Work-life balance is always an issue for working mothers, but it can be particularly consuming for new moms, who find themselves juggling employment responsibilities, a new baby, spouses and partners, and sometimes other children. Maternity leave—for those who get it—is often seen as a way to transition smoothly into this new phase of life, but for some it doesn't seem like nearly enough time to adjust.
Cosmopolitian.com asked six mothers from across the country about what it was like to go back to work after maternity leave.
Carey Pope, nonprofit communications, Raleigh, North Carolina:
I thought maternity leave would be great bonding time and that I would also get all these things done around the house and even be able to respond to some emails at work. It was 24 hours a day of making sure that my child was fed and sleeping, and there wasn't any housework being done. It was just the basic "keeping him alive" sort of thing. I wasn't completely sad that I had to go back to work, but I also wasn't fully prepared for it.
I did a trial run [of daycare] the day before—I had lunch with a friend and dropped him off while I was at lunch. I had my good little cry that day and not on the day I actually went back to work.
My first day back to work just felt surreal. Everybody else around me was obviously welcoming and happy to have me back, but I wanted to scream, "I made a human being! I am a different person now! This is all I can think about!"
It's only been about a month and a half that I've been back, and I still feel like I'm not on my A-game yet at work. I'm worried that I look like a stereotype of a mom who doesn't have her act together. I feel foggy-headed and can't remember words or thoughts, and worry that it shows in my work. I think a lot of this has to do with lack of sleep, and then there's also just a lot more information I have to keep in my head now that I have a baby. If the schedule gets thrown off because he gets sick, or if I get sick because he's been sick, I do feel guilty about missing work or missing meetings.
Heidi McDonough, sales, Dunmore, Pennsylvania:
I have three children. I worked basically up until the time I gave birth [to my youngest]. I took 12 weeks off after the birth.
Now he is at the same daycare as the other kids. Luckily I know them all there so it's nice, but it was still horrible. You would think the third time it would be easier, but it's not. It's just terrible to leave them like that. I was still building the breastfeeding relationship when my leave ended and was worrying about milk supply and if I would continue to produce enough for him while pumping at work. I'm pumping at every break I have.
You just want to stay home with them and not have someone else raising your kids when they are babies, but we really didn't have a choice. My husband, an accountant, ran the numbers. We figured it out both ways, with me working and without. I'd have to go on his insurance, which would be about $300 more per month than what I'm paying through my employer.
Now that [my son is] older and he needs the socialization, it's fine. It's just so hard when they are so little, and all they need is someone to take care of them. To have someone else do that for you really stinks, because you want to be the one to do it. Financially, though, there is just no way. I'm not a career-focused person. To me, it's just a way to pay the bills and to get health insurance.
Courtney Sieloff, executive in political strategy, Washington, D.C. (currently pregnant with second child):
With my first child, I thought maternity leave would be lovely bonding and lots of walks, snuggly outdoor time, and instead I spent most of it topless, nursing and pumping.
I had two months of maternity leave. Taking him into daycare the first time was harder than I expected. I was sort of ready to go back to work. But then after I had to drop off my just barely 8-week-old baby at a daycare—and it was a fantastic daycare—it was really hard. I sat and worried about him most of the day. I don't even know how effective I was that first week back.
I physically missed the little guy. I was sad I was missing moments, but I was also worried that that the caregiver would do a better job than I would. All kinds of crazy thoughts go through your head. Then logistics: Did I send enough food? Am I pumping enough at the office to feed him? Does he have the right clothing?
It was at least two or three weeks before I felt like I could get acclimated at work and stop worrying about him all of the time. I told myself, "This is my schedule, this is his schedule. The kids go to daycare, the grown-ups go to work." Then I was able to concentrate on work, and when I came home, it was 100 percent baby time.
With this pregnancy, I have a little better idea what to expect from maternity leave. Plus, this time I'm at a really parenting-friendly office. I am eligible for up to four months of leave, with parts of it paid and parts of it vacation, and I'm going to take as much as I possibly can this time.
Tyler Buteau, cashier/trainer, Chester, Virginia:
I am a single mother and college student, and I work at Panera Bread where I received three months of unpaid maternity leave.
I had [my daughter] over the summer, and I was on summer break [from college while also on maternity leave]. I wish I had had a little more time [on maternity leave] so I could have gotten back into school and then back into my job, instead of back to both at the same time. I'm lucky—I live in the same town as my parents and my mom doesn't work, so I have her watching my daughter [part-time]. I also have a friend who charges $30 a day for child care and watches one of my boss's daughters as well. But it's very difficult to try to work with everyone else's schedules and my own.
It was very difficult getting both my daughter and myself ready at the same time that first day I went back to work. I had to watch her and get ready at the same time and was filled with thoughts of, Do I want to leave her? Should I leave her with [my friend]? Do I trust them enough with my newborn child? I was always thinking about her at work and ready to get off work and head home and get my daughter.
Now [six months later] it's kind of the same way, but I'm less worried about where she is. At the same time, it's still hard to get everything situated on my own.
Megan Breiseth, director in professional development, San Francisco, California:
I ended up going on leave at 36 weeks. My midwife told me, "You can actually take the last month off—it's recommended, and it gives you a better birth." I had my birth around the due date, and then took 3.5 months off after his birth.
I had a new boss while I was out on leave, and she was very progressive and wanted to work with me, which made all the difference. When I came back, I set up flex schedule. Robyn [Megan's wife, who works at the same company] began working part-time after her [six weeks paid paternity] leave. She stayed home with him and would work one day a week, and I had that off as a flex schedule and worked longer days the other days.
For me, the biggest challenge was just the transition back into my job, managing the pumping schedule I was on and re-engaging with my work. If Robyn wasn't home with the baby, I would have been a complete mess. If I'd had to add the transition to child care into the mix, I would have been miserable and mournful and completely distracted. I feel like being at work is easy compared to child care, so the workdays did not feel long or overly difficult.
I know a lot of dads don't take their paternity leaves, partially because it's cultural and partly because they don't want the reduced pay, and there's this perception of, "Well it's a newborn and there's not really a lot to do," but we took that time and spent a lot of time just us and James.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.