Baby steps: New moms share their back-to-work journeys

Oct 03, 2023

8 mins

Baby steps: New moms share their back-to-work journeys
Sophia Constantino

Sophia Constantino is a Paris-based freelance journalist originally from New York.

There is no perfect recipe for the new mom as she navigates her way back to work post-baby. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Just like there is no magic wand she can wave to erase the pregnancy stigma that she faces at work, there is then no magic potion to take away the guilt a new mother feels leaving her child for the first time when she decides to (or has to) return to the job market.

While hybrid and remote work have created opportunities for new moms to return to work on a more flexible schedule, there are a million and one hurdles they face both pre- and post-baby. Through stories of scheduling conflicts, extreme daycare costs, Covid scares, along with immense love and support, we’re sharing personal accounts from new moms on how they handle the challenges and enjoy the triumphs that come as they adapt to life back at work with a new baby at home.

A balancing act

Melissa Gillis is the mother of a four-year-old and gave birth to twins eight months ago. Recently, she returned to work full-time as a senior manager in human resources. She says her mind is constantly on, running through her list of things to do. “It’s not just about keeping three kids alive, although that’s hard enough. It’s also about things like, ’Did they go to their doctor’s appointments? When will the laundry get done?’”

The challenge of scheduling for any new mom is an obvious one, and that hurdle only looms larger when the time to return to work inevitably comes. There will always be logistics to sort out—daycare drop-offs, commuting to work, planning dinners—and there is an incredible amount of planning that needs to be done starting pre-baby, throughout pregnancy, and in the months post-birth both before and after a new mom returns to work.

Kaitlyn Jordan, a French teacher from New York, says being a new mom and balancing work and home life is completely exhausting for her. A mom of two boys under three, she says scheduling is key to keeping her home running as smoothly as possible. “Someone is always up in the middle of the night,” she says, “and as a teacher, you have to be up very early. I get up, work out, get ready, and then get my kids up in the morning.”

A full-time Latin teacher and adjunct professor lecturer, Jennifer Armstrong gave birth to her first daughter in December of 2021. A main challenge for her upon returning to work was knowing the high standards she was used to setting for herself as a mom and a professional might not be achieved every day. “I am a much better mother on the weekends and breaks,” she jokes, “because my reserve of patience hasn’t been used up on other people’s children so I actually have some for my own.”

“I was drowning.”

Mom guilt” is a phrase we hear new moms using over and over, and these women’s stories echo that. Scheduling may be more of a logistical hurdle while mom guilt is an emotional one, but they go hand-in-hand for new moms as the pressure mounts throughout their transition to returning to work.

For Jordan, doing her best to get everything she could get done at work was crucial. “I definitely used to take a lot of work home when I was younger,” she shares. “Now, I really work hard to get everything done so that I don’t have to take extra work home. In certain professions it’s necessary, but it really means a lot to your children if you have that special time with them that’s only theirs.”

It’s important to be clear with your employer on what you’re looking for upon returning to work, whether you’re returning to your pre-baby position or re-entering the job market. Are you looking for more flexibility in your time at work versus working from home? Are you interested in working toward a more senior position? If so, it’s worth it to sit down with your past or potential employer and express those desires even before officially making your return.

“My perspective on work-life balance has completely changed,” says Madeline Wright, an assistant principal from New York. “I remember trying to reassure my superintendent that my career would always be number one. He chuckled and said that my child would, and should be, my number one. As a career-focused person, I really couldn’t imagine what I was in for.”

Although Armstrong says she was met with support from her employers, she still feels the same pressure it seems a lot of working moms feel. “Honestly, most days, especially in my daughter’s first year, I constantly felt like I was drowning and on the verge of tears but didn’t feel like I could express or tell people I was drowning. It’s amazing how much mental bandwidth it takes to be productive at work, a present and patient mother, and run the mental load of what needs to be bought, cleaned, cooked, and laid out around the house.”

“We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.”

High costs for working parents

The high costs associated with having a child may be a driving factor for new moms looking to get back into the workforce, even after years of being a stay-at-home parent. However, the logistics associated with going back to work are multi-faceted. If a new mom decides she’s ready to return to the workforce, that can mean absorbing the high cost of finding a care provider for their child.

At that point, it may be helpful to look for part-time work at first. Getting a foot in the door at a new company may be a way for a new mom to negotiate a full-time position in the future and can be a great way to transition from being at home full-time to being a full-time employee without immediately incurring the high costs of full-time daycare.

Universal childcare is not included in federal legislation and the exorbitant cost of daycare is a reason many women choose to stay out of work for so long after having a child. According to the Department of Labor, over 2.5 million women left their jobs at the start of the pandemic, and while many of those women have since returned to work, nearly a million have left their careers behind due to limited or expensive childcare options.

“We needed to find and secure a spot in a daycare and start saving for the additional monthly cost of daycare,” Armstrong says. “I still really struggle sending my daughter to daycare and missing out on that time with her,” she notes. “But financially it would not be possible for me to stay home, and professionally, both my husband and I love our jobs and it would be very hard to give up jobs that we are passionate about.”

The need for policy updates

New moms often navigate the hurdles associated with returning to work in a country with an obvious lack of legislation to support them. Amy Westervelt sums it up perfectly in her book Forget Having It All: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.”

Though hybrid or remote work can be helpful for some, not all jobs allow for that flexibility. Further policy changes are necessary at a government level to ensure new moms have the support they need from their employer throughout pregnancy, leave, and the transition back to work.

Knowing that she and her husband wanted to have children, Armstrong says she had to be extremely judicious in using any personal or sick days throughout the past years, in an effort to bank as much time off as possible for maternity leave. “Even now returning to work, I constantly worry if I need to use a sick or personal day for my own health or my daughters so that I can save enough in case we want to have a second child.”

Even in 2023, many company maternity leave policies—or lack thereof—pose extreme challenges to new parents. While policy may vary from state to state, the United States remains the only industrialized country that does not guarantee paid leave on a federal level. This means new moms may be forced to return to work before they are emotionally or physically ready to do so.

“I think I felt a lot of rage returning to work and thinking about maternity laws and the treatment of new parents in the US especially compared to other countries,” says Armstrong.

Support systems: The key to getting back on the job market

Though federal policy in the US has its limits, employers can still do everything they can to support their employees as they leave for and return from maternity leave. That’s why, Jordan says, support from an employer can make all the difference. “If someone feels like you empathize with them and that you can relate to them, they trust you more and you form a better relationship.”

It’s important for employers to understand that new moms are not a hindrance to productivity. Instead of associating new moms with incredible work ethic or leadership and time management abilities, in many cases companies are still prone to connecting motherhood with a depreciation in those skills, starting during pregnancy and continuing through the return from maternity leave. Mothers should not be judged or penalized in their career for having boundaries when it comes to work-life balance, like leaving to pick up their children, taking leave for illness, or being away from their email outside of the workday.

For Gillis, she says it took finding a new job to discover the positive aspects of a supportive workplace environment post-baby. Not only was she hired at her current job while she was pregnant, but she says that her employer was incredibly understanding and empathetic to her situation once she had her twins. “Employees are only as good as they feel, and employers are only as good as their employees,” she says. Gillis received six months of paid leave after giving birth, considered a very generous policy in the US, and worked with her manager to schedule check-ins 30, 60, and 90 days after her leave had ended. This allowed her to ease back into her role and manage expectations and workload with her employer.

In addition to a supportive work environment to enable a smooth transition back, partners and other family members were hugely important for these new moms.

Armstrong says she and her husband always try to be open and communicative, especially when divvying up responsibilities and giving each other a break when the other needs it. “Even if it’s something as simple as taking 15 minutes in the car by yourself to get a soda or coffee, now more than ever you are a team. Lean into each other, forgive each other, and be ready to be amazed as the love grows as a family.”

“You are the best mom for your child”

Overall, these new moms agree that trying to find balance is the key to keeping it all together. To do so, Wright says it’s important to remember that it’s a two-way street between employee and employer. “I’d say create a list of mommy non-negotiables and be open and honest about those with your employer up front,” she says. “Have the courage to find a balance that you’re ok with. Don’t make promises you can’t keep and just be prepared to be honest.”

“I’d ask employers to please understand how difficult of a time this can be for new moms and approach the employee from a place of empathy and know that it’s temporary. Not only is the employee trying to do a job, do it well, and put on a brave face every day, but they’re probably doing it on zero sleep and with a brain that’s stuck on what the baby is doing.”

For Armstrong, it’s about being kind to yourself as a new mom, becoming comfortable with messes, and realizing that there will be days where, as a teacher, tests won’t be graded in 24 hours anymore, the dishes won’t get done immediately, and popcorn sometimes will be dinner. She says the best advice she received was from a friend who told her, “Whatever you’re doing and whatever you’re feeling is okay—you are the best mom for your child.”

“There has been immense joy, love, and laughter watching my daughter grow and develop,” she says, “but there have been some real struggles as well. I think because parenthood is full of so much love, the hard stuff hits harder because as a parent, you would do anything for your child and to protect your child. It’s a job that’s never done.”

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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