I got a lot of parenting advice when I had my first baby. There was one subject, though, that didn’t come up as often: how to handle going back to work after having kids. Everything I read or heard was something along the lines of, “Oh well, do the best you can because you’ll feel like you’re failing at one or the other at any given the time.” So, I spoke to other working parents I knew and when my maternity leave ended, I realized there were things you don’t have to do as a working mom, even if they work for other people and even if they swear by them and even if they say you should.
As a parent, my instinct is to do whatever is best for my children. Still, I don’t singularly define myself as a “mother.” I’ve worked hard to cultivate a career I love, doing creative work that, for me, justifies being away from my kids 10 hours a day. I often get frustrated by other people’s opinions on working moms. The first myth we need to debunk is the notion of “having it all,” because no one, including working dads, or retired presidents, can ever make that claim. So if we can change the idea of “all” to that of “fit,” that’s something I can get behind and wholeheartedly support. Form, that notion would simply mean I strive to make the many different parts of my life — family, job, friends, reading, exercise, staring into space with a hot cup of coffee — fit together, like shifting pieces in a puzzle that is never put together the same way twice.
Once I debunked the notion that there was an “ideal” role model for me as a working mom, I trusted myself to make the best decisions for my kids, and me, when it came to the part work plays in all our lives. I want my kids to be proud of me. The legacy of good parenting is wonderful, to be sure, but I want to inspire them with what my career has enabled me to achieve.
So here are the things I felt I didn’t have to do as a working mom, even though a lot of people said I did:
Mention Maternity Leave In Your Out-Of-Office Reply
In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t cited maternity leave in my out-of-office replies. Not because I’m embarrassed by it, but because I didn’t owe an explanation to anyone why I couldn’t be reached. All people needed to know was when I was returning, and who to contact in my absence. I would love for work culture to stop treating family leave as an inconvenience and start embracing it as a human right. I feel this way about vacation, and the apologetic tone we take in our auto-responses when we’re out of the office in general or for any specific reason. I don’t want to feel sorry for sitting on a beach, or caring for my newborn.
Answer Email During Maternity Leave
I’ve had people — including other moms — say that occasionally checking your inbox while you’re still on leave (and probably not getting paid) is a good way to ease back in to work. I found it to be the complete opposite. While I welcomed the grown-up interaction after 12 weeks of baby talk, I was stressed any time I took a peek at work email while I was on leave with my firstborn.
People who are on leave, for whatever reason, should be left alone to take care of their lives. Being "on" 24/7 is not only impossible, but a terrible expectation to set for your employer. With my second baby, I felt no need to encroach on the time with my newborn by paying any attention to work while I was on leave. After all, 12 weeks goes by so fast and I’d be back at work soon enough.
Check In On Your Kid During The Day
For a year, we had our daughter enrolled in a preschool with a camera where, with an impossible-to-remember password, you could log in to catch your kid in action throughout the day. I found this to be a terrible idea.
I know people use nanny cams and cameras in the classroom that have revealed insidious behavior on the part of the caregivers, so those devices definitely serve good in that way. However, aside from the safety factor, I didn’t see any benefit to being able to look at my kid while she was unaware. In fact, it made me miss her more. It was distracting for me, just because I could spy on my kid at school didn’t mean I should.
Give Up "Me" Time
It’s true that I didn’t choose to go out after work with friends or co-workers as much after I became a mom. I had so little time with my kids that I wanted to spend those few hours at the top and tail of their days together.
Still, I found other ways of meeting my personal and social needs. I met friends for lunch or squeezed a pedicure in during the workday. With planning, I can be really choosy about when I give up the rare evening with my kids to meet up with an old pal visiting from out of town. Working motherhood is not about sacrifice. To me, it’s about time management. Everyone thinks the goal is to do it all, but it’s really to do what counts.
Show Your Baby Off At The Office
I have occasionally brought my kids in, when our childcare has fallen through, and only on days that I knew wouldn’t be hectic at work (typically Friday before a holiday weekend). It's definitely not easy, you guys.
Everyone thinks you should bring the baby in when you return from maternity leave but the logistics of that, for a commuting mom like me, are a nightmare: steps, subways, diaper changes in non-kid-friendly environments. Yeah, no thanks.
This is a choice, not a requirement. Even those of us who wanted to pump when returning to work can’t say they enjoyed the experience.
Get On A Conference Call When You’re Home With A Sick Kid
I get it. There are some work things you can, well, not necessarily miss. Until you think about it and realize that your child’s well-being is the most important thing on the planet.
I have been lucky enough to work for bosses who share that philosophy, and I know not everyone has had the same experience. When my kids are sick, all they want is me. I may try to sneak in work while they’re napping, but if my child needs me to take care of them, then I am calling in sick. It means losing pay for the day, but the cost, for me, would be much greater if I didn’t let them know that family comes first.
Keep The Same Exact Schedule You Had Before Children
My kids’ daycare closed at 6 p.m. on the dot, which meant I could not leave work any later than 5:15 p.m. to pick them up (and even that was cutting it close if there were subway delays). Before kids I came into work at 10 and left by 6 in the evening. Clearly, that could no longer happen. I could have arranged for a sitter to get them, but I wanted to make it home for my infant’s dinner feeding. That time nursing him right before bed was really special to me, and essentially absolved me of any guilt that might have haunted me during the day when I was away from him and he was just a few months old.
I explained to my supervisor that I really needed to leave earlier, but that I would make up for it and not leave any of my work unfinished due to my slightly abbreviated hours. He trusted me to know, having been my boss for the past five years, that I wouldn’t shirk my work responsibilities. Somehow, I got seven hours of work done in less time, and if it was because I cut a mid-day break a little short, or came in a little early, or logged back in after my kids went to bed, or was just that much more efficient (because I am good at my job, it turns out). I didn’t feel overworked by this schedule; I felt like I could focus on work when I needed to, and then give my undivided attention to my kids. I didn’t have to choose.
It took me having a job and children to realize multi-tasking is a joke. My kids have a tendency to move from one unfinished activity to another (like running out of the bathroom to tell me something when they’re not done brushing their teeth), so I’ve developed a mantra for our household: “One thing at a time.” I have tried doing more than one thing at a time, and have just ended up doing many things terribly.
There’s a belief that working moms are great at multi-tasking. I don’t think that’s the case. We just develop a terrific knack for prioritizing, and tackling individual items with laser focus. (Confession: I have read while pumping, but that’s as crazy as I’ve gotten with multi-tasking once I became a mom.)
Apologize For Having A Life That Includes Children
It seems that working parents are always apologizing for child-related situations that take them out of the office, as if “the norm” for people with jobs was to be child-free and all of those working for a living, who have dependents, are needing to conform. This. Needs. To. Change. There should be no status quo when it comes to what people’s lives look like outside of their jobs. Some of us raise children, some of us don’t. Some of us train for marathons, most of us don’t. Some of us care for our elderly parents, or foster pets, or volunteer or need to regularly attend support groups. Life and work are not mutually exclusive. There is no “balance,” there can just be flow. At times, you can make your work the priority, and at other times, something else needs more of your attention.
I want to see a world without a prescribed formula on what it takes to be successful. If we only looked at the hours people put in at the workplace, it doesn’t seem to indicate how well a company does or how high the quality of output is over time. More studies are showing that work environments offering flexible schedules yield more productivity and happier employees, who take fewer sick days. This positively impacts a company’s bottom line.
My children will, hopefully, be in my lives much longer and with greater impact than the jobs I will have in the same amount of time. I do not apologize to my kids for pursuing a career, which satisfies my personal and creative ambitions. I should not be made to feel that I owe any company an apology for raising a family when I'm meeting, or exceeding, my employer's expectations.