9 Tips for Juggling Work and Motherhood

Going back to work is tough, but feeling guilty won't help. There's a lot you can do to ease the transition.

Working Mom With Child
Photo: RossHelen/Shutterstock

As her three-month maternity leave drew to a close, Selga Cheris worried about how she would manage the transition to life as a working mom. Luke wasn't yet sleeping through the night, and she still hadn't ironed out the kinks in her childcare arrangements.

But the exhaustion and logistical problems were nothing compared to the anguish of leaving her son. "I cried the entire first day back at work," admits Cheris, a structural engineer in Chicago. "I work mostly with guys, and after lunch, they all came back with tissues."

Like Cheris, many new moms returning to work from a maternity leave feel torn between their seemingly conflicting roles. They value their professional accomplishments and the income it brings -- but they are tormented by the prospect of leaving their precious baby who is still so tiny and needy. "I started looking for a daycare center three weeks into my maternity leave," says Robin Bluman, a sales manager in East Windsor, New Jersey. "I liked the place we decided to use, but it was still hard to leave him. I knew no one could take care of Randy as well as I could."

In addition, since many babies aren't sleeping through the night as the typical three-month maternity leave ends, you can expect to be profoundly exhausted and even, thanks to still-fluctuating hormones, weepy. Your former workday routine must be reconfigured as you hammer out every detail of your new day, from which parent will shower first while the other watches the baby, to when and where you'll pump if you're still breastfeeding. That's not to overlook such minor indignities as carefully cobbling together a work wardrobe to fit a body that hasn't yet bounced back from pregnancy.

Of course, there are benefits. Some working moms find that they are good parents because of their job, not in spite of it. Research shows that the best mothers are happy, competent, socially connected, and supported -- qualities that, for some women, are most easily attained by remaining in the workplace. But navigating the transition from maternity leave to the office takes, well, work.

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, Ph.D., 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.

4 Ways to Meet the Challenges

But wait! Before you hand in your resignation, take a breath. While the return from maternity leave can be stressful and emotionally charged, it doesn't have to be a mother's worst nightmare.

"There are ways to prepare yourself to make this work," says Joan K. Peters, author of When Mothers Work. Here's how.

1. Involve your spouse. You feel like you have only a limited amount of time with your baby and you want to savor every minute of it. That's great. But if you're too possessive, you're likely to end up doing all the work yourself. In short, don't forget to get your husband in on the game. "The biggest help you can give yourself is to get your baby's father involved in the care and feeding from the start," advises Peters.

If your husband can shoulder some of the burden of those middle-of-the-night wake-up calls, you'll be in better shape when you have to perform at work. "My husband and I have devised a plan where, every other night, one of us gets uninterrupted sleep while the other is on duty if the baby wakes up. I wear earplugs to bed on my night off so I don't wake up if the baby cries," says Darcy De Leon Budd, a writer in Houston. "This doesn't solve the sleep problem entirely, but it helps."

It's also important to hash out the details of who's going to do what so that you're not coming home to a second shift of childcare and housekeeping while your honey tunes in to ESPN. "We had to sit down and talk about it because I was starting to feel resentful," allows Jennifer Rosenberg, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, teacher and mother of two. "We talked about things we hated doing around the house. I hate dealing with the dishes and he hates laundry, so he does the dishes and I do the laundry. We have some communication around it."

2. Line up childcare early. Good, reliable childcare is essential. Start checking out daycare centers and interviewing nannies well before you're due back at work. Developing confidence and trust in your childcare provider before you return will make those first days a little easier. "The smartest thing I did was to hire our sitter to start working for us part-time a month before my leave ended," notes Kate Fox Reynolds, a New York City high school teacher. "Without having had the time to get to know and trust Jackie -- and to practice walking away from my child -- returning to work would have been a nightmare."

3. Cut yourself some slack. Many moms feel guilty about choosing to work, even if the family finances mean that staying home is not an option. You worry about everything from shortchanging your child to shortchanging yourself. Remind yourself that in choosing to work, you are providing your child with a life that may be richer in options than if you stayed at home. It's also important to recognize that stay-at-home moms have their own set of challenges. Women who are home with young children often feel more isolated and not as good about themselves, and, in fact, are at higher risk for depression, notes Chambliss.

4. Compartmentalize. When you're at work, make a commitment to mentally be at work. At home, surrender yourself to the marvels of parenthood. For Stephanie Dedeau, a communications specialist in Houston, that means taking 15 minutes before leaving the office to get organized for the next day, something she used to do at home. "I'm trying to be better about that balance. Sometimes, when I'm playing with my baby, I'll catch myself and say, 'I need to think about playing, not the e-mail I just sent.'"

You may also discover that the pull of a baby can make you twice as productive in half the time. When you're eager to get home in time to feed and bathe your baby, schmoozing around the watercooler may seem like a colossal waste of your time.

5. Know your priorities. Let's be honest here: Something's got to give. Being a hardworking professional and a great mom may mean that your home won't pass a white-glove inspection. Or that you can't whip up a fabulous dinner every night (or even any night). If you can afford to pay for extra help—a cleaning service, for example—great. If you can't, do yourself a favor and let it go. Or choose one thing that's important to you, like staying on top of the laundry, and let the rest slide. "I used to be super-crazy about the cleanliness of my kitchen floor," says Jennifer Rosenberg. "Well, the kitchen floor got dirty and stayed that way," she confesses.

For Rebecca Mangan, resetting her priorities meant finding a new job. "Business trips, two hours of daily commuting, and paying to park my car just didn't seem reasonable," says Mangan, a meeting planner who left her job in Washington, D.C., to work at a nonprofit only 3 miles from her home in Annandale, Virginia.

4 Survival Strategies

6. Be proactive. If you want to continue breastfeeding after you return to work, find out in advance where you can pump, and plan when you'll do it. Talk to your boss and let her know that you'll be taking scheduled breaks to do this. Bear in mind that you may not always be able to stick to the schedule you devise. "Make sure you wear breast pads," advises Stephanie Dedeau. This could spare you the embarrassment (and dry cleaning bill) of leaking when you can't pump on time.

7. Make time for yourself. How can you possibly manage to do your work, take care of your baby, and still have some personal time? It's not easy, especially in the first months back on the job. But you need to recharge. Have your husband watch the baby while you go to the gym or out for a cup of coffee. Or better yet, meet a friend who is also a working mom; talking to other women who are in the same boat will help you feel less alone.

Also, make your commute time count. During her 45-minute subway ride to work, Anne Gunn reads, does the New York Times crossword puzzle, and sometimes calls a friend on her cell phone. "It makes me feel like a person -- like I can have just a part of my life back," she says.

8. Stay connected. Once her maternity leave was over, Stephanie Dedeau admits that she felt left out of her daughter's day. "I talked about it with my husband," who works part-time and is their baby's primary caregiver. "Now he calls me a couple of times a day just to let me know how things are going. Even if I'm not at my desk, my husband and baby leave me messages."

As your baby gets older, you can even talk directly to him. "Every day, my son Randy gets on the phone with me when he returns from preschool," says Robin Bluman. "I tell him, 'When Mommy's not with you, I'm always in your head and in your heart.'" Randy also commands a big presence in her office, albeit in picture form. "I always have pictures of Randy in my office," says Robin. "When I get stressed at work, I look at them and think, This is what I'm doing it for—my family."

9. Realize this is temporary. Your baby's a keeper, but the chaos and heartbreak won't be. As just about any working mom will tell you, the first month is the most challenging. "It sounds a little sad, but you get used to being away from your kid," says Julie Bernstein, a communications director in Washington, D.C. You also learn that you don't have to be with your child every minute for him to feel loved and to have a great day. Once you get into a groove, you can take pride in being the multifaceted woman you are—a hardworking professional and a loving, engaged parent.

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