On Going Back to Work

Going back to work is probably the ONLY postpartum issue that is actually on our society’s radar. There have been swells of debate recently about working moms, from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover story to discussions of new Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer’s appointment while pregnant. Everyone has opinions . . . that we need more high-power moms to pave the way for the rest of us, that moms who stay home are setting feminism back, that children suffer when moms work overtime, that the different expectations for working fathers versus working mothers are sexist and unfair, that women can ‘do it all’ or ‘have it all’ if they are tough enough (or wealthy enough), that a sexist society still prevents any real work-life balance . . . and on and on.

First, I have to say it, most women going back to work are not the boss, or in a role of power, and don’t have good choices about length of maternity leave, full- or part-time hours, where to pump at work, affordable and good quality childcare, hiring household help, or even accessing good medical care and healthy food. These days most women have financial stress during the postpartum time rather than financial options.

Second, the big piece missing from this story is the postpartum lens. Everything that happens to us during the first year after childbirth should be seen as part of the postpartum picture. We may be operating in crisis mode. Because women in our society don’t receive the emotional and physical nurturing that nature demands for us in the early postpartum weeks, sometimes the birth and postpartum experience create a trauma. We may be operating in a mode of crisis and trauma for years if this is not addressed.

When a woman goes back to work in an environment where the postpartum vulnerability is not understood, and where empathy is not offered, this can add trauma upon trauma. The effort of faking it, pretending you are not postpartum, can be damaging. Add to that possible resentment from co-workers for their extra work load or your perceived special treatment, or the questioning of your ability, commitment, and competence. The resulting stress is bad for women and it is bad for families. As long as our workplaces lack empathy and understanding of the postpartum reality, they will not be feminist and they will not be safe for women. As with previous feminist struggles, having a few women on top is a long way from having a corporate or organization culture that supports mothers and families.

When I went back to work, I was the boss (basically) and my organization was both community-minded and non-sexist. But the hostile outside culture penetrated our little oasis and, even there, the struggle really impacted me.

Remember, I was in still in this state at six months postpartum. I felt sensitive, vulnerable, still learning to cope. I was sleep deprived and strung out on lactation hormones. I was in love with my daughter, and being separated from her was terrifying.

My task was to return to a small nonprofit organization that I founded, to put out fires that had flared in my absence, and to take control of staff and board teams that were splintering and in need of leadership. I had started the organization out of volunteer work that was my passion, but I was driven to create an organization culture that was supportive and authentic, with management tuned in to staff members’ needs to belong, to make a difference, and to be recognized. Before my pregnancy I cared so much about my team; when there was dischord I’d be up nights until I untangled the problem and found its cause. Like parenting, when the team’s needs were being met my efforts were invisible, but when I flailed, everyone loved to criticize the boss! In my role I needed to be thick-skinned and take strong stances, but also to be responsive and attuned to my staff members’ individual needs. Never mind that I also managed finances, fundraising, board members, programming, community relations, and on and on. This was exhausting and all-consuming before I was pregnant or postpartum. Plus, I was always so hard on myself, never thinking that I was doing it well enough (common in the nonprofit sector).

But, imagine, with that postpartum veil on. The veil of vulnerability, of confusion, of overwhelm. The simplest tasks — explaining financial indicators, concentrating enough to follow a conversation, remembering appointments, pumping breastmilk on schedule, leaving on time for daycare pick up — were overwhelming. My brain chemistry was different. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t read people like I used to, figure out their needs, or pick apart a situation. Keep track of everything. Remember all those details. Half of my brain was occupied by my daughter no matter how close or far away she was from me.

I had built an organization to support a staff team, but I had never figured out how to build in support for myself, its leader. Just like a new mom needs a postpartum doula to mother her, as the organization’s leader I needed support, too. I had advisors I trusted, and board members who believed in me, but I hadn’t found that ingredient, some way that the organization itself could really have my back. Some way that I could transmit what I was going through and be acknowledged by the group.

Instead, my organization had the same expectations of me that Yahoo will have of Marissa Meyer: that I carry on exactly as before. That I act as Executive Director exactly as I did before. When I walked in to the office each day, I felt like the dorky kid walking down the high school halls, wearing the polyester pants mom picked out instead of jeans like everyone else. With my cool walk, acting like everything was normal, just hoping that no one would find out my secret. Faking it. Working so hard to fake it so that NO ONE WILL KNOW.

The problem was that I didn’t understand what was different about me, what it means to be postpartum. All I knew was that I felt people’s expectations on me, needing me to pick up where I left off. Maybe they resented that I left them with extra work and not enough help all those months. (I thought I was providing an incredible leadership opportunity — was I wrong?) Maybe they felt abandoned because I couldn’t provide the level of attention they were used to. Maybe they doubted me and questioned my competence. Maybe they loved me and were rooting for me all along, but I only saw their expectation that I be who I used to be, and that just felt so wrong.

One of my most beloved mentors said this to me:

Your gentleness as a parent does not detract from your confident and bold leadership . . . it just adds a wonderful dimension for your staff. And I would argue that the emotional aspect of parenting — at times when I wasn’t COMPLETELY exhausted! — made me a more compassionate and passionate and CREATIVE leader. Your staff wants you around, and I guarantee they love the baby. Take the baby with you. Take the baby with you.

I did bring her in, and that helped in the beginning. Everyone loved her! They were supportive of the idea that my priorities had shifted, that my family was now as important as my work. But neither they, nor I, understood what postpartum meant. Everyone loves the baby but doesn’t see that the exhausted mom needs help. That the exhaustion part of the equation was real.

Even six months later, I couldn’t bring myself to be away from my daughter more than two days a week. I tried focusing on mentorship, to give more responsibility to existing staff and limit my own role. But, in the end, I failed to catch a serious error made by those I should have been supervising more closely, risking major repercussions for the organization. It wasn’t working. I resigned, and over the following five months, the board and I hired to fill my position. I left the organization I had created with all my heart and passion.

I felt kind of like the weird kid on 90210 who gets killed, and everyone is shocked, but then no one really cares because he wasn’t popular. Under the surface I had done this Herculean task of trying to find a family-work balance as a mom in leadership in the nonprofit sector, and then when it all blew up I steered the ship to safety and left it in capable hands. But, above board in the public view, I simply took the heat for the choices I made that didn’t succeed. I took the blame and I, not slinked away exactly, walked away, I guess.

Once I was a few steps away, mind you, I held my baby close and never looked back. I’ve never been happier than I am with my new calling, as a mom who runs a nurturing household, and even gets to support other moms through this meaningful doula work.

But for me, at least during the first few years postpartum, I couldn’t be the boss. I couldn’t run the show. I couldn’t “do it all.” The very worst thing of all was experiencing stress that distracted me away from my daughter. All the kinds of worry and challenge of being a mom bring me closer to her, not farther away. Stressing over work that pulled me away from my daughter was the most viscerally uncomfortable part of all.

What does this all mean? It’s only my personal story. I hope that not all women feel postpartum as intensely as I did. But many do, and we should have realistic expectations (if not wholehearted nurturing support) for them. We need to see a mix of role models, yes, of women who work, fathers who stay home, and parents of all genders who tell the real, true story of why they make the choices they do. And we need to honestly identify those aspects of our society and culture that may be unsupportive or even actively hostile to working families.