June 14, 2013

On Being a Working Mom (and an outfit too)

During my maternity leave, I went to campus on numerous occasions to wrap up projects I had worked on at home, to submit my annual review portfolio, and to prep for a condensed summer course. But each trip was short and some even involved bringing Emilia. This week I found myself back in the classroom for the first time postpartum. It was exhilarating, if not a little nerve-wracking. Although I'd been writing, researching, and handling service responsibilities from home, I officially felt like I was a working mom. After a (very generous and lovely) maternity leave, I was back in a venue where I was confident and professional, where I could receive immediate nonverbal and verbal feedback on my work, where I know what I am doing, and where I converse with adults.

As soon as I arrived, I hulked a mini-fridge from my car into my office (which is a private spot with a door that locks) to use for storing pumped milk. I set up a little station so that I could pump as efficiently as possible while working during the break in my class. After feeling settled, I put on my game face so that I could meet the students. I found a rhythm quickly.

Because the class is condensed into four weeks with two meetings per week, each session runs for 4.5 hours. That's too long for me to go without pumping. Although I didn't tell the class why I am otherwise unavailable during our breaks, they seem to be fine with it. I assured them of my availability before and after our meetings. The break allows them to regroup which is necessary for such lengthy sessions. I wore my pump and nurse tank from Rumina underneath a dress I could easily pull on and off.  The process of pumping during my break was a bit harried, but I'm sure that will get easier with practice. I breathed many sighs of relief during my commute home.

Although I left Emilia with a heavy heart, this return to work reminded me of how fortunate I am to have my job. I spent many days of early motherhood feeling uncertain, anxious, and humbled. No matter how many parenting books you read, there is so much to learn with no certain or  universal answers. At my job, there are plenty of gray areas too, but after ten years of experience I have my footing. I am good at it. I don't yet feel the same ease about my performance as "mom." Hopefully it will come with time.

Leaving Emilia for that many hours, for the first time ever was (of course) harder than I imagined. I was still pregnant when I made these return-to-work plans alongside supervisors and colleagues. Although it is only four weeks (and then I am home again until fall), I view it as an important trial run. It is easier to do this now while I have family help. My mom and sister are schoolteachers, both off for the summer and eager to spend time with the baby. They came over to watch her and had a blast. My mom worked my whole life and it means so much to have her (as well as my sister's) support!

When I pictured motherhood, I always pictured working out of the home too. My mom's example inspires me to this day. She gave me great advice and hugged me tightly as I left with a few tears in my eyes. When I came home she was finishing up a dinner that she cooked for me and Chris (who was snuggling Emilia as he had just arrived home too!). I felt doubly lucky!

This is just the beginning. I have a lot more to learn about work-life balance. And Emilia has a lot more growing and changing ahead of her. I'm sure things won't always be easy especially if separation anxiety sets in...especially if I experience the "mom penalty" at work... especially once I begin to miss exciting "firsts." But I am optimistic that we can all adjust, as needed. My work outside of the home is not only important to me, it is also a significant component of my family's financial stability. I know there will be plenty of compromises and hardships but I wouldn't and we couldn't have it any other way.


Sookie said...

I'm in your position, too. I'm on the faculty of a large research university and I have an 8-month-old (first) baby. I, too, feel lucky to have had a semester's "maternity leave"--it's not really a maternity leave, but a sort of family care leave that we can use after having a baby. But at the same time I am dismayed by the fact that we live in one of three--THREE!--countries in the industrialized world without a mandated maternity leave. So even if we, as academics, are lucky enough to have some sort of maternity leave, most other women in the USA are not. And, frankly, though I'm grateful, I'm also cynical... what kind of true maternity leave requires a harried first-time mother of a tiny infant to continue working from home? I had to submit a letter to my dean outlining the projects I would continue to work on and the committees I'd continue to serve on and the students I'd keep advising while on "maternity leave." The countries that do offer a *real* maternity leave understand that this means no stress and a complete devotion to learning the skills required to be a truly present parent to your child. My husband is Norwegian and I got to witness first-hand the way the system in Norway works (one year paid maternity leave, which can be partially shared with the father). Americans are allergic to these ideas because they tend to not fully understand just how they work--they think that small business owners will have to pay for the leave, which isn't true--since it's government mandated, the government pays. And yes, this means that it comes from taxes. But wouldn't it make sense to divert the tremendous amount of our taxes from, say, our over-inflated defense budget to something that benefits our society for the long term? And this brings me to my last point, something I realized after living in Scandinavia: the greatest point of misunderstanding regarding maternity leave and other benefits for parents (including subsidized daycare) is that Americans don't think in terms of society--we think in terms of individuals (for good and for bad). So people without children, or those who raised children without maternity leave, etc, say, "why should my taxes go toward helping a mother bond with her baby for a year?" Why? Because it's been proven that this makes for happy babies--which makes for happy children, and happy adults, and overall a happier society, and a better place for all. That is why these benefits help ALL, and not just the parents.
Sorry for the length of this comment. It just struck me how we in the US are so grateful for something that really ought to be a cornerstone of a healthy society. It should be a given!
Good luck teaching summer school. I also pumped last semester while at work. I taught a weekly three-hour grad seminar and always pumped just before and just after. Just don't forget to wear nursing pads, just in case!

Jesspgh of Consume or Consumed said...

You are so right and raise so many important points about disparities and the reality of a "leave" in academia (mine was technically medical then family so not maternity in the traditional sense, either).

It's dismaying for sure that there is no mandated maternity leave. And I did pause about describing my leave as "generous" because it was not really a leave in the traditional sense and it is not regarded to be generous to any international friends who benefit from much more humane, nationalized policies regarding such matters.

My position is teaching-focused but I have research and service obligations that didn't disappear while I was on leave. My due date was the final day of classes and even though I went ten days early, I still had an entire term of grading to wrap up.

As an aside, I just read a great article discussing the fantastic care packages provided to pregnant women in Finland. If you haven't read it, I recommend it.


That the state has such a policy speaks a culture (of life?) that genuinely wants children, not one that pays lip service to family values while simultaneously slashing and burning the budgets that support infrastructural mechanisms to help people survive and thrive (and plan their families).

Thank you again for your comment and congratulations on your little one! I wish you the best of luck balancing new motherhood while working (in a research institution to boot!). It's clear from your wise words that you aren't suffering from mom brain (a concept that makes me bristle, even if I have begun to believe in it for me personally)!


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