The greatest work life challenge: when to go back to work?


I was recently asked by the media about what my biggest challenge is as a working mom.  While there are so many little challenges throughout the week, I hadn’t previously considered what one thing would be the greatest among them.  That tells me though that most of the challenges I face as a working mom are relatively benign and nothing in particular stands out as much of a burden.  For the most part, I love being a working mom and any challenges that come with juggling those roles are a small price to pay for the rewards I receive.

My initial answer was that changes to my routine, like illnesses, snow days, and car troubles, are the hardest obstacles to handle.  When our daily routine is in action, things run smoothly and calmly.  However, as soon as my toddler decides that he doesn’t want to eat breakfast or it takes him three times longer than usual to put on his shoes, the mornings get a little hairy.  An illness or weather disturbance throws everything completely off, and we don’t have great contingency plans in place.  Like most families with two working parents, if the kids are staying home from school, one of us needs to call out to stay with them.  As a physician, this is especially challenging.  There may be as many as twenty children counting on me to come to work each day and my office rarely closes for bad weather.  It isn’t easy to just cancel my schedule and I can’t do my work from home.

Fortunately, these experiences are pretty rare though.  The more I thought about it, the greatest challenge for a working mom isn’t juggling the schedule, because you can plan for that.  The challenge comes much before that: maternity leave.  How long we take off for maternity leave and whether or not it is paid is one of the greatest challenges we face.  Every week in my office I talk to moms who are returning to work before they or their babies are ready because they financially need to do so.  Their early return to work is often the end of their breastfeeding and has implications on their maternal-infant bond.  As much as I am supportive of all working moms, I urge them to stay home as long as they can.  Maternity leave is a precious time in a working mom’s life, meant to not only recover from birth, but to establish breastfeeding and promote bonding and attachment.

The US is the only industrialized nation to not mandate a paid maternity leave (see infographic of how we compare to other countries here).  While FMLA protects us from being fired (during our leave, not before or after), it does not guarantee any pay during that time period (newborns aren’t expensive, right?).  A paid parental leave policy, that allowed moms and/or dads to stay home with pay and potentially defer their return to work for 3-6 months would not only have benefits for the infant (reduced mortality, extended breastfeeding) and mother (fewer depressive symptoms), but also the companies where they work (more productive workers).

I know from personal experience that I fared much worse when returning to work after 6 weeks than I did after 12 weeks, the difference between my first and second maternity leaves, respectively.  My longer maternity leave allowed me to better establish breastfeeding, adapt to a new routine, and get more sleep before returning to work.  My baby and I were well bonded before I needed to send her off to daycare and her immune system was more mature.  Even still, at the 12 week mark, I was still adjusting the role of being a new mother, learning how to juggle two kids and a career, and hoping to get six consecutive hours of sleep.  It wasn’t easy, but I was grateful to have had 6 weeks longer than my first leave.

So the challenge of working motherhood starts from the beginning, when you are just starting out and not even yet working.  I would advise all expectant moms to consider strongly what they want their maternity leave to look like, in terms of number of days, compensation, split with co-parent, and schedule upon return to work.  You may not know before you are a parent what type of leave you will want/need, but it is good to start thinking ahead and begin the conversation with your employer.


Kudos to the companies that help make this transition easier on moms:  see Working Mother’s 100 Best Companies for Working Moms List (2011) here.

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  1. I’m so glad you are drawing attention to this issue–it’s something we just don’t talk about enough in this country. But something I often think about is: what would the ideal, dream-world, maternity leave look like? If we were going to enact a law that guaranteed the optimal amount of paid leave for most mothers, how much time would that cover? Do all mothers who want to work have a different personal preference for *when* they would go back to work? Or if we were to survey these mothers would we find that most people have similar preferences? Is 12 weeks still too short? Is a year too long? I know what my own preference would be, but am curious how typical it is.

    1. Alexa- I find that in informal surveys of friends, everyone has very different preferences for when they would want to go back to work. It seems that there are a lot of factors that contribute to this. In general though, I think most seem to be in the 3-6 month range and typically not before 3 months, however there are so many moms who have to return to work before 3 months currently. I agree though, it is definitely something that we don’t talk enough about! Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation here… I would LOVE to hear what others think too!

  2. I just don’t understand why the U.S. doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. I think this is the single most factor in when most working women decide to return to work. If I had to guess how long the average maternity should be, I would say 6 months.
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