This past Monday I got dressed for the first time in 12 weeks. I put on jewelry and makeup and I didn’t smell like throw up and baby poop. I left my sweet baby daughter, my third child, and drove to work for the first time in 84 days. I’m lucky because my husband is home during the day, so I didn’t have to face the heart-wrenching feeling of leaving her with a nanny or at daycare, but it was painful to be separated from this tiny being who has been essentially living in or off me for 52 weeks.
I have a 45-minute commute, so the first thing I did when I got to the office was re-apply my makeup because I cried on my way in.
A year ago I learned that I was pregnant with my third baby. The feelings that come over you when you learn this news are really hard to describe and different for every woman. For me, it was a combination of pure elation, cautious optimism, and some amount of trepidation.
Then I began the process of performing the miracle of growing a human. I consider getting pregnant and having a baby well into my 40s to be one of my greatest accomplishments in life. It is something that makes me feel extremely proud.
While pregnant I was treated like a little bit of royalty — people offered me their chairs, I could eat as much ice cream as I wanted without a shred of judgment, and I even had a parking attendant pay out of his own pocket for my parking one day.
Whether you have had a horrible pregnancy full of vomiting and hip and back pain, or if your pregnancy was 40 weeks (give or take a few) of glowing bliss, you tend to get used to those little perks.
Then it happens; the day comes when this human finds their way out of your body and into the world. As you may know, or have probably heard, this is a big deal. Whether the baby comes out through surgery or the other way, that baby does come out.
This being my third baby, the delivery was the fastest of all three and the least scary. But even with that being the case, I was suddenly transformed into this gooey, gushing, glowing mess. Just hours ago I was making a miracle, but now I am an unrecognizable empty shell that can easily be compared to the bloodiest of Greek tragedies.
Once my baby and I were released from the hospital, there were many days to weeks of recovery. Trying to heal while getting almost no sleep and feeling every emotion in the book can take a lot out of a person. Even if you are as lucky as I am to have a hard-working equal partner to do this with, the weeks after giving birth can seem like the hardest part of this whole epic saga.
As a new mom, it was a huge deal when I was able to find a moment to shower and put on fresh clothes, let alone get to go to the grocery store. I remember going by myself and suddenly I was smacked in the face with a new reality. Nobody in that store knew that just days ago I brought a new life into this world!
They didn’t hold doors open for me, they didn’t know how hard it was for me to even get to the store, and they no longer offered to help me with my bags. Suddenly, my royal status was revoked and forgotten. It’s not only at the store; even when people who knew I had been pregnant came over to visit, they didn’t even make eye contact with me! Not that I blame them — babies are much cuter!
The first couple of months of my babies’ lives are spent immersed in trying to figure out how to feed them and how to get them to sleep for more than 20 minutes. All while figuring out how to take care of myself, my other kids, my home, laundry, and all of the other pieces of life.
About four weeks into it all, I had a reminder that the days are flying by, and before long, I will be going back to work. So, I had to start the dreaded task of pumping. Going from the sweet sweet bonding of nursing my baby to hooking myself up to a motor that has the sole purpose of extracting a bodily fluid from a very sensitive part of my body, changes the whole experience. Milk is extracted one tiny squirt at a time and this slowly adds up to a few ounces of liquid gold. Eventually the hours of my life spent attached to that pump add up, and I have a healthy stash of nutritious milk stored up in my freezer for my baby to eat when I am away at work. Sometimes, when I’m feeling blue, I open the freezer door and just stare at what I have accomplished and beam with pride.
Suddenly, I realized I have to go back to work in a week! In my head, I started to refresh my memory about my commute, the layout of the office, my desk, my computer — even my recall of the faces and names of all of my coworkers is foggy. I started to think about what I was going to wear and how I’ll figure out a way to shower and get cleaned up and get dressed and leave this little being that has been attached to me for months.
Of course I was thinking about what it would be like to leave my baby and all of the possible ups and downs of that experience. It all brought so much angst that it seemed impossible that it would actually happen.
The morning arrived. I set an alarm for the first time in months. I showered, fed the baby, pumped some milk for the day, ate some breakfast, and kissed my little baby (and my husband). While it was only goodbye for a few hours, it felt like forever because from this day forward, I knew that I would not be with that child all day, every day. Someone else will become a large part of my child’s life. Someone else will influence and impact her growth. While I knew that I would remain the most important person in her life (at this stage), it feels like my role has been extremely diminished by this act of returning to work.
This past Monday when I returned to work, I was 15 minutes late because I sat in the parking garage drying my tears and preparing myself for walking back into the office. I really wanted to give the illusion of strength and let everyone know that I was happy to be back. I work at a really great company full of lots of friendly people. I was greeted with hugs and heartfelt greetings. It all felt so nice, but after I was there for an hour and had figured out the ins and outs of pumping in the mom’s room, I was exhausted and ready to go back home. Instead, I sat down and opened my laptop and was greeted with many pop-ups for security and software updates.
While I promptly ignored all of them (sorry IT), I then went on to begin wading through over 1700 unread emails. It took me all day just to get caught up on what I had missed during my leave and delete the unnecessary emails in my inbox. Not a very glamorous job, but one that needed to happen so I could get ramped up.
It seemed like everything was slightly different; like I was returning to my life, but I was different, and so were they. Who are the new employees? Who moved on to their next job while I was gone? Who was promoted or changed roles? Where does everyone sit now? What is the first thing I should work on? Where is the bathroom again? Do I even remember how to make an appointment in Google calendar? Where is the conference room for this meeting on my calendar? What is this meeting about? Can I go home yet? Is my baby missing me? How much is she eating? Am I pumping enough? Can I sneak out to my car to take a nap? So many questions!!!
I struggled to care about the structure of our old and current databases (this is my job) and whether we have signed a certain client or cemented a partnership. Of course, I will care again (I know, because I’ve done this twice before) — but to go from caring for my new baby to caring about a small fragment of a business is a tough transition. There are some moms who cannot wait to focus on something other than their baby for a while, but that’s not me. I can’t get enough of my babies, and when I am away from them, I just want to be with them.
For me, each day, week, and month after maternity leave gets a bit easier; I know that I will start to get back into the swing of things, start to care again about making an impact at work and the sting of leaving my baby every day starts to mellow. I’ll get into a pumping routine and start to feel like a superhuman for successfully juggling it all (depending on the day, of course). However, this is not always the case. According to this WebMD article, 1 in 7 new moms struggle with a more dramatic postpartum depression.
For you employers out there who have these amazing miracle workers turned Greek tragedy turned superhuman employees returning to work, here are 5 things I recommend doing to make the transition easier for everyone involved:
1. Treat her return to work as a re-onboarding.
She may not need a tour, intros to everyone, or a review of the history of the company, but she does need to get reacquainted with things. Greet her at the door when she comes in. Take her by IT to drop off her computer so they can take care of all of the updates. Walk her to her desk to reassure her that she still sits in the same place, or let her know if her desk has moved. If you want to go the extra mile, have a small vase of flowers waiting for her. Walk her around to introduce her to any key new employees and catch her up on anyone who may have left. Walk her through the mother’s room and the breastfeeding policy. Set up meetings with her manager and teammates right away. If her job role has changed at all, be sure that it is in writing and review it on her first day back.
2. Cut her some slack.
On this first day back you should encourage her not to push it. She should feel free to end the day early and get back home to that baby when she is ready. Some moms will jump at the chance to leave early and some will enjoy a whole day away. Either way, she should take it at her own pace.
3. Make sure she has access to the mom’s room and knows the other moms using it.
There can be a lot to figure out here. If you have more than one pumping mom sharing the use of one room you should have a way for them to schedule the space. You should introduce them to each other so they can coordinate. It’s likely that these ladies will talk frequently and get to know each other well. They may even rely on each other for support over the next many months that they will be pumping.
4. Make sure her direct manager and teammates understand and support the mother’s need for time in the mom’s room.
This is not flexible downtime. This is the time when a nursing mom has to attend to her body and her baby’s needs. It is not optional time, it is required. Read this article for more info. Do not expect her to move her scheduled pumping time unless she offers, and ensure that the company culture is not one that expects her to work while pumping. You don’t want her on a call with clients while the lovely squeaky repetitive sound of her pump motor steals the message out of the conversation.
5. Last, but not least, follow up with her periodically to make sure she is settling back into things.
Just like any other employee she just wants to do meaningful work, be excellent at it, and go back home to her baby proud of what she did while she was away. This feeling of strength and empowerment makes her a better mom and a better employee. Win-win, I would say.
In case you need it to be “mom-splained”, here is a very short list of reasons for why you should go the extra steps to make your employed moms happy in their job:
• They are experts at time management
• They are multi-multi-multi-taskers
• They are happy to be at work (regardless of what I said above)
• They don’t care about office gossip or politics
• They are responsible
• They don’t slack off
• They can handle all personality types
• They embody efficiency, empathy, and determination like no other
• They are excellent role models
• They speak clearly and comprehensively
• They thrive under pressure at all times
• They work well on a team
• They are approachable
• They strive for perfection
• They don’t take up petty issues
• They are very economical
• They have a point to prove
As an example of some of the above bullet points, I found the time to write this article, with my two thumbs, on my phone, at about 4am while I was nursing my newborn. When there is work to be done, moms know how to make it happen!
If you don’t have a mom’s room for your moms at work, we should talk. I will be happy to provide resources and review the business case with you.
To all of you new moms out there — Congrats and go get ‘em!
To all you lucky employers out there — Treat your moms right and you will reap the benefits!
Note: The following context is from my personal experience and may not reflect the experience of all moms. However, based on my conversations with my new mom friends, my experience is pretty common.
Megan Oertel is the Business Intelligence Manager at SpareFoot, Inc., and co-founder of Women of SpareFoot and the Austin Diversity and Inclusion Project. She spearheaded the effort to create a mom's room at her last three employers, and also spearheaded the effort to convert one of SpareFoot's conference rooms into a space for nursing moms with a sink and fridge.