Having kids is not complicated – figuring out how to return to work after maternity leave can be.
In January I became the proud mother of a beautiful baby girl. I was quickly getting into the groove of being a full-time mom and enjoyed taking care of her (minus every new parents dreaded task: getting up three to four times at night). A few weeks after she was born – somewhere between postnatal yoga and her first time rolling onto her belly – I noticed that other moms started talking about going back to work and setting up nanny-share arrangements. Was life in my mommy bubble coming to an end?
In April, my husband and I flew to Germany with our three-month-old daughter to visit family and friends. Germany is known for its social benefits and fairly generous family-leave policies: parents can take up to 10 months of family leave and split the time up between them. The parent who stays with the child receives 65 percent of their salary (or a maximum of 1,800 Euros per month). Most of my German mommy friends return to work after about a year, and most dads leave work for two to four months to take care of their child.
Being aware that family-leave policies in the US are very different, my German friends were curious to know what my plan was. My plan was to not have one – I wanted to fully immerse myself into motherhood first and see how the baby and I would feel about being separated.
As a German citizen living in the U.S. for almost six years, I felt like motherhood exposed the collision of two, almost diametrically opposed perspectives. On the one hand were the Marissa Mayer’s of the world who return to work just a few weeks after giving birth. On the other hand were my friends in Germany, many of whom stay home with their babies for at least a year. The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee or require federal paid maternity leave.
The organization MomsRising is at the forefront of fighting for better federal policies around paid family leave and sick days, fair pay, childcare, and increased minimum wage. At the recent White House Summit on Working Families the non-profit organization pushed for stronger family-friendly policies in the U.S. and made sure that President Obama got the message:
Luckily, I live in California, which is one of three states in the U.S. that offers disability leave and paid family leave. For about 14 weeks, I received 55 percent of my salary from the State of California, which is less than in most other countries, but still a big help.
Also, the organization I work for, Future 500, offers employees flexible hours, as well as makes arrangements to work part-time and from home. Future 500 is also a founding member of Great Work Cultures, a movement devoted to creating a work environment that is based on respect and empowerment. I decided to return to work part-time (20 hours per week), knowing that I can work from home to be closer to my daughter, which is particularly useful for those inevitable times when she will be sick.
Besides being a flexible workplace, Future 500 also offers a strong sense of purpose. Our team successfully helps corporations and NGOs to work together and solve crucial social and environmental issues. As Sheryl Sandberg noted in her much discussed book, if women are excited about their job they find it easier to lean in and not miss out.
Though I had some advantages in my mom-to-working-mom transition, I suspect that most new parents trying to balance work and family life also have the same questions as I did, such as: would I feel guilty about leaving my child with a nanny? What if I’m excited about work? Does that mean I’m not excited about being a mother? Can I continue to breastfeed? Will I be able to concentrate? Will I have enough time for everything?
These questions resulted in a process of thinking through the choices that many women are forced to make in a culture that is not as family-friendly as some. Ultimately, I don’t feel guilty about leaving my daughter with our wonderful nanny and it’s good that I’m excited about my work, because we have an important mission and a lot to accomplish. As much as I hope that the work I’m doing will make my daughter proud, the latest research actually suggests that it is more important for young girl’s career preferences to see dad do household chores than mom heading to the office, underlining the importance of the other caretaker’s role.
Having a child is not necessarily the most difficult piece, but balancing work and baby care can be daunting. While I am lucky enough to work for an organization that has made this balance easier, others are not so lucky. It is therefore my hope that the US will introduce a nationwide paid maternity leave that can compete with the policies in Europe. Hopefully, more organizations and companies support their employees with flexible work arrangements, so that each parent can decide for how long they want to stay at home.
Overall, I’m even more focused at work now, as having a child made me more determined and confident. And I’ve figured out a balance where I can continue to breastfeed and take breaks to pump in the office. There is never enough time, but having kids helps you to live in the moment and enjoy the smaller, as well as the larger, things in life. It’s this appreciation and change in perspective that ultimately makes me a more seasoned, and productive, employee, as well as a loving mom.
Kathrin Jansen is the Senior Communications Manager at Future 500, a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds – often corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others – to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges.
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