Note: Women and families in our country face a wide range of challenges — especially low-income workers. The following are simply the things I experienced and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. As a country we need to tackle the big-picture issues and critical details to provide comprehensive support to all working families, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.
To prepare for the arrival of my daughter, fourteen months old this Mother’s Day, I turned to friends and family for advice on strollers, swaddles, bottles and more. Many had long lists of registry suggestions, from life-saving nipple cream to hands-free pumping bras (all very new to me). Yet, no one had ready-made advice for how to juggle a baby and a job. My Mother’s Day gift to you? A list of things I wish I’d known before taking on the high-wire work-baby balancing act.
9. Managing IS Succeeding
Parents shoulder enormous pressure today to do things better and faster, both on the job and at home. Forget the catalogue images of color-coordinated baby nurseries, timely sent greeting cards, and home-cooked meals. Being employed with an infant means you have less time — for everything. As soon as I let go of the idea that I would be picture perfect in every part of my life, especially when deeply sleep-deprived, the better I could feel about simply keeping all the balls in the air.
8. Fully Leaving on Leave?
Before maternity leave, I prepared a list of projects to be handled (thankfully) by others in my absence. In California, one taking leave should be free from all workplace duties when disabled by pregnancy or childbirth and during the bonding period with your child. (Check out, for example, these resources for more information on which laws might cover you as a birth parent or non-birth parent).
Yet, once things settled down with the baby, I started to wonder: “How are things going at work? “What will happen to my commitments when I return?” “Do I want to stay in touch with work during my leave?” My employer put no pressure on me to communicate or work during leave. But increasing numbers of women confront this issue, curious if they should check in (via email, phone, or dropping by) during maternity leave. Frankly, there’s no right answer. It helped me to speak frankly with my colleagues and supervisors before my leave to ensure a mutual understanding about how in touch, or not, I would be.
7. It’s Not What You Thought
Feelings may change while on leave — I quickly learned how consuming and draining it can be to breastfeed your baby on demand every one to two hours while putting her down for naps usually five(!) times a day in the early months, not to mention night wakings. And cutting tiny newborn baby fingernails should be part of Navy SEAL training. But the first smiles (perhaps gas?) kept me going. New moms and their families are stillfiguring out how to press “pause” on the job to focus on the baby while remaining steady on the work track for long-term success. No need to have it all figured out ahead of time!
6. Pumping Is a Job in Itself
Pumping breastmilk for my baby while at work required some serious scheduling–worthwhile given the enormous benefits of breastmilk (although, understandably, pumping is not easy or ideal for everyone). I literally made appointments with myself in order to: protect that time, ensure others respected that time, avoid uncomfortable breast engorgement, and provide enough milk for my baby for the following day. Carve the hours out because you and your baby deserve it! Generally employers are required to provide breaks for pumping time, but I worked longer days, worked more efficiently, and/or worked at night to stay on top of things. If you wish, talk about pumping with bosses and coworkers so they understand what it requires, as many simply don’t know. I’d never laid eyes on a breast pump before using one. Most of all, make sure to learn about and use your workplace lactation rights!
5. Wait, No Shortcuts?!
No matter how many devices and apps I tried, or guides and web-sites I read, I realized there’s no one way to raise a baby, no perfect recipe for work-baby balance, and (sadly) no easy path. Get ready for contradictory advice. Laugh (at least to yourself) when well-meaning friends recommend 300-page baby sleep solution books to read in your “down-time.” Appreciate somehow getting ready for work when the baby refuses breakfast, then insists on eating yours, and needs a diaper change just as you’re heading for the door. I picked what worked for me, over time, usually based on trial and error.
4. Know and Use Your Rights
Only thirty six percent of individuals in California are aware they can take paid leave (with partial wage replacement) to care for their seriously ill loved ones or bond with a new baby (or adopted or foster child). This is money workers must set aside from their own earnings in each pay check (reflected on your pay stub) to use when they need time off. The statisticsfor low-income workers and workers of color show even fewer people are aware of this paid benefit. Very few states provide paid leave for caregiving and bonding–just California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. It is not always easy to use these benefits and exercise such rights, given complicated benefits forms, bureaucratic challenges and delays. But we all must support each other and reward best practices to exercise these rights so families may flourish.
3. No Getting Back to Normal
The first few months of having a baby or being back on the job could be tough, but then things would go back to normal — right? Turns out there’s no normal anymore. Our baby, and others I suspect, is constantly changing. What works to get her to sleep tonight won’t necessarily work in a few weeks. The foods a fourteen-month old will eat for dinner (versus throw on the floor) are totally different from those appealing to a seven-month old. And babies need constant medical check-ups, plus they get sick a lot (in some states and cities parents can use sick leave to care for ill children). Accepting change as the only constant keeps me realistic and on my toes. The bright side: monotony would be boring.
2. Trust the Village
It may take a village, but you have to trust the villagers. Gratefully, I can rely on my husband (committed to gender-equitable parenting), another family member, or a caretaker to help with the baby when I’m tied up with work obligations. At first I thought “she’ll only fall asleep if I read her Goodnight Moon” or “my husband can’t possibly know the precise rocking tempo that soothes her during tantrums.” Despite my fears, my daughter in fact loves it when my husband puts her to bed. He has creative, completely effective ways of doing things that amaze me and delight the baby (i.e., changing her diaper while she stands!?).
Also, turning to other parents on how to overcome the next new parenting challenge (e.g., storing breastmilk on a work trip) through Google and Facebook groups helps me figure out workarounds to save time and energy for job demands.
By letting go of total control, asking for and expecting help from my spouse or others, and relying on the whole team, I am more free to focus on work and pleasantly surprised by the great new influences on the baby.
1. Savor the Moment, at Least for a Moment
Working while raising an infant has its challenges but I love my job and I love my daughter. Yes, it is hard. Yes, I miss my baby. But I actively work to savor the special, everyday moments in both my home and work worlds. I enjoy the exciting on-the-job challenges (not to mention the uninterrupted meals and cups of coffee). When I’m at home on the floor with the little one building (or, more commonly, destroying) a pile of blocks, I try to slow down, put the phone away, and focus on her. Because when work is done my other job and joy is to experience and help this amazing developing person.