"Your Turn" is a series of posts where readers share their stories of parenthood, work, the struggle for a balance, or just life generally. If you are interested in contributing a story, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here.
On April 3rd, after three months of maternity leave, I eagerly returned to my law firm, filled with a sense of renewal and optimism. On April 12th, I quit my job. What I thought would “never happen to me,” happened to me. Quickly. Painfully. Surreally. I am writing this so that other women might prepare for returning to work in ways that I didn’t, or at least spend more time thinking about what could happen when returning to work after a baby.
Some background. I am (or was) a workaholic. I must admit that a big part of my identity is (or was) my job. Yes, we all know that true happiness comes from lasting relationships with friends and family, but there’s something in my blood that makes me feel, I don’t know… Important? Validated? Alive? when I’m working. It cuts deeper than pride or the desire to buy things. It has been an essential part of my being for a really long time.
(Here’s the part where I lay down on the therapist’s couch for a few minutes; feel free to skip ahead to what actually happened with my job). I think my intense work ethic stems from being brought up poor. There are many degrees of poor, I know, and while we never went without food, I still think we were poorer than most (or at least poorer than those around us, which makes you feel poor, even if you are not). My father had recurring bouts with drug and alcohol addiction, at times welfare was our family’s safety net, and while there was always a roof over our heads, it sometimes wasn’t a particularly desirable one. As I watched my parents struggle - mom cleaning hotel rooms to make ends meet and dad working shifts at Wendy’s in addition to his night job - I was determined from a very young age not to live “paycheck to paycheck.”
It’s a harsh lesson for a young kid, but one I’m glad I learned because it helped me achieve things throughout my life. As young as middle school I thought about my grades as my access to college. When choosing a college, I thought about my loan debt after school and opted for the “best value” school. When picking a major I didn’t think about what I would enjoy, but rather what would land me a job. Even going to law school, it was more about financial stability than a drive to be a lawyer. Frankly, I didn’t know the first thing about lawyers. I just wanted to enhance my career.
And boy, did my employers love me. Whether waiting tables at Waffle House or working around the clock in a Manhattan law firm, I always had a great attitude and worked as hard as possible. Team members are slacking off and leaving me with all the work? That’s great, gives me the opportunity to shine! Going to work for a notoriously difficult partner - the one the other partners openly warn you about while you are interviewing? Sounds like job security to me! Okily-dokily.
And of course, when the money starting flowing after school (my husband is also an attorney) we went straight to work paying down our student loans, building up our savings and maxing out our 401ks. Up until I left my job, my husband and I both had six figure jobs. He drives a Honda Civic - an old one. I wait until I have a coupon to buy a 12-pack of paper towels at BJs. That’s not to say we don’t splurge once in a while, but worrying about money and whether there will be enough is always at the back of our minds.
But I digress. In summarizing many years in a few short paragraphs I am trying to convey to you that a big part of my life – what I do for a living and how I live when I’m not working – has been premised on my desire for financial security for my family.
Which is why no one is more surprised than me that I quit my job.
(Here’s where you can jump back in if you opted to skip the therapy session). After law school I did two clerkships (one in state court and one in federal court). Then I went to work in a firm in Manhattan. It wasn’t BigLaw, but it still required me to be available 24-7, and when I went to work in the morning, I didn’t know if I’d be getting home by 8:00 pm or 2:00 am. I couldn’t plan anything on weekends because I never knew if I’d be working (and most of the time I was). After 3 years of insanity and making excuses to friends and family as to why I was always brushing them off, I found a job closer to home with better hours and less stressed out partners. I was happy with my new firm and thoroughly enjoyed going to work each day.
While I was pregnant, I didn’t think much about how having a baby was going to affect my career. The federal judge that I clerked for and the women partners at my firms had children, and those kids grew into well-adjusted, loving and successful adults. If my role models could do it, surely I could too. Yes, I would have to work hard, on little sleep, but I’ve been there and done that before. Just find a good day care, enjoy every minute of maternity leave to bond with my son, and come back to work more resolved than ever to work hard for my family.
I didn’t have a clue.
Looking back now, I was pretty naïve. When my bosses asked me how long I thought I would need for maternity leave, I was thinking that three months was probably too long, but other people said I would need at least that, so that’s what I asked for. I didn’t want my bosses to think I was a slacker or that they couldn’t count on me for future work. I didn’t want to start maternity leave until the week of my due date. Again, I was already trying to demonstrate how my son would not interfere with my job.
Even while I was on maternity leave, falling in love with my son, I was looking forward to getting back to work. I loved every second I was with him, but with my husband working all the time, I was getting tired of being the sole house cleaner and cook (neither of which I am especially good at). I even went out to buy new office clothes, happy that I could fit into something that didn’t have an elastic belt and wasn’t a floral print. As my return date loomed near, I got my son ready for daycare (we went on play dates at the center to meet the other kids) and overall I was feeling blessed to have a beautiful son, a wonderful husband and a great job, everything I ever wanted. And then my first day back at work…
Did I mention how I didn’t have a clue?
Nothing could prepare me for the intense emotions I felt when I dropped my son off for his first day. It was at that moment that I realized that I was placing my infant child, who cannot not yet talk, or walk, or communicate other than by crying, into the custody of strangers for 10-12 hours a day, 5 days a week. One person is trying to watch three other crying babies in addition to watching mine. How can she manage that when I found it all-consuming to nurture one child? Why is she trying to prop Jacob up on a Boppie? He’s never been propped up on a Boppie before; why does she think he wants to try it now and why isn’t she sitting with him to make sure he doesn’t fall off? Why am I crying like a baby in front of these other parents and day care employees?
That was the first morning. Everyone said the first day would be tough, that I would feel better with time, but I didn’t. Granted, I didn’t give it much time. Each day made me feel more certain that I was making a mistake by leaving my son for so long. It bothered me that every time I went to visit him (I breastfed him during my lunch hour), there was someone new watching him. It bothered me that babies were crying and no one would immediately rush to their side to make sure they were ok. It especially bothered me that when I went to pick Jacob up at night, he was the last baby there. All of the other babies were out of there by late afternoon.
So my schedule very quickly set in as follows: Wake up. Feed Jacob and get him ready for the day. Drop him off. Do a little work. Pump some milk. Do a little work. Drive to the day care center for lunch. Do a little work. Pump. Do a little work. Drive back to daycare. Go home. Try to wipe the guilt away by playing with Jacob for the limited time he had before bedtime. Do a little work. Sleep. Repeat.
In a nutshell, I wasn’t getting my work done because I was doing it on such a fragmented basis while I was constantly worrying about my son, and I wasn’t getting much mothering done because work didn’t stop when I left the office.
I knew in a matter of days that I’d need to go part-time/telecommute or I’d have to leave and find other work. Unfortunately, my firm, though very understanding, did not look kindly to either part-time or telecommuting. So I gave notice. When it came down to it, my concern for the well-being of my child outweighed my life-long quest for continued financial security.
I don’t mean this to be all doom and gloom or to suggest that mothers can’t be simultaneously incredible at working and parenting. I know people who do it every day and I assumed that I would be one of them. I still hope to be one of those people. I send out my resume almost daily in search for part-time employment. But this experience has taught me that working moms make a huge, huge sacrifice that is largely ignored (or at least not really talked about) - having to deal with the emotions of being separated from their children while they are earning money for their family’s sake. My point in writing is to share my experience that, by not planning and not really understanding what I was getting into, everything blew up in my face in a way that I wasn’t expecting it to.
1) If you can, live close to family. So many people I’ve talked to have Grandma or an aunt or someone else chipping in. I think I would have managed the transition back into full-time work if a family member was watching Jacob. My mom and sister live down south, and I live in the northeast. After law school, I thought it would be easier for me to find work close to my law school instead of returning to Georgia. While I still think that is true, it really doesn’t matter if that first job was easier to find since I now need that family support.
2) Don’t dismiss nannies: every woman partner that I’ve talked to that has succeeded with both work and motherhood has had a nanny. I dismissed the advice; I didn’t want a stranger in the house and I thought I’d feel better with a regulated institution watching my child, but I didn’t. Had I put in the work and found someone loving that I could trust, maybe I would have felt less guilty when I returned to work.
3) There is no such thing as too much maternity leave. Take what you can if you can afford it. I think I would have been less stressed out if Jacob was a little more responsive and less helpless. Even at four months, Jacob looks bigger and less fragile than he did at three.
4) If working all the time is going to make you feel guilty, try to plan accordingly. My firm had a high billable hour expectation. I wish that I looked at part-time/in-house/government jobs a long time ago instead of voluntarily leaving a job (I still can’t believe that I did it!) without having the next one lined up only to swim in the vast sea of unemployed lawyers.
I do not regret my decision to stay home with my son, and I feel so grateful that I am in a financial position to choose to do so. Still, I feel like I could have avoided a very traumatic couple of weeks and the making of big life-changing decisions on short notice if there was better planning on my part.