Go Back to Work or Stay Home?

Whether you're at home full time or back at your job, you've got issues. We've got solutions.

Working It Out

Mom in suit kisses husband, mom holding baby

You'd always planned to return to work, but with your restart date only weeks away, you're dreading leaving your baby. Should you stay home? Or maybe you've been home for six months and are desperately missing the camaraderie and challenge of your job. Should you go back to work? It's among the toughest decisions we mothers make.

The fact that there's no one, right answer is both good news and bad. It means you won't be wrong no matter what you decide, but you likely won't be absolutely certain either. Fortunately, no decision is irreversible. "Think in terms of the next 12 months rather than your entire career path, which can be overwhelming," suggests Paige Hobey, mother of two, age 4 and 1, and author of The Working Gal's Guide to Babyville: Your Must-Have Manual for Life with Baby (Da Capo Lifelong Books).

You'll of course need to consider your family's finances -- many moms have no choice but to go back to work. Whether you're wrestling with your decision or already have a plan, you should find this expert advice and insights from other moms helpful. Here's what they think you should know.

If You Return to Work

  • 37 percent of moms worked full time
  • 17 percent worked part time

-- U.S. Department of Labor

Your greatest challenge may be striking a comfortable balance between work and family -- and feeling as if you're giving enough to both. "It's hard having to occasionally miss things like my son's first Halloween or T-ball game because of work," says Nicole Burton, of Marlborough, Connecticut, a human resources director and mother of two boys, ages 5 and 2. And it may be especially hard to make peace with your decision if you're a mom who'd prefer to stay home -- but your family needs your paycheck. Lea Mata is a claims manager in Barstow, California, who would love to be a stay-at-home mom. "Sometimes I come home from working all day, and I'm too tired to do much of anything," she says. "And it doesn't help that my husband isn't the best housekeeper!"

You'll be happier juggling your two worlds if you can learn to give yourself a break, predicts Hobey. "Many of us are used to over-delivering on every aspect of our lives. But as working parents, unless we learn to clone ourselves, it's just not going to happen. We have to adjust our expectations and sometimes be satisfied with good enough -- whether that means not being a heavy hitter at work for a while or letting the beds go unmade at home.

That's what Beth Kaslusky, a West Hartford, Connecticut, math teacher has learned to do. "I used to be chair of my department," says Kaslusky, whose son, Evan, is 2. "Now I teach part time. I don't go to meetings; I have no extra duties. I feel like I'm not carrying my weight -- but my life works."

Leave Work at Work, Home at Home

Switch gears when you switch hats. "I try to give work 100 percent when I am there and really be with my kids when I am home," says Jeanne Stallman, a university administrator from Ashland, Oregon, and mother of two, ages 9 and 7. By doing your best to give your undivided attention to work at work, and to your family at home, you're less likely to feel as if you're giving either short shrift.

Let go of the "sanctity of firsts." Another concern common among working moms: missing milestones. "The most difficult thing for me about working has been getting over the guilt of not being there for the first step, the first word," says Kim Huelsman, a Westchester, New York, advertising executive and mother of two boys, ages 9 and 7. It may help if you think of your baby's milestones as gradual accomplishments rather than eureka events. The truth is, "firsts" are hard to positively pinpoint anyway. Was that your baby's first real smile, or was it gas? Does a hands-free lunge for the coffee table count as a first step? Because it's impossible to know, consider asking your daycare provider not to tell you about any new tricks she's witnessed that day, suggests Hobey. Your child will repeat the feat soon enough, and you'll experience it with as much joy and excitement as if it were her very first time.

Divvy Up the Load

Striking the right balance between job and family will be easier if you enlist your partner's full support. Unfortunately, time-use surveys reveal that working moms are still responsible for the lion's share of parenting and household chores. With rare exceptions, it's Mom who arranges childcare and doctor's appointments; who scrambles for work coverage when the kids are sick; who plans the meals, stocks the fridge, and makes sure everyone has clean clothes.

Before returning to work, decide how you'll divide the duties. "Make a list of all the household and childcare chores and sit down with your partner to work out a fair distribution of labor," advises Hobey. Making certain that you are both on the same page will help ensure that neither of you winds up feeling resentful or overwhelmed.

If You Stay Home

46 percent of moms with children under 3 were home full time.
-- U.S. Department of Labor

Your greatest challenge may be adjusting to the rhythm of your new life. In many cases, work has taught us to thrive in hectic, competitive environments; to complete tasks efficiently; to accomplish goals by working cooperatively with colleagues; and to expect at least occasional recognition for our efforts. Unfortunately, little in this pre-baby world prepares us for motherhood, where the demands are constant but the pace markedly slower, where chronic interruptions preclude efficiency, and where tireless labor goes largely unacknowledged. "It's a huge shift," admits Rachel Hamman, author of Bye-Bye Boardroom: Confessions from a New Breed of Stay-at-Home Moms (Capital Books). A former executive at Merrill Lynch and cofounder of The Golden Rule Foundation, Hamman retired two years ago to stay home with her children, now 15 and 8. "Staying home means having to reinvent who we are. And that's scary."

And yet, more mothers are taking time out, at least temporarily. Since 2000, the number of mothers working for pay has edged downward, reversing a four-decades-long trend of increased workforce participation. "I feel that the years between birth and age 6 are so important and go by so fast," says Carolyn Hynes, of Weston, Connecticut, whose daughter is 4. "I wanted to be Olivia's primary teacher and caregiver during these critical years."

But that's not to say it's always easy. There are no coffee breaks or any clear end to the workday. "You're on 24-7, and that can cause some serious burnout," says Hynes. And the lack of adult interaction can lead to feelings of isolation and boredom.

To Ease Your Transition

  1. Be proactive about making new-mom friends. At first, approaching other new moms, at the park or library, will feel a bit like dating. You'll chat a while, trade phone numbers, then think: "If I call too soon, will I seem overly eager? Will she think I'm a weird stalker-mom?" Rest assured, she's probably got the same worries and hunger for adult conversation. Pick up the phone.
  2. Do things that give you a sense of accomplishment. The tasks of motherhood can seem Sisyphean. There are always more toys to pick up, spills to clean, clothes to launder. "I hated the repetition of mundane tasks that were always getting undone -- a room was clean one minute, then dirty the next," says Christine Turley, a Westwood, Massachusetts, mom who left teaching to stay home full time after her third son was born in 2000. "I actually took up gardening to get over this," says Turley. "I realized that if I could get projects accomplished -- like a new flower bed dug -- it was so much more satisfying than merely cleaning. A bed made is quickly unmade, but my perennial gardens will bloom for years." Achievable projects -- repainting a room, creating a scrapbook -- may also bolster your sense of control. You can't prevent your baby from pooping as you're racing out the door, but you can control whether your dining room is barn red or celery green.
  3. Seek ways to receive recognition. You may never work harder than you will as a stay-at-home mom, yet you'll rarely if ever hear: "Great job today, Mom!" "Acknowledgement and recognition for doing a job well are so important," says Hamman. "But you just don't get a whole lot of that for cooking a big dinner. And no one says, 'Gosh, you folded that laundry so nicely today.'"

Lend a Hand

We all occasionally need a pat on the back to boost our morale. Doing volunteer work is one good way to earn others' kudos. "I've joined several committees and have found it can be very satisfying to work with other women in my same situation for a common goal or cause," says Turley. "It's also a good way to be reminded of the talents and skills you do still possess, and to be recognized for using them."

Whether you decide to rejoin the workforce right away or stay home, remember that your decision isn't irreversible -- and your child will thrive in either scenario.

Next: Mom vs. Mom

Mom vs. Mom

Why can't we all just get along?

No one is quicker to judge mothers than other mothers, right? Or so we're told by newspapers, magazines, and TV talk shows that for nearly a quarter century have been reporting from the front lines of the so-called Mommy Wars. But are we really at odds? Do stay-at-home and working mothers truly demonize one another? It would be naive to say that it never happens -- we've all heard comments like, "Why even have kids if you're going to let someone else raise them?" and "I didn't get my MBA so I could run a lemonade stand." But by and large, mothers are much more supportive of one another than the media portray, assures Miriam Peskowitz, author of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother (Seal Press) and a mother of two, ages 8 and 7 months. Most of the women she interviewed for her book understand that, whether working or at home, moms are all in this together, making the best choices we can for ourselves and our families. "It's not perfect for anyone," says Peskowitz.

Christine Turley, of Westwood, Massachusetts, says she doesn't believe mothers judge each other so much as we judge ourselves. "You're not always confident that you've made the right choice. And when you're in one of those slumps where you second-guess yourself, it's natural to wonder whether everyone else is second-guessing you too. But in my experience, women are very supportive of each other's situations and accommodating of the various complicated schedules we all have."

Who feels judged by other moms?

  • 59 percent of stay-at-home moms
  • 52 percent of working moms

-- AmericanBaby.com poll

Can You Afford to Quit?

Longing to stay home, but not sure you can swing it financially? Before dismissing the idea, do the math. Calculate your annual expenses (mortgage, utilities, loans, credit cards, groceries, clothing, entertainment), then add $6,300. That's what the average family spends on first-year baby items, notes Paige Hobey, author of The Working Gal's Guide to Babyville (Da Capo Lifelong Books). Now ask yourself: Would your partner's earnings cover the household budget, at least for the next year?

Before answering, don't forget to factor in the costs of your working. Dual-income couples are taxed at a higher rate. Plus, full-time infant care will run you $600 to $1,300 a month. Add in the cost of commuting, wardrobe, and those deli lunches -- and you may be surprised by how little of your paycheck remains.

If the decision's still too close to call, look for ways to trim expenses. Could you forego the gym membership, freeze new clothing purchases, skip the vacation this year? With a few strategic cuts, you may find that you can live comfortably on one income.

There are, however, some long-term sacrifices to consider. While home, you won't be contributing to your 401k or social security. And getting back on your career track may be challenging. To ease your eventual reentry, Hobey advises:

  • Keep your network strong by occasionally e-mailing, calling, or lunching with former colleagues.
  • Keep your resume current by volunteering or freelancing.
  • Keep your skills up to date by taking relevant courses, reading trade publications, and maintaining any professional certifications.

Beyond 9 to 5: Customize Your Workweek

You'd like to return to work, but now your question is: full time or part time? The answer will depend on your family's finances as well as on your career aspirations. You may fear that scaling back will derail your career, and it's a legitimate concern, says Paige Hobey, author of The Working Gal's Guide to Babyville (Da Capo Lifelong Books). While some 74 percent of American companies now offer some type of job flexibility, you do run the risk of being "mommy tracked" -- blocked from juicier assignments or promotions -- if you cut back your hours, says Hobey. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't lobby your boss for a saner schedule. Would 7 to 3 work better than 9 to 5? How about four 10-hour days? Or could you work from home a couple of days a week to eliminate the commute?

If returning part time is a viable and desirable option for you, break down your existing job into its discrete tasks and figure out which you'd prefer to keep, and which you could surrender.

Once you've settled on a work plan, approach your boss with a written proposal, suggests Hobey.

"Women commonly approach their employers in an informal way, talking about their personal reasons for wanting to change their schedules or responsibilities. But you'll improve your odds tremendously if you present a written proposal that your boss cannot dismiss without serious consideration." Concentrate on what your employer stands to gain. Point out, for example, that a 7 to 3 schedule will allow you to focus more during the early morning hours when the office and phones are quiet. The goal is to convince your employer that granting your request makes good business sense.

Happy with Your Decision?

  • 90 percent of stay-at-home moms say yes.
  • 47 percent of working moms say yes.

-- AmericanBaby.com poll

"I like the fact that my daughter will hopefully grow up knowing she can be anything she wants to be. It's not just marriage and kids."
-- Kim, Westchester, New York, advertising executive and mother of Kyra, 9, and Cooper, 7

"I've learned more about myself in the two years I have been home with my children than in the two decades I spent working."
-- Rachel, Maitland, Florida, mother of Jessica, 15, and Zachary, 8

"I'm a much happier mom. I know this may sound silly, but working gives me a reason to get dressed up in something nice and put on makeup every day -- and that just makes me feel better about myself."
-- Beth, West Hartford, Connecticut, teacher and mother of Evan, 2

"I've never had to ask someone else how Olivia, 4, spent her day. I take delight in the way she enjoys her music, gym, and dance classes. Being with her and seeing how she's developed has given me a lot of confidence, both as a mom and as a human being."
-- Carolyn, Weston, Massachusetts

Marguerite Lamb, a mother of two, is a writer in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, March 2007.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

Parents Are Talking

Add a Comment