A dear friend (thinking of you, Lisa!) returned to work last week, a colleague is coming back on Wednesday (can’t wait to see you, Liviya!), and a longtime friend has just left her job for maternity leave in anticipation of the imminent birth of her first child (hang in there, Jordana!), so I have been thinking a lot about what it means for a woman to go “back to work” after having a child. I will share my favorite nuggets of advice on this subject later this week, but first, please indulge me for a bit of philosophizing.
The vast majority of my colleagues are men, and they all have children so they think they know what it is like to leave your heart at home to go to work. I do not mean to suggest that dads do not miss their children while they are away, but I think it is even harder on moms. Perhaps because our culture still believes stay-at-home moms are best for kids (although declining, nearly three in four adults still say women working outside the home makes it harder for parents to raise children) and for successful marriages.
I think most women, even those who ultimately decide to stay at home, miss the independence, camaraderie, and sense of productivity that a job provides, so may be eager to return after maternity leave. Some women are so passionate about their work that they cannot imagine giving that up to be home with their child. More power to them! In fact, I expected to be one of them. I really like my job, but even so, the novelty of working wore off very quickly for me.
In retrospect, the whole nomenclature of going “back to work” seems misleading. First of all, being home all day with a newborn is a lot of “work.” MUCH harder than most day jobs (I will spare you my rant about the public misconception that maternity leave is days spent in PJs cuddling a baby). Second, “back to work” implies that we are returning to the job we left, which I did not find to be the case. Of course, my job description and duties were the same before and after my maternity leave, but I feel very differently about them now.
I was drawn to practicing law in the government, rather than in the private sector, in part because my schedule is much more family-friendly, but also because I value being a public servant. With the exception of a summer spent dabbling in corporate law, I have worked for the Federal government my entire adult life, with jobs in each of the three branches (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial). In my current position, I conduct legal research, write and edit briefs, attend court hearings, and battle with bureaucracy to defend the Federal government against lawsuits.
Before my son was born, my job seemed intellectually challenging and meaningful. Now that every hour I spend in my office is an hour away from my baby, my work sometimes feels trivial. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my colleagues and still find my work interesting, but it cannot compare with making my son laugh or helping him learn to crawl.
I did not have a choice about whether I would return to work (as I will explain in a future post), and I am very fortunate to have a job that includes a great deal of flexibility and compassionate supervisors. Even though I have been back for more than three months, however, I still have a hard time leaving the house some days (especially Mondays!) and going “back to work” has not gotten much easier with time. I rely heavily on the tips I will share in my next post . . .