As with many of life’s stages and milestones, working motherhood is something you can’t fully comprehend until you’re in it. You can read any number of books about, say, going to college. Or giving birth. Or what it’s like to not get more than three hours of consecutive sleep for weeks (or months!) on end. But there are some experiences you have to sink deep into from the tips of your toes to the top of your head to fully comprehend.
There is (thankfully) more help these days for working moms than there was even just eight years ago when my oldest son was born. My own observation that advice on navigating one’s professional life in early parenthood was largely absent (and a desire to fill that gap) caused me to launch a program called Mindful Return. But even the best books, blogs, podcasts, and other resources — like my program — can’t necessarily prepare you for the lived experience of being both in the thick of radically shifting your identity and falling deeply in love with a tiny human. Here are 4 things about my own experience with working motherhood that caught me completely off guard:
1. Sleep deprivation’s debilitating effects.
I know, the stereotypical image of an exhausted and frazzled working mom probably comes to mind here. Intellectually, we are all aware that babies wake often. We all also know there are a million things that have to happen to make work and home run smoothly. And that a lack of sleep causes things like “mommy brain,” making it hard sometimes to remember which end is up.
But what I didn’t fully comprehend until I went back to work after maternity leave was that extreme sleep deprivation could turn me into a sobbing, confused, angry mess of a human being. There were a few days, particularly in my first year with two children, when I somehow had the presence of mind to return home after dropping my kids off at daycare in tears from lack of sleep, so that I could nap for an hour or so before going into the office.
2. How little margin there is in your day for anything.
The other thing that struck me in the first few years of parenthood is just how precious each individual minute is and how there was so little margin for anything other than the essentials of survival for what seems like years. I don’t think I appreciated how much every single moment seemed to be accounted for, between pumping, bottle washing, nursing, managing a household and working a full-time job. Micro-self-care became mandatory. Micro, because I didn’t have more than a few minutes for myself each day. And self-care, because I realized that without some moments of life-sustaining alone time, I wasn’t going to make it.
3. That working motherhood is management boot camp.
Now we’ll turn to the positive side of the coin. I walked into working motherhood fully expecting that the experience would somehow slow down my career or make me “less than” at work because I had new priorities at home. Wow, was that the furthest thing from the truth. Very quickly, I was startled to learn how much working parenthood made me better at my professional role.
I was now able to connect on a new and more intimate level with colleagues and constituents. The unexpected began to phase me less. And my prioritization skills shot through the roof. I am happy to report that in my first 4 years of working motherhood, I won a major award from my employer, founded a company and also became a partner at an international law firm. I say these things not to brag about them by any means, but to say that I don’t think the timing of these advancements was coincidental. Working motherhood improved my leadership skills, and gosh did that come as a welcome surprise.
4. How much other working moms sustain me.
Before becoming a mother, I’d have described myself as a fiercely independent, I-can-do-this-myself sort — and I still have that in me, to some degree.My general approach at the beginning of working motherhood was that I could figure things out on my own, and that I “shouldn’t” need much help. What I only learned from living it was how dysfunctional this approach was.
Other working moms are my lifeline now. They reassure me I’m not crazy (or confirm that we all are!). They help me in a pinch when one kid gets sick, the other still needs to get to school and my husband is out of town. They share ideas about what to pack the kids for lunch, or where to send them for camp on the days when school is closed. They help me navigate business travel, hug me through kid sports dramas and are generally the web of support that makes me a happy and fulfilled adult.
I fully appreciate the irony of writing a post about things you can’t prepare for in working parenthood, even if you read about them. Forewarned may not be forearmed, it’s true. But if you take one thing away from this article, it’s the following: whatever you’re experiencing in working motherhood, you’re not alone. You don’t have to remember the details about these challenges and rewards or any other advice you read. But please do remember that we — the other working mamas out there — are here for you.
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.