To say I didn’t get it was the understatement of the century.
There was so much I was not prepared for, including:
- Falling madly, uncontrollably, sickeningly, and not least of all, overwhelmingly in love with my daughter. I knew I’d love her, but this was ridiculous. I had heard of parents who marveled at smiles and gas bubbles. Never did I think I’d be among them. Their queen, actually.
- How utterly heart-wrenching and difficult it would be to leave my precious and tiny infant in the care of a complete stranger.
- The fact that I would cry daily—as in every day—for the first twelve months of my child’s life. Out of guilt. Out of anger. Out of sheer sleep deprivation. (I was also unaware of babies’ ability and/or willingness to sleep.)
All I could think about was how could I quit my job and still live on my husband’s income alone.
But it got better. It did. I began to feel better about the childcare situation—mostly because I was taking my lunch break there daily to nurse my daughter. Spending the noon hour holding, rocking and feeding her helped immeasurably, and gave me a chance to get to know the childcare staff and see them in action.
It wasn’t overnight, but it got to the point where my little family was a well-oiled machine of drop-offs, pick-ups, scheduled meals, work responsibilities. I was no longer sad. I finished my degree and got a sweet promotion. You know how when you’re in school and you have to share with the class about what you want to do after graduation? Well, this was the job I had been telling my classmates I wanted throughout grad school.
Then … I got pregnant with No. two.
I assumed that we’d simply integrate a second into our happy little routine. Right?
After my son was born (my daughter still a toddler), I was all set to enroll him in the childcare center my daughter attended.
But a leadership change at work, coupled with an unfortunate allegation against one of the staff members at my childcare center caused me to rethink everything, especially outsourced childcare. I panicked. I was still on maternity leave.
I went to my boss, basically to beg for a part-time assignment or to quit my job. I wasn’t exactly sure how the meeting would play out.
What I ended up with was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
My service and diligence had apparently paid off because my boss offered me the opportunity to work from home almost exclusively at a reduced rate of twenty-five hours per week. My salary was reduced proportionately, but could keep my benefits though they were pro-rated as well. My responsibilities changed, and I did take a title demotion, but I kept a professional position and was able to stay home with my kids.
In my haze and momentary freak-out after my son was born, I lacked the brain cells or the creativity to come up with a viable career solution that would enable me to 1) care for my children in the way I wanted to, and 2) keep one foot in the door where I could maintain my visibility, my productivity and my skills.
Often, women “stop out” of their careers after the birth of a baby and, after several years when the kids are in school, they may find it difficult to find employment on par with what they left. Keeping one foot in the door may just alleviate some of the challenges women face restarting their careers with lengthy gaps in professional experience.
Working from home was a challenge: I made the most of nap-times and would fire up the laptop once my husband and I got everybody put to bed. Sometimes it would take a fourteen-hour stretch of time, done in twenty-minute increments here and there to complete the day’s work. But I got it done.
My son grew and began spending more time with a beloved and trusted babysitter. My daughter got older and began preschool. I began to spend more time in the office and was able to transition back into more responsibility and time. Many associates never even knew I was “gone,” mostly because I wasn’t. Not entirely.
While I was working from home, I was able to see my son take his first steps, teach my daughter how to write her name, and earn an award from a professional association for my work.
So it is possible, to have it all—family, career, peace of mind—just maybe not all at the same time. The advice I now give pregnant coworkers who are struggling with the decision about what to do once the baby comes is:
- Just ask. You’re never going to get what you don’t ask for.
- Be creative. Maybe you can job share, or maybe there’s a job shuffle that could happen where some of your responsibilities (and salary) are shifted to other folks. It’s win-win for you, your colleagues, and your employer. They’ve made an investment in your career and ultimately, it may cost less to retain you than to replace you. Look into your company’s policies about maternity leave.
- Be flexible. Check into whether flextime or telecommuting is a possibility at your company. Technology just might be your best friend and ally.
- Be realistic. It’s hard working independently — and it isn’t for everyone. Be honest about what you are capable of accomplishing unsupervised and the quality of work you are capable of producing while caring for a newborn.
- Plan early. And get it in writing.
Consider the options, and know that it is possible to stop to smell the diapers while climbing (or at least hanging onto) the corporate ladder.