If you decide to return to work, you have more options to help you balance work and family responsibilities -- such as flextime and job sharing -- than you would have had just 10 years ago. Unfortunately, these innovations won't resolve the emotional issues that may come up as you juggle home and the workplace.
Work Issue: You Feel Very Guilty
You don't need us to tell you that new-mother guilt is pervasive in our culture. American women have a clash of social ideals between the perfect worker who puts in 40-plus hours a week and the perfect mom who stays home with her kids, notes Joan Williams, PhD, author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (Oxford University Press). Trying to fit themselves into both molds leaves many moms feeling inadequate. Your parents, spouse, or friends may fuel this guilt by making you feel as if you're abandoning your kids by working -- or that you're not committed enough to your career.
The Solution: Guilt is a sign that something's out of balance, says Robert Schwartz, a therapist and life coach in New York. To help assuage guilt, you need to sit down and figure out what specifically needs attention. Once you have the details, you can negotiate a situation that feels better. For example, if you feel like your job is going well but you're not spending enough time with your child, you can move her bedtime back a bit. If you feel like you're neglecting your relationship with your partner, block out time each week for the two of you. An important thing to remind yourself is that by working, you can make life better for your family, whether by fulfilling your goals, earning extra income, or being a role model for your children. Sit down and write out how your work improves your family's quality of life. When you see it in black and white, it may make you feel better about the choices you've made.
In order to feel like you're a full-time parent as well as a career person, you may need to take on a job with lower pressure, change shifts, or stop working overtime so you can have more time with your family. And depending on your career, you may have to switch to a job with fewer hours, perks, or benefits. If you're used to being a high achiever, this can make you feel like you've been demoted.
The Solution: To help shrug off these feelings, take serious stock of what it means to be a top performer in your field, says Maggie Craddock, a psychotherapist in New York who specializes in career issues. You may be competing with people who are willing to work 24-7, which isn't exactly family friendly. Instead of beating yourself up, Craddock suggests brainstorming ways that you can be a valuable contributor without sacrificing time with your child. Volunteer for tasks that you could easily squeeze in on one of your nonworking days, such as attending a local seminar. You'll feel more valuable -- and your company will take note.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that coordinates your work schedule, household tasks, and family responsibilities. In the beginning, it may seem like nothing and nobody is getting the proper amount of attention. And just when you think you have it all together, your baby needs to go to the doctor or your babysitter is sick.
The Solution: Don't beat yourself up. Being a working mother is a new job in itself; it takes time to adjust and work out the kinks. Asking for your partner's help, creating a master family calendar so you're all on the same page, and preparing your manager for the fact that you'll occasionally have a child-care crisis can help smooth the transition.
Perhaps most important, Craddock suggests developing a skill she calls "learning to live in the moment." You've got to get your mind off your kids when you're at work and unplug from work at home, she advises. This kind of focus allows you to make the most of whatever task you're doing. She suggests setting strict boundaries -- such as not taking work home and limiting personal calls at the office -- so you're not shortchanging work or family.
You're probably all too familiar with the term "quality time," but to make your new life work, you need to take this concept to heart. Any time you spend cuddling or reading a book to your child is vital for cementing the parent-child bond. Having these precious moments at least once a day can help you reconnect to the joys of motherhood.
The transition to becoming a full-time mother can be just as tricky to navigate as juggling work and family. Unlike at a regular job, no one takes the time to show you the ropes (and there's no free coffee, either). And though you may be delighted with the fact that you're caring for your baby 24-7, being a full-time mom -- whose bonus is often a hot shower instead of a paycheck -- is a far cry from the workplace. Fortunately, the take-charge skills you learned in the workforce will serve you well in solving stay-at-home-mom problems.
At-Home Issue: You're Bored and FrustratedTaking the majority of responsibility for caring for a baby, feeding your family, and establishing some semblance of order in your household is a completely different lifestyle from enjoying the stimulation of working life. At some point, you may realize you liked sitting in traffic during your commute better than folding laundry and watching the Elmo chicken dance video again and again!
The Solution: If you're going to make it in Mommyville, you need to find ways to feel stimulated and honor your mental abilities, says Craddock. If you don't do it for yourself, no one else will do it for you. This may mean arranging for a sitter so you can take a class, joining a book club, or volunteering for a cause that means something to you. If you miss the regularity of a work schedule and the camaraderie of coworkers -- not to mention the easy access to adult conversations -- create a system that meets these needs. Reach out to other mothers in your area: Look up the people you met in childbirth class, revisit your town's newcomers club, or just troll the local playground to connect with other women in your same situation. To get over the anxiety of having a free-floating schedule, find activities that anchor your day, such as regular exercise, reading the newspaper, or doing errands, and schedule them on a calendar. Being a stay-at-home mom will start feeling like a full-time job in no time at all.
Find yourself yearning for that water-cooler gossip? You don't have to suffer. Fortunately, the strategies to soothe these woes will also help you keep your skills fresh and your knowledge up to date if you want to return to the workforce.
The Solution: First and foremost, it's important to stay in touch with your colleagues. If you let a year go by without a call, you'll not only be out of the loop, but you may find your old workplace filled with strangers by the time you're ready to go back to work. Send out a casual e-mail or pick up the phone every few months to let your colleagues know what you're up to. Follow up with a lunch date. Even better, drop by your former workplace with the baby, say hello, and get face-to-face so out of sight doesn't mean out of mind. It's also smart to keep apprised of all the changes taking place in your profession, so scan the proper stuff or surf the Web regularly for relevant career information.
If you're used to getting recognition for your ability as an employee and manager -- not to mention a regular paycheck -- it may be hard to look to yourself for acknowledgment of your achievements as a homemaker, says Craddock. With no one praising you on a day-to-day basis, it's hard to have a real measure of your success.
The Solution: To feel better about yourself, experts recommend trying to put things in perspective. Write a list of the things that made work important to you, suggests Schwartz. Then write down all of the things that make parenting important. How do they compare? You may be surprised to find that they're similar. Schwartz also recommends looking for role models who are in the same position you are. Think about what they do that earns your respect. If you're doing the same kinds of things, aren't you equally worthy of admiration? Perhaps most important, cut yourself some slack. Remember the only women with perfect homes, perfect children, and perfectly organized lives were June Cleaver and Donna Stone (of the Donna Reed Show) -- and they were fictional characters!