Navigating Family Leave – Still

Posted on February 5, 2020

Wonder woman behind a desk

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Sarah Henricks. Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn and Twitter.

What I’m Reading: The California Municipal Resources Handbook (exactly what can we spend that $$ on?)

What I’m Watching: We’ve been trying to watch The Irishman for the past 3 months, but the baby won’t let us get past the first hour

What I’m Listening To: The sounds of silence, literally, not the Simon & Garfunkel song

Time for the fourth installment of my experience Navigating Family Leave…is 4 articles too many? Have I officially turned into one of those parents who only talk about their kids? Probably.

I opted to transition back to the working world on a remote, part-time basis. This meant devoting 3 solid, uninterrupted hours of work each day to the Public Works Department. Of course, I spent the first week cleaning out my inbox, trying to cobble together what I could from the scattered emails.

Someone told me they had a former co-worker whose auto-reply read something along the lines of “I am out of the office from x date to y date. Any emails received during this time will be automatically deleted. Please reach out to me upon my return.” Ballsy. I wasn’t sure that would fly and TBH I wasn’t willing to relinquish that much control yet.

This scenario worked in terms of easing me back into the idea of working full-time, but it didn’t really do much to prepare me for physically leaving my new baby in someone else’s very capable (but surely not good enough?) hands. That first week back…Was. A. Doozie.

In the days leading up to my return, I cried anytime I even thought of leaving her. The night before, I couldn’t sleep, despite the fact that she slept peacefully for 8+ hrs (I know, right?!?). I got up the next morning with puffy, red eyes and rushed through the crazy routine parents must execute to get out of the house in the morning.

I cried as I kissed her goodbye (she was happily playing with her Daddy), I cried all the way to work while pumping on the drive, I stared at pictures of her all day while fielding the gentle, ‘How are yous?’ from co-workers. I constantly checked my phone for updates from her caregiver. I navigated the incredibly awkward process of finding time and space throughout the day to pump.

I had a check-in with my counterpart who took over most of my projects while I was gone.Will Ferrell - that's really interesting...I have no idea what you're talking about

She provided me with a detailed update on the status of every single project I had handed over to her.

I remembered about half of them and was really foggy on the details of the other half…but they at least sounded familiar.

I was 100% useless for the first week. I was also 100% unprepared for how lost and dissociated I felt. I was never the girl that dreamed of having babies; in fact, I barely tolerated the babies in my life (except for a very special chosen few).

Everyone always says you feel differently about your own, but I honestly believed that though I would love my child, I wouldn’t have a problem going back to work and that I would be happy to have space.

In fact, I felt that way when I wrote my last post. But, once I actually had to disentangle myself from her and head back to work, I was shocked at how difficult it really was. I’m still shocked. 

Things have gotten easier, but I still don’t feel like I’m at the top of my game. I don’t feel like my contributions are at the level of quality that they were before I had her. I don’t like feeling like that, but it’s true. I try to remind myself that what we do is important.

Our fearless leader, Kirsten Wyatt sent me positive vibes on my first day back, telling me how proud baby girl will be of me when she sees what a difference I’m able to make in the communities I serve. Those reminders help, but it’s still hard.

My advice to parents heading back to work after the arrival of a new baby:

  • Talk to your partner about how you’ll split the work – will one of you be responsible for entertaining, feeding, cleaning baby while the other makes dinner and lunches, does dishes, takes out the trash? What about getting your baby to daycare or accommodating the schedule of an in-home caregiver – will you need to adjust your schedules for pick-up/drop-off?
  • Give yourself plenty of time – plan for more time than you think you’ll need and head back early if you feel ready
  • Go easy on yourself – leaving those little nuggets in someone else’s hands is really hard and it’s normal to be worried about them; it’s normal to forget some of the details of the projects you were working on if you’re out of pocket for a few weeks or months…it’s also normal to forget that you were working on a project at all!
  • Balancing your responsibilities becomes an Olympic event – We’re all used to balancing competing priorities, it’s a cornerstone of working in local government, but this takes that competition to a new extreme
  • Set boundaries early – you may have childcare arrangements that require you to leave work on time unless you want to pay an outrageous per minute (!) fee, so no more staying late to finish things up. You may also want to re-establish how available you are after hours. Did you respond to emails at all hours before you left? DO you plan to continue doing that or are you able to leave work at work? Are you able to tackle unfinished work from home after baby goes to sleep? Be honest with yourself here!! Ask yourself if you want to be that available and if it’s realistic – this will vary depending on the support system you have and your baby’s behavior and sleep patterns…
  • For breastfeeding moms – think about the logistics of how this will happen. Legally, your employer is obligated to provide you a reasonable but unspecified amount of time to pump, access to a private space with a locking door that is not a bathroom, and protection from discrimination or retaliatory actions related to lactation requirements. But, there’s a lot more to it than that. To limit the amount of time I spend pumping, I purchased 4 sets of pump equipment so that I can just put the dirty stuff in a bag to wash at home and not have to worry about the dishwashing component of expressing and storing milk throughout the day. This means my partner has a ton of dishes to wash and sterilize every night, which he then packs for me each morning. Also, put that pumping time on your calendar, set a reminder on your phone, and send that reminder to your watch – meetings get out of control and it’s easy to skip a pumping session and then all of a sudden 5 hours have gone by, you skipped lunch, you need a water, and your breasts are about to shoot milk all over the conference table. Not only is that super embarrassing, but it’s potentially messing with your milk supply, which in turn is messing with your baby, which is a big no-no for fierce mama-bears. Be sure people respect your pumping time – it’s protected and it’s an insanely incredible ability that men don’t have. I like to talk about it loudly as much as possible to try to make it less awkward – it doesn’t really work like that, but it’s fun for me to see people squirm, sooo…. 
  • Do your best to prepare yourself for a wave of emotions, but don’t be disappointed when it’s more than you expected and feels overwhelming at times. I was surprised when I noticed how vulnerable and open I became with people after having a baby. I’m usually relatively closed off and stoic (or dead inside), but dealing with the emotions that come along with the raging hormones rushing through your body before, during, and after childbirth changes your perspective.

If you’re a new parent, there is probably no way you’ve read to the end of this incredibly long post because you’re too busy, stressed, and tired. But if you have, welcome to the other side.

Be kind to yourself. Love on your baby as often as you can. Enjoy the time you have to spend with them. Talk to your employer about your needs and discuss modifications you may need to continue providing quality work while making the best choices for your family.

And, if it turns out that you need more time with that little cutie after all, that’s ok too.

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