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7 Tips For Achieving Work-Life Balance As A New Mom
Dear New Mom,
If you live in the U.S., and work for a company that has short-term disability and FMLA, you are possibly looking at 12 weeks off for recovery and time with your newborn baby after he or she arrives. Compensation most likely varies, but at the three companies that I have worked for post-college, they all offered 60% of your salary for the first six weeks, then no pay afterward (unless supplementing with vacation time).
This is generous, comparatively speaking, to many other U.S. working women, who often do not receive nearly this amount of time off of work or pay once home with their new babies. And don't even get me started on those Canadian and European maternity leaves - as wonderful as they sound, we don't live there. We live here, where a "progressive" maternity leave policy would be one where an employer offers several more weeks of time off or a higher percentage of pay received while away. Or maybe even both. Companies that offer these types of policies are often making headlines here in the U.S. since this truly is revolutionary compared to what we are used to. And kudos to them for helping to move the bar and set a higher standard!
As we prepare to have our babies, a big question we often ask ourselves (and are being asked by others) is "will we be returning to work after our baby is born". Back in my 20's, when I was on the intense career ladder climb (or "Jungle Gym" climb, best outlined by Sheryl Sandberg in one of my favorite books, Lean In), I never saw myself considering for even a hot second dropping out of the workforce if I were to have children. I spent my mid 20's earning my MBA, and then my late 20's and early 30's earning a Master's Degree in Food Science. All while working full time. I had big goals, and family planning was not something that I ever thought would make me reconsider my career path or goals.
Then, I had a baby. Well, back up a minute here. I become pregnant in December 2014 at age 32 with our first child. I was five months away from completing my second master's degree and had 10 years of solid work experience in an industry that I knew and loved. I spent January-May of 2015 preparing for my master's defense, which I finalized just three months before the birth of my son. It was a huge accomplishment for me that took 3.5 years of blood, sweat, and tears to complete.
Six months pregnant and finishing a second Master's Degree
In my 20's, my oh-so-obnoxious and outspoken 20's, I used to think to myself (and tell friends) that I thought a 12-week leave of absence from work after having a baby was absurd. I declared that I would only ever take six weeks, and would then be back at it. Oh, how nieve I was. If my 30-something self could have a sit down with my 20-something self, I'd give her one hell of a straightening out. And a slap in the face for good measure. And embarrassingly as it is for me to admit, I used to slightly judge the moms in the office who would pull the mom card out as an excuse. And then, one day, I understood.
Work? What work?! I had a new baby who needed me!
Once I had my son in my arms, life as I knew it had changed. I was working on my computer in the hospital bed for the 20 hours of labor that I was in. I couldn't put the work away, and I was so concerned with everything running smoothly at the office while I was out for 12 weeks. But once my son was born, it was as if work was erased from my memory. I did not open my laptop for six weeks after becoming a mom, and when I did, it was to make a video on iMovie of my son, not to work. It was strange how quickly my priorities shifted with the birth of this tiny 7 lb peanut.
Being a new mom is HARD. There is a lot of figure out, and there is a lot to adjust to. There's a lot to heal from. Giving birth is traumatic to the body! Once the clock started ticking on my 12-week leave, I felt an intense pressure to soak up as much time as I could with my son. With each passing day, I started to become depressed with the ridiculously short amount of time left on the calendar that I had with my son. I was loving this new life and going back to work started to sound like the scariest thing in the world.
Loving life as a temporary stay-at-home-mom
Twelve weeks is not enough time. Anything shorter than 12 weeks is DEFINITELY not enough time. It's unacceptable. I always knew how much time left I had in that 12 week leave. After six weeks came and went, that is when I really started to feel the fear and dread of going back to work. Keep in mind I work for a wonderful company, with wonderful people. My dread stemmed purely from the fact that I had a new priority in life, and it felt like I was being torn away from this son of mine. I didn't know what to do, except for live in perpetual fear of going back to work and being away from my son.
I suddenly had regretted any career accomplishments that I had had. I worked so hard in my 20's to seek new employment opportunities, move around within those companies, and advance my education. I had actively worked to fine-tune my skill set. And now, I was in a position where I had become too much of a contributor to my family where our lifestyle would drastically change if I dropped out of the workforce. I started to not care about throwing all that I had worked for away. I would have given it all up for time with my son.
I began to calculate the hours. There are 168 hours in a 7 day week. My son was sleeping for about 84 of those hours. With a one hour commute to work each way, that would cause me to be away from my son for 50 additional hours per week. That only left me with 34 hours per week of time with him. Twenty percent of my week would be spent with the one person that I wanted to spend 100% of my time with. What is a new mom to do?
My leave eventually expired, like they all do. Dropping off my son at daycare those first few days were brutal. It was as if I was leaving for the day and would never see him again. I would cry for the entire hour drive into work. Once at work, all I could think about was how I have a choice, and that I could quit my career if I wanted to. I missed being with my son so much.
Snuggling with my boy after my first full week back to work
But the new routine did start to get easier (like all the wise moms before me said that it would). However, I still felt that I was away from my son for too much time. After two months back at work, I began to put down on paper a reduced-hours proposal for my boss. I knew that two other women in my department have worked a reduced hours schedule for my boss in the past. I am forever grateful for those women and my boss for making that work. It was my glimmer of hope that there was a chance of this working for me, too.
When I pitched the proposal to my boss, she was receptive from the get-go. She helped me to fine-tune the proposal before sending it off to her boss and HR. I was proposing a reduced hour schedule, going from 40 hours per week to 32. One less day of commuting and being in the office. I was more than willing to accept the 20% decrease in pay and benefits in order to gain a whole entire extra day with my son. I was not proposing any "work from home" type plan since I need to be physically present at my office in order to complete the lab development work that I do. The goal was to be able to complete a full-time load in 32 hours.
My proposed new work schedule was a done deal within three days of initially proposing it to my boss. I was to start my new schedule at the beginning of the following month. A reduced hours schedule was exactly what I needed, and I felt the biggest sense of relief when I realized that it was happening.
I am so fortunate to be in the situation that I am in. I was given the opportunity to achieve my own personal American Dream. This work-life balance (I know, so cliche), is exactly what I was craving and needed. Being home with my son for three days, and then working in a fulfilling career for four days, is the perfect balance for my family and life. Since starting this schedule 1.5 years ago, I have never sent my son to daycare on my Monday off. He is always with me, right where he should be, every Mommy Monday.
So to all you new moms out there who are contemplating whether or not to go back to work now that you're a mom, I have a few tips for you. I have been there. I was willing to trade all that I had worked towards for SAHM life. I almost did. But I'm glad that I didn't. And I'm grateful that I work with people and for a company that helped to make it all possible.
1. Forget what you thought about this scenario earlier in life.
You're allowed to change your mind and position on being a working mom or an at home mom. As we move through life, we grow and form new opinions. Our eyes are opened to new things and new ideas. Even if you never envisioned yourself as one to leave a job to stay at home, it is OKAY to change your mind.
2. Don't count the hours.
The hours with your kids will never be enough. When I was counting down the days, hours, and minutes before returning to work, or time during the week that I would have awake with my son, it only depressed me. Don't dwell on these numbers. Instead, focus your time and energy on ways to gain more time with your babies. Start drafting a proposal in your head (if you think this is what would be a good compromise in your life) for incorporating work-life balance at your job once it's time to go back to work.
3. Go back to work before making any major decisions.
So many people said this to me, but once you go back, you do adjust a bit to your new life, and it "gets easier". If you do indeed enjoy your job and career, I highly suggest going back and seeing what it is like trying to balance work and family life. It is important to see for yourself what it is actually like going back to work and being away from your kids. For me, the anxiety and fear about going back to work while on leave were much more painful to endure than actually being back at work. I had built up a lot of that fear in my head.
4. Don't be afraid to speak up to your boss to address the needs that you have as a new mom.
I hear so many new moms that say "my boss would never go for that". How do you know?! Even if others in your organization have been denied a request to work from home or reduce their hours, you are not them. Many companies do not treat their employees all the same. If you are a dependable employee who works well with your team, there is a good chance that your boss will listen to what you have to say and will carefully consider your request.
5. Draft a proposal and sit on it for a period of time.
I drafted a proposal where I outlined the benefits that my company would receive from me by allowing me to reduce my hours. I focused on what I could do for them, and not so much on what this benefit would do for me. I started to draft the proposal in my head and by taking notes in my phone while on leave, and I put it all on paper and tweaked it for those two months that I was back full-time.
When I finally sent it to my boss, I did so after hours. I wanted her to read my full proposal, and then to discuss it the following day. I didn't want to discuss it in person first because my written proposal had my carefully outlined plan that I wanted her to see in full prior to talking about it. I didn't want the proposal to be partially read, and then for us to go off on a tangent before her seeing all that I was proposing.
6. Make a life change only after going through these steps.
I'm a believer that if you want to make this work, you can make this work. Deep down, I didn't really want to give up my career and all that I worked for. I was optimistic that my boss would be receptive to my proposal, and luckily, she was. I am forever grateful for her and the level of understanding that she has for my needs as a working mom.
IF your company cannot make your proposal work, then at least you will have known that you did what you could to make it work. You will never be left to wonder if you could have taken a different approach. Ultimately, this is your life, and you will never get the time that you crave back with your babies. Every woman has a different needs when it comes to time with their kids and time working in a fulfilling career. What works for one mom will not work for another.
7. Support each other.
I used to judge. I don't anymore. After being granted my reduced hours schedule, I was on cloud nine. I felt that I had it all. In a moms group that I am in, I was beaming about my new work schedule to another fellow mom (who happened to be full-time at home), and she commented that four days per week at work was still too much time to be away from young babies. I felt judged. I was so disappointed to hear her thoughts on my new schedule that I had been working on for months. Here I felt like I had it all, and she basically just communicated to me that she felt that my life must be terrible.
We need to support each other no matter what path we all take as we navigate motherhood. LIke I mentioned above, we all have different needs in terms of work-life balance. What works for one mom will not work for another.
My biggest piece of advice for a new mom who is contemplating staying at home is to go back to work after having a baby and experience what your new life and schedule is like. From there, then make those big life decisions for you and your family. Don't hesiate to be open with your boss or manager. If you love your career, and don't want to take permanent or semi-permanent hiatus from it, create a plan for you and your boss to discuss. You never know how it will all turn out until you ask. Good luck, new mama. You will find your way!