I didn’t put too much thought towards preparing for my return to work after my maternity leave. My focus was on my new baby, and how it felt to leave her, after 12 weeks, to resume my full-time job. My thoughts were firmly embedded on motherhood, and not on working motherhood. In other words, it's safe to say there are struggles only moms returning to work can understand, and I understand every single one of them. Honestly, I was blindsided by the energy I needed to put into the adjustment to going back to the office, barely having adjusted to becoming a new mother just a few months prior.
American work culture, as it stands now in corporate offices such as the one in which I worked when I became a new mom, fetishizes busyness. I never noticed it before becoming a mom, though. In fact I prided myself on being so busy with meetings and deadlines and multitasking. When I returned to the office after maternity leave, my number one priority was not my job, but my child. I loved my career and did not want to give it up, but I had to find a way to satisfy the demands of my job, while not feeling like I was showing up to work just to run in a hamster wheel while someone else looked after, and enjoyed, my baby. I had to find a way to work smarter, and more efficiently, so I could clear the brain space that new motherhood demanded. I couldn’t afford to forget to make follow-up pediatrician appointments because I was too busy trying to follow the garbled monotony of yet another conference call.
Nine years after having my first child, I can honestly say I have not mastered what it takes to be a mother with a career who feels like she’s killing it on both fronts. But I have learned how to accept that there will be challenges, such as the ones here that I struggled with when I found my way back to my desk:
Wrestling With Identity
I’m a mom. I’m a senior level employee. I’m a wife. I’m exhausted.
Trying Not To Look Tired All The Time
Though I was exhausted, I knew I couldn't present that way all the time at the office. I didn't want my manager to doubt my abilities. I was still the same ambitious, conscientious employee I had been before giving birth. I just had slightly more pronounced under-eye baggage.
Gathering Enough “Pump-Friendly” Outfits
I had to rethink my work wardrobe when I returned to my job after maternity leave. I’d need to pump twice a day, and the only place to do that was two elevator trips from my desk. So not only did I need to wear tops that gave me fast, easy access to my breasts, but ones that could get pulled down in a hurry since my company didn’t get a dedicated Mother’s Room until I was pumping for my second child.
Fitting Meetings Into The Pumping Schedule
Even though I’d block out my calendar so my schedule had me marked as “busy” during my pumping sessions, co-workers rarely busy-searched me when setting up meetings. While this always annoyed me, it especially irritated me when I was pumping at work. I went through a lot of trouble to reserve the Mother’s Room (once my company built one) and having to change the booking time was not a turnkey process. I had to reach out to the person who had it booked at the new time I wanted it and see if she was willing to change her pumping session. It was a mess and took up way too much of my time and brain space when I could have been getting actual work done or putting actual breast milk into a container.
Finding The Meaning In The Work
My perspective on work really shifted after becoming a mom. I worked in TV advertising, so I wasn’t saving lives with my career. “What is the point of all this?” I’d ask myself, thinking about the 12-week-old baby I was leaving every day with a sitter so I could make commercials for reality programming. I eventually left that job, but not to stay at home. I still valued the investment I had made in my career, but it made me realize that I really needed to feel good about what I was doing at my job to justify leaving my kids to the care of others. It’s a privilege to choose the jobs that fulfill me. I recognize that is rarefied position that many working mothers are not in.
Tolerating The Small-Talkers…
As a working mom, I became acutely aware of the value of my time. I couldn’t afford to waste it if I wanted to get everything done to make it to daycare before it closed to pick up my son. I didn’t notice how much time people spend not working at work.
Don't get me wrong, I think some co-worker banter is valuable. After all, we are humans with lives, and jobs that treat us like robots are not good jobs. But I no longer was willing to spend more than a few moments exchanging pleasantries with colleagues, fearful that I was cutting into the time I needed to complete my work and make my train.
… Without Being Standoffish
It was challenging to navigate the line between friendliness (“Yes, please tell me all about stages of adding an in-ground pool to your backyard”) and chilliness (“Sorry, trying to make a deadline, so we’ll catch up... when my kid’s in college”). I struggled with time management balance: having enough time to get high quality work done and make it daycare on time, but also holding space for cultivating and sustaining my work relationships. I really did love, and need, my co-workers, and I found I had to put significant energy into being a solid peer to them.
Not Feeling Bad About Ditching Happy Hour Events
It was hard not to feel lame about begging off so many social events for work, but I had to be judicious about how my “after hours” time was spent. Staying out for just an hour for drinks meant having to hire a babysitter and possibly getting home past my kid’s bedtime. I had to put some serious thought into deciding what events were truly worth my time, and then try not to have FOMO.
Traveling For Work…
Luckily I didn't have to start traveling immediately upon my return from maternity leave. But holy hell do I feel for those parents who do. Though I didn't have to travel much for my job, doing so when I became a mom took emotional and physical tolls that I never grappled with before I had kids.
I missed my children terribly. I felt guilty that my husband had to take on all the domestic responsibilities (plus those of his own full-time job) in my absence. And to make up for that, I’d put in extra time pre-packing snacks and leaving exhaustive (and rarely needed, truth be told) to-do lists for him. Though I tried to enjoy having a hotel bed all to myself on those work trips, with no little critters interrupting my bathroom time, my trepidation about being away from my kids made that difficult.
… With Expressed Breast Milk
Things got awkward that time I was flying home from a shoot with my boss and a co-worker, and I was stopped by a TSA officer who said they needed to examine the breast milk I had in a cooler. I had only been gone two nights, so I didn’t have gallons of milk, but I had several 5-ounce bottles filled and the TSA agent opened every single one of them and waved some sensor over them to check for… bombs? I guess? Not only did I feel targeted, and humiliated, for doing a very basic thing like providing the infant back home with food, but I was now worried I was going to miss my flight. “Go ahead,” I called out to my colleagues, who had sympathetic, if not slightly uncomfortable, expressions on their faces. I didn’t want them to miss their flights, too.
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