While I talked to many moms about their experiences as I prepared to become a mother, I focused a lot on what the baby would need. I didn’t consider what I might need. So, when I returned to work after 12 weeks of maternity leave (half of it unpaid), I realized there were things I wish someone had told me about the fifth trimester, a term recently coined by journalist Lauren Smith Brody in her new book on the subject. I had survived pregnancy and the postpartum period relatively unscathed (though the hormone roller coasters and the pits of despair it would sometimes deliver me to was not fun), but I was completely unprepared to go back to work full-time.
I honestly thought I could just pick up where I left off. Not that much could have possibly changed around the office in three months, right? I’d be given my assignments and integrated back into the groove. I didn’t expect to acclimate immediately, but I didn’t know I’d feel that much different just because I had a baby.
Being a mom basically changed how I saw the world, watching everything now through a brand new person’s eyes. I was weighing my choices carefully, debating if what I was doing — at home, at work — was best for my child. I had not done my homework when it came to understanding how this huge life event was going to affect everything I did, including how I felt about my job.
Now, I’m eager to share my experiences coming back to work with moms-to-be who ask. I want them to know the things I wish someone had told me about the fifth trimester, like these:
I am not a teacher or a doctor. I work in TV, and while I do think we all need to be entertained and occasionally distracted from the lunacy of our world, at times, I am not saving lives writing and producing commercials. Nothing crystallized that thought more than when I came back to the office, suddenly away from my baby for 10 hours a day, and for what? Being a working mom made me realize that I needed to feel good about my work, and about being away from my kid. It would have been nice to have had a heads up about this.
Though I do subscribe to Sheryl Sandberg’s current thinking, of bringing your whole self to work (we are all humans with lives outside our jobs, after all), I do think you need to be able to “shut off” that parenting part of you at times.
For one thing, multitasking is the worst way to work. Personally, focusing on one thing at a time is a lot more productive than trying to answer emails while scheduling pediatrician appointments. I can’t help when thoughts of my kids interrupt my day-to-day at the office. So I take a moment, acknowledge them, and get back to work. When the school nurse calls, of course I drop everything. The kids will always come first, and it took me a while after maternity leave to learn how to mentally toggle between work and home while on the job.
I didn’t care much for meetings before I had kids, but afterwards? Yeah, afterwards I absolutely hated them. They felt like such time-sucks, and I was acutely aware that I could be so much more efficient without them, and maybe even get all my work done in about five hours if I didn’t have to gather around a conference table three times a day. It’s not like I don’t like my colleagues; I just don’t think we need to sit together and “follow up” for hours at a time. I was unprepared to feel so inconvenienced by these meetings.
I had nothing to cry about. I had a job, a healthy baby, and a quality caregiver at home with said baby. And yet, I’d burst into tears staring at an excel sheet at my desk. Turns out, 12 weeks is not enough time to adjust to motherhood, let alone to adjust to re-entering the workforce (and I know many women take much less maternity leave than I did). It’s a lot to get used to and I really wished my company gave the option of gradually on-ramping after being home for 12 weeks. It would have made the transition for me a lot less jarring (and emotional).
I didn't ask a single person about pumping before I went back to work. What an oversight. There was only one other woman on my team who had kids, and she had pumped just once a day. I needed to do it twice, and I hadn’t thought about how I was going to do that while also getting all my work done. I managed by blocking out my calendar so nobody could book me for meetings during my pumping time (though many did anyway), and by learning to work fast and tune out the distractions of the open office.
Of course they were polite and asked me about my kid when I came back, but I wanted to chat about her all the time. Luckily, I worked with a great group of people who seemed to be delighted every time I brought up my daughter. Still, I was surprised how nobody thought it was as big a deal as I did that I had just returned from the most momentous event of my life. It clearly wasn’t all about me. Lesson learned.
I had to leave right at 6 p.m. to get home in time to relieve our sitter. Obviously if I was held up, she would stay until I get home, but she was expensive so I tried not to be late. When I was finally home, I wanted to be with my kid, whom I hadn’t seen all day. That meant I had to squash my people-pleasing tendency and be clear that I was not going to be available for a while in the evenings. My boss and co-workers knew that between 6 and 8 p.m., I was not on email. I would check in after my daughter got to bed, and only to see if anything was urgent. Otherwise, it would wait until morning. I hadn’t realized how our 24-hour world was going to affect me, and that I’d really have to speak up to let the world know I wasn’t on call when the work day ended.
Yes, I suffered from working mom guilt. Since then, I have learned to manage it. I like having my career, and I do like being defined by things other than my offspring. I want my kids to be proud of their mother, so accomplishing projects at work is something I delight in sharing with them. But I hate that other people are picking up my kids from the bus, overseeing their homework, taking them to soccer practice and dance class, sitting with them at dinner, and that I get about an hour with them before they’re off to bed. I guess that feeling never goes away.
Sometimes, I look forward to Mondays. I get to use the bathroom without anyone bothering me. I can drink my coffee while it’s still hot. Nobody needs me to get them a snack or adjust the shower temperature. Having a place to be, without my kids, is an aspect of working motherhood I covet. Plus, it makes me appreciate them all the more when I get home.