From the moment a child is born, women are faced with a new job. Regardless of what we may have been doing in the workforce even days before, we now have taken on the job title of “mom”. This job comes with virtually no training and is generally not as valued by the greater society as the job we held beforehand. After just a few weeks in this new job, most new mothers are faced with the decision of whether or not to return to work full-time, part-time or stay at home.
According to results released in October 2009 from the U.S. Census report, 5.6 million women, or nearly one in four married mothers with children under the age of 15, stay at home with their kids. Other studies show that 48% of mothers stay home with their children under the age of two, while 25% of mothers stay home when their children are between the ages of 3 and 6. The U.S census (2009) also reports that 63% of college-educated women with infants are in the workforce indicating a correlation between level of education and work status post child.
The decision whether or not to return to work is not always an easy one. After interviewing a number of New York moms on their feelings about returning to work, it became clear to me that this is a topic that many are passionate about. When asked if she always knew what she wanted to do in regards to her career before having a baby, one mother of a 2-year old daughter said “[n]o, it was a discovery process through a series of ‘calibrations’”. After returning to work shortly after her daughter was born, she realized that her existing job was “too much”, but that no work was “too little.” Another mother to a 10 week-old son stated, “I always thought I would go back to work. I went to school for years and the thought of not returning seemed crazy before Harry was born. Now when I hold him, I wonder how I could do any other job than simply be his mom.” Still, for some, the decision to return comes with little choice. One mother to a three- month old daughter stated, “[p]eople say to me all the time that they can’t believe that I’m going back to work. They never thought that I would. The fact is I need to work. I don’t have a choice.” There are many factors to consider when it comes to whether or not to return to work. Your family’s financial situation is likely the biggest consideration. Will it cost you more to get childcare than you will bring in? Can you afford not to work? Do you have a job that would allow you to work fewer hours than before but still bring in a nice income? Personal Choice is another top consideration. Understanding your own feelings about retuning to work is important. This often only comes after you have had the baby and you have settled into your role. It is important to figure out how you are going to have a sense of fulfillment and not lose your sense of self. According to another mother of a 2-year-old daughter who returned to work after her three-month leave was up, “ I am a much better mother when I am with her at night and on the weekends because I have my own identity as a professional during the week.”
Having a family-friendly employer can also make a big difference. If you are lucky enough to have a boss who understands and supports you, it can make a big difference. This may result in flexible work days/hours or an ability to be present for all the school events and doctors appointments you would like to attend without feeling guilty. If your work environment tends not to be so understanding, it is important to realize this may make your ability to be a working mother that much more challenging. If you are leaning towards staying home, you may also want to consider continuing educational opportunities in order to keep your job skills sharp. Are there projects you can volunteer to be part of or work that you can do part-time that will keep you up to date on things in your industry? Is there a class you can take? Also look for professional organizations to join in your industry if you are not already part of them, and attend events once every few months. A vital thing to consider when it comes to returning to work is “whose job is whose?“ around the house. Speak with your spouse about what the expectations would be for each of you in regards to your child and household responsibilities both if you stayed home and if you went back to work. Make sure that you each support each other and are on the same page so you don’t grow resentful of each other’s participation in household responsibilities.
Regardless what decision you make, there are pros and cons to both. When moms were asked about the challenges they faced as either a working mom, stay at home mom, or part-time worker, it was clear nobody thinks that she has it perfect. According to one full-time working mother, “I feel the constant struggle between work life and home life. I don’t think any working mom can ‘do it all’ all of the time; the trick is figuring out the balance of when she can be ‘focused on work’ and ‘focused on home’. Another working mother echoed those feelings. She stated that the biggest challenge is “making sure you can preserve a certain quality of the interactions with your children and husband – with energy, attention, and excitement, which can be hard after a full day of work and stressful situations.”
Stay at home moms don’t have it easy either. One mother stated that the biggest challenge is, “making sure that you and your husband don’t create and live in separate worlds, with him in the workforce full time and you in babyland.” Another stay at home mom had concerns about feeling a sense of self-worth in a job that society doesn’t value the way that it values corporate jobs. She explained “I love being home but my friends, but old co-workers sometimes look at me as though I made a choice not to use my brain.” Other challenges to stay at home moms are as simple as the work hours. Says one mother of two young children, “[m]y biggest challenge as a stay at home mom with a very early rising toddler is there is never a break, I’m on call 7 days a week at the crack of dawn so there’s never a chance to catch up on sleep.”
Often, many new moms feel that part-time employment is ideal, and for many it is. However, it still comes with challenges. One mother of a three-year-old son and an infant daughter who works three days a week stated, “[i]n many ways it is a perfect solution. However you can’t really have it all. When I am at work, I feel like I’m not always doing my best and when I am at home I feel like I’m not always being the best mom I can be. The trick is trying to be kind to myself and knowing that in the end I am happiest doing a little bit of both” Happiness seems to be the key. Whether one decides to stay at home, or work full or part-time, ideally one should feel a sense of fulfillment, happiness and joy in their life. As the first generation of women who generally have not had to fight for the right to be in power positions, we also have the power to choose not to be in these positions if it works best for our families.
As Juliette Frette (2010) says so well, “If we trace the fervent race to gender equality to its truest source, we discover that all we really want for women — and for men — is empowerment and success. And what is empowerment and success but euphemisms for balance, freedom, and above all, happiness?” And as any good mom knows, happy mothers equal happy babies.