The Juggling Act
The night before she was due back at work after the birth of her son, New York City psychologist Anne Gunn got some bad news. The babysitter she'd hired months earlier to care for Ben came by to tell her she wouldn't be able to take the job after all. "I started to cry. What could I say?" recalls Gunn.
The babysitter had a replacement in mind -- her adult daughter. Gunn knew and liked the younger woman and spent the last night of her maternity leave making phone calls to check the daughter's references which, happily enough, were excellent. "I thought, Welcome to the world of going back to work," Gunn says with a sigh. "I realized I was at the mercy of my childcare arrangements."
Who's in Control Here?
Even though working moms spend their days unencumbered by a diaper bag and stroller, you're no longer a woman in control of her destiny. "You go from feeling like an independent adult who can do it all on her own back to feeling almost childlike and terribly dependent on other people," says Catherine A. Chambliss, PhD, chair of the psychology department at Ursinus College, in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. Your life works only to the extent that your nanny shows up on time or your baby is well enough to go to daycare.
At the office, you may discover that you're treated differently. "Our research shows that women returning from maternity leave frequently encounter distinctive forms of gender bias that are different from anything they had encountered before," notes Joan C. Williams, director of the program on WorkLife Law at American University, in Washington, D.C.
The upshot: You may find yourself on the receiving end of dead-end assignments that insult your talent and dedication. Or you may end up being passed over for a promotion you'd worked hard to get. As one lawyer who bumped up against this not-so-subtle form of discrimination said, "I had a baby, not a lobotomy."
Are Your Mind and Body Ready?
But the truth is that, at least initially, you may not feel as if you're performing at your best. Sleep deprivation zaps your brainpower. "There were times when I said, 'I can't do this; I'm too tired,'" says Selga Cheris. "I was forgetting things -- I misbalanced my checkbook by $1,000 -- and I'm sure I made mistakes at work." And if you're breastfeeding, you may feel caught between the demands of your body ("Pump!") and your job ("Do this, pronto!").
Coming home after a day in the trenches is no less stressful. Your baby may be tired and cranky. And unless you have in-home help, there's dinner to make, dirty dishes stacked in the sink from breakfast, and a heap of laundry to deal with. It's easy to feel put-upon and angry. "Juggling so many roles can be frustrating. If you're married, your spouse is likely to be on the receiving end of your fury," says Chambliss. "That can be a problem for couples. You have to be able to work together in a cooperative, trusting way."
Then there's the working mom's constant companion: guilt. You feel like you're not doing a good enough job at home or at the office. You worry that your baby will suffer in your absence or perhaps favor the childcare provider with whom he spends so much time.