A Barrister’s Thoughts On Going Back To Work With A New Baby
Young working parents seem to be bombarded with advice columns, books and op-eds about whether or not they can “have it all”. When I went back to work after having a new baby, I found this debate was at best mildly depressing, and at worst downright useless. Frankly, I wasn’t really interested in someone telling me whether I could or could not do it all. I needed some advice on how to do it all.
So, here is my list of thoughts about going back to work with a new baby. They are directed principally at people who have given birth to a child, but actually apply equally to fathers and/or other parents.
NB: they should be taken with a grain of salt (or three). While obviously I’d love to style myself as an expert working mum, I have only been one for four months. According to Malcolm Gladwell, I need to accrue another 7120 hours or so to become an expert at it. I have a ways to go.
Consider not going back to work with a new baby as early as possible
I hesitate to say this, because it’s so subjective. Different times will work for different people. And a number of factors will play into your decision about when to go back to work. They include the length of your paid maternity leave, (assuming you are lucky enough to get any), when the baby is developmentally ready for childcare, when your postpartum health (mental and physical) is restored, and when your family might need you return to work for financial reasons. It might even include – like me – how quickly you begin going stir-crazy at home.
Don’t worry about career progression, yet
The one issue that I don’t think should factor into (or factor highly in) your equation, is career-progression. I know this could be seen as a little controversial. But, hear me out.
Think of maternity leave as a gorgeous gift. It’s a career break in your 20s, 30s or 40s that you’d never otherwise be able to justify. It is hard, in its own right, sure. But it’s not the same type of “hard” as working. And six to 12 months is nothing in the grand scheme of things.
More importantly, however, you just won’t know how ready you are to go back to work until the baby is here. So, if you can, take off as much time as you can dream of wanting, and only go back early if you are genuinely ready. (For me, this was after six months.)
And in case you think we all need to promptly “lean in“, allow me to suggest that Sheryl Sandberg would likely endorse the glory that is an afternoon reality-TV binge with a baby asleep on your chest.
Teamwork is everything
When you do decide to go back, tattoo your new favourite word onto your partner’s arm: TEAMWORK. You both created the monstrous little darling, so you BOTH must chip in to take care of him/her.
When you truly work as a team, sleep and “me time” become joint assets. If one of us is exhausted and lacking any time to themselves, we quickly become miserable to be around. Everyone benefits when baby-duties, and sleep deprivation, are borne equally.
The night feeds and wake-up calls
So, while on maternity leave, because my husband had a very technical job to do during the day, I would take all the night feeds. When I went back to work, he began sharing them with me, equally. In terms of “me time”, my husband takes a day off on Friday to stay home with the baby. I take her all day Saturday, so that he can have a day to himself. When things come up at work for me, the husband picks up the slack, and vice versa.
We also share daycare duties. He does drop off to daycare, I do the pickup. I take care of bottles and food, he packs the daycare backpack, including sleeping bags and clothes. (This arrangement does result in some of the most hideous daycare outfits, but I can’t fault a fashion-challenged man for not understanding why fluoro happy-pants shouldn’t be paired with a primary-coloured striped onesie).
I cannot say it enough: happily, cheerfully, even when dog-tired, and when everything else is going down the gurgler, do as much as you can to help each other out. A genuinely joint effort is a must. It will be more doable, and makes everyone happier in the long run.
Embrace working around the edges
In order to complete a full work day, and actually see my child, I leave work at 4:30pm to pick her up from daycare. Then I go back online after 7pm when she is in bed. On weekends, if I need to, I get up very early to work, or put in some hours during her nap-times.
It’s not optimal. I hate taking work home. But I’ve had to let that go. It won’t always be like this. But for now, work happens in and around the edges of life. And that’s OK.
Beware the impending wave of mum-guilt
You’ll feel guilty about daycare sickness. Guilty about putting career over baby. Guilty about supplementing breast milk with formula. Guilty about other people raising your kid. If you have nothing to feel guilty about, trust me, you will find something.
I’m not going to tell you not to feel guilt. But in that moment, please give yourself some grace. Think of the benefits to your child of being outside your sole care. Know that they will develop more quickly, be more sociable and independent, and be happier around other people. Know that every virus and infection they get at daycare is one less they will get in primary school. Know that they will have a role model in you. And if you are happier being back at work, know that that is important too.
Haters gonna hate
There will almost certainly be someone in your life who will judge you for leaving your baby and going back to work. Comments like “it’s so great that you’re going back to work… I just know that I could never leave my baby to be raised by strangers” seem to just constantly pop out of the mouths of ordinarily kind, sensitive people.
My solution is to find another like-minded working mum, and hash it out with them. They will uniquely understand, and be sympathetic to the ends of the earth.
But once you’ve vented, let it go. You’re a working mum. You don’t have to justify your choices to anyone. And you don’t have excess time to wallow. Time spent being bitter, could be time finishing that power-point presentation, playing with the baby, reconstructing the bomb-site that is your living room… or taking yourself to bed with a bottle of pinot and a straw.
Under the pump
Make peace with giving your child formula, or hold pumping breast milk very loosely in your hand. (Emotionally, I mean. Don’t physically hold it loosely, because then it will go everywhere, and that’s just a mess)
Pumping is hard. Physically it’s draining. Mentally it’s worse. You live your life in 3-hour increments. You are always stressed about timing the next one. You worry that you haven’t drunk enough water or eaten enough. You worry that won’t get enough milk for daycare. If you’re in meetings or in court, you’re worried about the potential for milk explosions (thankfully never happened to me, but the fear is ever-present). If you’re as clumsy as me, you should also worry about your pump randomly falling out of your bag and onto the office-floor of a very senior colleague (he was very nice about it).
There are so many – probably unnecessary – emotions that go into what you feed your baby when you return to work. Whatever decision you make, just know that the baby will be fine, and your mental and physical health is just as important as theirs.
It’s tempting to measure your post-baby working self against your pre-baby old self. Or against colleagues in your age bracket.
Just don’t. In the first instance, you’re probably doing more than you think, and better than you think. Your time will be inherently more valuable, and you will get markedly more efficient in your work than ever before. So you’re quite possibly doing just as much or more than your childless co-workers.
Even if that’s not true, it won’t be forever. You’re on a unique path for the moment. That’s not to say you’re on the “mummy-track”. But if you are not be able to do everything that you used to, or everything that your colleagues are doing, that’s really ok. It doesn’t make you any less of a professional bad-ass.
I can promise you, that you will get your own back sometime in the future when your kids are grown, and your previously young, fresh colleagues are drowning in milk bottles and those horrific squeaky toys that everyone seems insistent on giving babies. You’ll have to physically contain your smugness.
You won’t sleep as much
Sorry, that’s pretty much all I can say about that.
Don’t take advice from random people like me
There’s a reason I haven’t called this a “top 10 tips” piece. When you go back to work, a billion people will bleat advice at you from every corner. It will all be well-meaning, and very frequently be useless. This is simply because everyone’s baby, everyone’s work, and everyone’s circumstances are different.
“Chase up some like-minded people in your workplace, and in your industry, and ask them what they did.”
My husband told me about a very senior executive at his tech company who stood up in front of 200 women and told them that her answer to the work-life balance, is to outsource (i.e. throw money at) everything. This was a great solution for her (and many other wonderful working mothers I know), but didn’t help a lot of the mums in the audience whose salaries only barely covered daycare fees.
Don’t bother with generic advice. Chase up some like-minded people in your workplace, and in your industry, and ask them what they did. Try to find someone in similar financial or familial circumstances, and someone who is, or remembers what it was like to be at, your level. These people do exist! And they are goldmines of information and priceless advice. Find them and mine them!
Going back to work with a new baby is hard, but good
I’m not going to lie to you, raising a baby and working at the same time can be a slog. But for me, it’s been totally worth it. And if it doesn’t feel worth it, at least I know that it’s temporary. This season too, will pass. I promise.
Are you raising a child and juggling work at the same time? We’d love to hear about your experience and any tricks you’ve come across which help you to tackle the multitude of tasks faced each day. Share all in the comments below.
Penelope Abdiel is a barrister in Sydney, Australia and prior to that was a litigation attorney in New York and California.
Going back to work with a new baby