To Work or Not to Work After Baby: Two Books that Might Help
Let me begin by saying that I quit working after I had my first child in 2004 and still haven’t gone back to work full-time. I have three part-time jobs that give me the flexibility to be with my children most of the time.
Given this, you might expect me to be 100 percent on-board with Erica Komisar’s Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t 100 percent on-board with The Fifth Trimester: The Working Moms Guide to Style, Sanity & Big Success After Baby by Lauren Smith Brody either. What both books did is give me a chance to think about my professional and personal choices since becoming a mom and reaffirm that I did what was right for me, which isn’t necessarily right for anyone else but me.
Brody’s book offers expectant and new moms realistic expectations for hiring a childcare provider, getting through the early sleep-deprived days when you really want to quit work, pumping breast milk, and negotiating flexibility with your employer. There were also chapters on looking human again with the help of cosmetics and dressing stylishly upon work re-entry.
This book was informative and definitely supportive of women who want to return to their professional lives with as much gusto as they had before delivering, but it made me relive all the anxiety I experienced when I considered leaving my baby to return to full-time teaching. Maybe that anxiety is what every new mom feels? I never pushed through it to see what was on the other side, but Brody’s book gave me a glimpse that you can do it and do it well, but you have to be mindful of your feelings and limitations and inform employers of them.
When it comes to that ever-present mom guilt, Brody says, “‘Guilt’ by definition, implies a feeling of ‘should,’ a comparison between you and some other supposedly better parent or better worker or better decision you could have made. But if all of us working moms are feeling guilt in some form there is actually nothing to compare here. We’re all in the muck of it. There is no other, better, less-guilty working mom to aspire to be.”
Komisar’s book stresses the importance of mothers being frequently available to their children for the first three years of life. She urges women to really think about their priorities and finances before they become pregnant, stressing that relationships and community are more critical to babies and toddlers than material stuff. According to Komisar, it is when children are older that the benefit of seeing their moms work and contribute to a larger society than the family becomes more valuable to them.
One of the most profound things Komisar says in her book relates to working women in poverty and those of affluence: “Children are the great litmus test of our intentions. They know when we are truly sorry that we cannot be with them and when we would rather be somewhere else. I’ve found that young children are wiser and more in touch with the most important things, like relationships, intimacy, dependency, and the nature of love as a priority.”
While I agree with her premise, I was turned off by her repeated suggestion that children’s depression, anxiety, and attention issues are a direct result of their mothers’ failing to be there for them during their first three years. There are few things I dislike more than the “blame the mother” stigma of society, as if a mom is responsible for every single solitary thing her children think, say, and do for the remainder of their lives. I’m not sure how I can reconcile that I stayed at home during my children’s formative years, yet my son still has an anxiety disorder. Is that my fault? Was I somehow emotionally unavailable to him?
Both books talked policy, specifically the need for greater maternity leave options for mothers as well as part-time tracks that don’t make women lose years of valuable professional skills and networks.
So do I recommend the books?
If you are definitely going back to work full-time after having your baby and are enthusiastic about it, then you should read The Fifth Trimester because it will help you manage that transition. If you are hell-bent on being a stay-at-home mom, then I recommend Being There because it will affirm your belief that your role as a mother is critical. If you are floundering somewhere in the middle, you should probably read both.
In conjunction, both these books really force a prospective (or veteran) mom to think about her priorities and personality, what she has to do, and what she wants to do. Read the books and listen to what your gut tells you. That gut response is 95 percent of not only surviving motherhood but doing it in a way that works best for you and your children.
Whether you are a working mom or a stay-at-home mom, here are three tips on being the best one you can be:
Don’t overdo everything to make it Pinterest-quality at home or PowerPoint-quality at work.
Make being a mom part of your professional identity, and make your interests, skills, talents, and hobbies part of your mom identity. You are a whole person who now has another role: mom.
Set and sustain boundaries so you are actively present with your child. For working moms, this may mean telling the boss you are unavailable after hours until 9pm. For stay-at-home moms, this may mean only checking Facebook and Twitter during naptime.