When Marisa Thalberg gave birth to her first child in 2000, she was a high-level executive at a global cosmetics company. Despite the rigors of corporate life, nothing could prepare her for the demands of motherhood. Returning to work after maternity leave, Thalberg sought out other women whom, like her, were attempting to juggle high-powered careers and family—without dropping a ball. Her search came up empty; so Thalberg decided to launch her own organization, Executive Moms, a real-world and online community that offers support and networking opportunities for working mothers. In her role as founder and president, Thalberg frequently speaks about motherhood and careers in the media. She is also a featured essayist in the book, This Day: Diaries from American Women. Thalberg offers her wisdom on juggling career and family when going back to work after baby.
Women feel a whole host of emotions during this time. Some experience feelings such as guilt, sadness and anxiety. Others feel relieved to be returning to work. I think most are ambivalent, however. While they may look forward to the validation that their careers provide and may enjoy a break from changing diapers, they are distressed about leaving their babies for extended periods of time and worry about what life back in the office will bring.
Women need to acknowledge that, assuming they have good childcare in place, the discomfort that they may be feeling will not last forever, only through the transition. If you find yourself with a lump in your throat ready to quit on the spot, take a few moments to step outside of yourself and remember that these feelings are transitory. Give yourself permission to feel torn. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your baby—or your job, for that matter.
In my experience, returning to work after maternity leave is like coming back from a really good vacation. On the first day of the trip, you feel disoriented and by the end you think, “How am I ever going to go back to the office?” Then, once you are back for a couple of days, you become immersed again as if you never went away in the first place. Though being on maternity leave is hardly a relaxing vacation, the same process exists. The first day back at work will be unsettling. The second day might feel slightly better. By week two, though your life has changed dramatically outside of work, you may start to feel more like your old self at the office.
Though you may not plan to work during maternity leave, I would suggest not checking out completely. Keep your mind in work mode, or at least on stand by, by reading a trade journal every once in a while instead of a baby book. In today’s world of emails and cell phones, it’s easy to stay selectively in the loop. Call into work occasionally, even if it’s just to get the office gossip. Make a visit to show off your baby. Keeping one foot in the pool will affirm your physical presence and keeps that stream of your mind flowing.
The other thing that I did with my second maternity leave was to negotiate phasing back to work. I knew from my first baby that jumping into a five-day workweek right away was tough. I made my start date mid-week instead of on a Monday. Each week, I added a day until I was back to five full days. This afforded me a more gradual transition. If your company is unable to offer you this kind of schedule, try to get them to at least agree to a mid-week start date.
Executive moms capture the dichotomy that we all embody. We are both the warm and friendly moms eating peanut butter and jelly on the playground and the Manolo-wearing, high-powered corporate women. I think women should embrace both aspects of themselves and not feel forced to fit into just one role.
The reality is that you will feel like you are re-auditioning for your job and, in a way, you are. Your employer is going to wonder how you feel about being back at work. Perhaps they will be a bit weary of you, and you of them. From your employer’s perspective, the first month post maternity leave is critical to the company in terms of staff longevity. It is a time when they are most vulnerable to women quitting their jobs. No matter how ambivalent you are feeling, it makes career sense to maintain a posture that exudes commitment and professionalism. I tried to leverage my own maternity leave as a business advantage by appearing re-energized to be back at work, which was a joke because in reality I was feeling exhausted. This attitude will, in return, engender good will from your company. Revealing how weepy you are feeling, by contrast, will serve to affect the morale of your co-workers who will assume that you are quitting. If nothing else pleases you about returning to your job, look on the bright side: at least you can finally enjoy a cup of uninterrupted coffee.
Allow yourself time to determine if your initial feelings of guilt and anxiety diminish or become more intense. If they are the worsening, you will need to assess what the problem is, such as childcare or your workplace. If everything is running smoothly despite your feelings, give yourself permission to feel torn rather than to expect to feel entirely content with your situation.
Accept the ambivalence. Our emotions are never black and white. I believe that any big change is analogous to the first three months of becoming a mother: At first it can be scary because you don’t really know what you are doing, but then it can be exhilarating once you get the hang of it.
...it gives you a chance to start anew, to reinvent yourself and be stimulated in a new way.
Becoming a parent. Although, when I became one, I expected to feel blissful all of the time, I was so surprised to discover how difficult it really is.
For more information on Marisa Thalberg, visit www.executivemoms.com.
"What is a day in the life really like for a CEO, a single mom, a TV celebrity, an inmate?" This was the question that inspired This Day, a book project that invited a cross-section of women to create a "day diary" on a single, ordinary Tuesday....