Maternity Leave vs. Permanent Leave: The Emotional Debate

Why you have to really think about what's right for you.
mother holding new baby

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Once you have that beautiful baby in your arms and you fall truly, madly, deeply in love, it can be hard to picture yourself ever wanting to work again. That sweet baby smell, the soft skin, and warm bond generated from skin-to-skin contact suddenly trumps whatever work goal you had set out for yourself. For some, it's a short-term effect because you can't imagine your life without your work--something you love to do and that gives you a sense of accomplishment. Others decide climbing the corporate ladder just isn't as important anymore once you're a mom. There is no set way for every mom. The question is, What's right for you: returning to work after maternity leave, becoming a stay-at-home mom, or something in-between?

I know all too well about the emotional tug of war between wanting to be a fantastic mom, and wanting to have a fulfilling career. I grew up with a stay-at-home mom who was there for every recital, school drop-off or pickup, field trip, or last-minute scramble to make three dozen fill-in-the-blank for the school bake sale. I hope I can successfully pass on that unconditional love and attention to my son. But I'm the type of mom who needs to work. I truly believe that the more I experience and achieve, the better I am for my family. I also want to show my son that girls--just like boys--can do anything they set out to do.

So I walk the fine line between stay-at-home mom and working mom by being a freelancer who largely works from home (with the help of a part-time nanny with increasingly more hours!) and can be flexible enough to free up my schedule to take my son to his doctor's appointments or the occasional class or playdate.

But there are a lot of modern moms who've decided not to go back to work after maternity leave. For many, the mother-baby bond is just too strong; they don't want to miss out on any of their baby's milestones (the first smile, tooth, wave, step, word). Others struggle with the fact that they'll be spending nearly as much on child care as they make--or will be breaking even--if they put their child in day care or hire a nanny.

Just within my mommy group in New York City, I've known quite a few women who have put their careers on hold in the legal, publishing, and corporate worlds. I think the difference in what's going on now in 2013 and what happened in my mom's generation is that we no longer say a woman gives up her career to raise kids. Though it's difficult, a woman can always try to jump back into her field after a period of raising her kids; it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing decision. The problem is, though, that it's becoming harder and harder for women to get back into their fields after time off the career track. When women do go back to work, they often end up making less money and are further down the ladder than they were when they left the workplace.

"Before you make an emotional decision about whether to return to work after maternity leave or to go on permanent leave, you have to crunch the numbers," advises Suze Orman, financial guru, author, and host of CNBC's Emmy Award-winning The Suze Orman Show. "If you have a nice cushion between what your partner makes and what you owe each month after adding in the cost of child care, you have the luxury of deciding whether you want to go back to work or not," Orman says. "But if you can't financially afford to stay home, you're putting your family in jeopardy by doing so. You don't want to bring a newborn into debt--the baby will feel your money fears and it's an unhealthy situation for everyone involved."

Ivana Pignatelli, author of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby's First Year and a blogger for ModernMom.com, struggled with her decision of whether to go back to work, but ultimately decided to. "By the end of my maternity leave, I was ready to go back to work," she explains. "I missed my professional identity--recognition in the adult world. I also looked forward to wearing high heels and silk blouses instead of burp rags. But I went through the same emotional turmoil as most moms, like a long umbilical cord was still attached between me and my baby. No matter what a mother chooses, I think we all wonder if we're doing the right thing." Truer words were never spoken.

Copyright© 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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