I became a mother through a rather unusual set of circumstances. I was working towards earning my foster care certification, with the intention of taking in pre-teen girls. I met a woman who was desperately looking for someone to take the baby she was due to deliver in less than a week.
We started talking initially because I believed I could help to connect her with some of the couples in my foster certification classes, whom I knew were hoping to adopt an infant. But within 15 minutes of our first conversation, she was asking me if I would take her baby instead.
I said “no” the first time she asked, mostly out of fear. I was a single woman with a full-time career and absolutely no baby gear to my name. How could I possibly prepare for a newborn in a week?
But the second time she asked, everything in me screamed, “Yes!”
I told my job I would return to work as soon as I could find appropriate childcare. I wouldn’t be giving birth, after all, so there would be no need for me to recover. I estimated I would need about 2 weeks off, at most. The minute I held my little girl in my arms, though, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to return to work until I absolutely had to.
Twelve weeks later, as my unpaid maternity leave came to an end, I walked into my stable job and told my very understanding boss that I wouldn’t be returning at all. I’d decided to pursue another dream instead: writing and editing for a living. It was a career I knew would give me more flexibility to stay home with my little girl.
It’s been almost four years since I made that leap and I can honestly say it was the best decision I’ve ever made. But I was lucky; I had other options that made it possible for me to have the best of both worlds.
Not every mother does. And many face the dilemma of having to return to work after a baby far sooner than they want to.
While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, that only applies to companies with at least 50 employees. And employees have to have worked for those companies for at least a year in order to qualify. More than 40 percent of U.S. workers don’t fall under those requirements. And of those who do, many cannot afford to take the unpaid leave.
These are the only some of the things moms returning to work shortly after having a baby have to worry about:
1. Finding the right childcare
There are more than 11 million children in childcare in the U.S. alone. Unfortunately, in many states, childcare is expensive and hard to secure. Families tend to spend, on average, about 9 percent of their total income on childcare costs. In some states, early childhood education costs are almost twice as expensive as a college education.
In some areas, wait lists to get into certain childcare centers can be over a year long, which means many start scrambling to get on a list as soon as a pregnancy test comes back positive.
2. Separation anxiety
It is never easy to leave your baby for the first time, and both moms and little ones can experience separation anxiety. Trying to work while desperately missing the little life you just brought into the world can be extremely difficult for some new moms.
3. Postpartum depression
Adding to the separation anxiety can be lingering issues with the hormonal shifts that accompany giving birth. Working moms often struggle more with those shifts than moms who are able to stay home and fully recover with their babies.
A 2012 study found that women who have less than 12 weeks of maternity leave (which is the current FMLA duration) and less than 8 weeks of paid leave are more likely to experience postpartum depression. And a 2014 study found that, for moms most at risk for postpartum depression, 12 weeks may not be enough.
4. Where can I go to pump?
Breastfeeding moms have the added difficulty of trying to figure out how, when, and where to pump while away from their babies. According to a provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), employers are required to provide break times and an appropriate space (other than a bathroom) for mothers of babies under a year old to pump.
But as many new moms will tell you, trying to rejoin the workforce is hard enough without setting yourself apart as the employee who also needs special pumping treatment.
5. Maintaining that work/life balance
Attempting to strike a healthy work/life balance is something everyone struggles with. New moms also have to factor their baby in to that equation.
How many hours do I need to work in order to pay the bills? How long can I be away from my baby? How can I be both a good mother and a good employee?
Striking that balance is certainly possible. But with every transition in your child’s life, and especially in the beginning, it can be challenging to adjust.
6. Taking sick days because your kid is sick
Babies get sick. And babies exposed to other babies in childcare tend to get sick more often. A new mom with a little one at home has to figure out how to handle more sick days without endangering their status at work.
7. Working on little sleep
Motherhood is exhausting. It is wonderful, exciting, and beautiful… but it is also exhausting. Especially that first year. Even babies who sleep well have rough nights, and trying to work after several nights in a row of getting little to no sleep would be hard for anyone.
Many women have no choice. Returning to work after having a baby is necessary to keep their families afloat.
And while moms do it every day, it’s no secret that the U.S. lags behind other higher-income countries when it comes to providing leave and workplace protections for working moms. All mothers, and their children, deserve better.