My daughter was only 3-months-old when I returned to work after maternity leave. I had always planned to continue working, and to take the standard amount of unpaid parental leave offered by my employer, but going back to work and leaving my 3-month-old behind was a far more difficult adjustment than I could've possibly imagined. Even though everything went "according to plan," I wasn't close to ready — not by a long shot. Taking another few months of maternity leave just wasn't an option, though. I was the sole breadwinner for our family, and we needed the money.
I realize that I was privileged to be able to take 12 weeks of parental leave, which was required by the Family and Medical Leave Act. So many new parents don't get any leave, paid or unpaid, and a reported 25 percent of new moms go back to work a mere two weeks after giving birth. I can't imagine how hard that must be, so while I wasn't ready to go back to work three months postpartum I acknowledge that so many parents do not have that option.
But it's hard to feel lucky when you simultaneously feel like you don't have any options; like you have little-to-no say about your postpartum life or how much time you spend with your baby; like the decision has already been made for you.
I had no idea my employer didn't offer paid maternity leave, and when I found out I was pregnant I felt incredibly stupid for assuming they did. I had to save every hour of paid sick leave and vacation time I earned to keep my family financially afloat while I recovered form childbirth, and that time only covered about half of my maternity leave. At the advice of my HR department, I also purchased a short-term disability insurance plan, which covered 60 percent of my salary for six of those weeks. That wasn't enough, either.
I was trapped in a no-win situation far too many moms in this country experience.
As a result, my new family had to live frugally in order to make it financially. And when my unpaid leave was up, I had to go back to work... regardless of whether or not I was physically or emotionally ready. And since I had used up all my sick leave, I didn't have any paid time off to cover pediatrician appointments, unforeseen illnesses, or any other situation that's sure to arise when you have a 3-month-old child to care for.
I hadn't fully recovered from childbirth when I went back to work either. My body still didn't feel like my own, breastfeeding was a nightmare, my baby wasn't sleeping through the night, and I had no idea how I was going to continue to adjust to mom life when I was simultaneously worrying about work.
I was also suffering from postpartum depression when I went back to work, so to say that I had serious reservations about my abilities as a parent when I was also asked to go back to being an employee is a horrible understatement. But there wasn't any time to focus on my mental or physical health. I was trapped in a no-win situation far too many moms in this country experience. The United States is the only developed country that doesn't offer mandatory paid family leave, so far too many of us are forced to return to work way, way before we're ready.
And I wasn't ready. At all.
I still needed to learn to be my baby's mom. I still needed the chance to see more of her "firsts." I needed a few more months to hold her for more than just a few hours between dinnertime and bedtime. I still needed time to just be a mom.
It's not that I was looking for a way out of work, because I wasn't. I wanted to be a working mom, and I was devoted to my career. I loved my job, and wanted to set a great example for my daughter as a successful working mother. I just wish I didn't have to leave her so early in order to do it.
I shouldn't have to fear for my career or my child's wellbeing when holding a positive pregnancy test in my hands.
Eventually, and after a lot of growing pains, more than a few tears, and some conversations with my superiors, I made things work as a working mom. I negotiated a different work schedule and telecommuted two days a week from home, so I could hang out with my baby during the day. And, for the most part, my boss was OK with me working when I could and not worrying about putting in my 40 hours between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., which was awesome and, again, another privilege that's rarely afforded to new moms.
In the end, I was lucky.
But taking time to recover from childbirth, bond with my baby, and adjust to life as a mom shouldn't be "lucky." That should be the bare minimum afforded to parents. I shouldn't have to fear for my career or my child's wellbeing when holding a positive pregnancy test in my hands. I shouldn't have to worry about my inability to thrive in my chosen field if I take a day to tend to sick child, work from home to accommodate my family's needs, or take maternity leave.
But that's exactly what happened, and what happens to so many women in this country who decide to start families and still work outside the home. And until this country puts its money where its mouth is and really values working moms, more moms like me will end up going back to work way, way before they're ready.