Reality of Returning to Work After Childbirth

Posted on June 22, 2015

Marissa Grass (LinkedIn & Twitter) is an ELGL All Star and communicator at the City of Tigard, OR. 

Profile Photo - Marissa GrassWhen I read Kirsten Wyatt’s article, “Glacial Pace: State of Women Managers in Local Government,” I was thrilled someone had drawn attention to the issue. My excitement lead me to read the entire ICMA article, “Women Leading Government – Why So Little Progress in 30 Years?”, register for the ELGL webinar on the topic, and add the ELGL Twittersation about the report to my calendar.
This was the high point, as I soon realized that I’m part of the problem. I am a woman, I’ve worked in local government for eight years, and I don’t want to be a local government manager, ever.
I wasn’t sure of the reason, but after a week of soul searching, I realized a career in management conflicts with my important goal of putting my family first. Always.
As a friend put it, “Among my under-40 local government colleagues, there is not one who aspires to put in the kind of hours they see their managers enduring.” (Read Introducing the 2015 “Company Man” with Eric Ameigh, City of Boulder, CO)
At the risk of sounding cliché, my decision comes down to work-life balance and whether I can see a leadership role enhancing my life. I gave birth to my first child in November which immediately changed my outlook. My ongoing experience of balancing my job and my family increasingly leads me to believe local government is not a profession that will allow me to achieve the balance I need.  Quite frankly, I was convinced that I needed to leave local government for another profession in order to raise my son.
Now, I have hope. 
During a recent #13Percent webinar, Heidi Voorhees indicated that a little creativity can aid in our search for the proper balance. Yes! Creativity. That is something I can get behind.
With that in mind, I propose an addition to Kirsten Wyatt’s action items for ICMA in 2015:

Promote local government as a family-friendly profession. This should include resources for current managers like training, webinars, and draft policy; and resources and networking opportunities for working parents.

I’ve written a post describing my proposal for easing the transition back to work for new parents. I hope that you will add your thoughts in the comment section.
Welcoming a new baby into the world is an adventure. Motherhood can be downright hilarious. At others times, it can be scary, sad, and somewhat troubling.
This post is very personal for me. In the last year, I’ve learned about myself as a mom, wife, friend, and employee. I want to share ten observations from my experience and what it means to return to work after giving birth.

10 Tips for Easing the Transition Back to Work

1. Truth about maternity leave. I was off work for eight paid weeksUntitled1 after my son Theo was born. I used my entire vacation and sick leave so I was paid during this time
In the first four months after returning to work, I was on a 32-hour week schedule by using accrued vacation leave and leave without pay. Looking back, I have come to realize that FMLA “maternity leave” doesn’t really do much. Sure, I got my job back when I returned from what could have been a really long “vacation.” Sure, my benefits were continued, but they would have been anyway (use of vacation leave, and working 32 hours a week). Women and men deserve the opportunity to stay at home worry-free.
2. Provide a grace period. Theo was born on November 11. My supervisor sent me an email on December 30 to ask when I would be returning to work. I am sure he didn’t mean it, but this immediately spiked my pressure to return to work.
3. Understand your options. I sent Theo to daycare and returned to work after being off for eight weeks. I found out later (at six months) that I could have continued my leave without pay on a part-time schedule beyond my maternity leave. If I would have known, I would have taken three months off, and then transitioned back to a 32 hour schedule.
4. Avoid daycare for the first three months. Note for new parents: a fever under three months is considered a medical emergency. Theo was in the emergency room several times due to the flu before he was three months old.
Try to keep your baby out of daycare until after three months. You might have to rely on family and friends for child care, but avoiding daycare is best. The constant battles with Theo’s illness added stress to my experience of returning to work. I wish someone would have said, “What you’re doing at home is most important. Come back to work when he’s feeling better.”
5. Setting a realistic schedule: Monday through Friday. The City of Tigard’s 4×10 work schedule is difficult without children.  A newborn magnifies the challenges. Newborns (0-3 months) don’t sleep at night, while infants sleep a lot (hopefully, or on a good day).
giphy (1)My exhaustion made it difficult to work a 4×10 schedule. After giving birth, I was waking up at least every three hours during the night. This made it difficult to arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for work. Working ten hours per day equals very little time at home with my son during the week. A quick calculation — Infants sleep 12 hours, I am at work for 11 hours (add 30 minutes for pumping and 30 minutes for the commute), and there’s only 24 hours in the day. This Monday to Thursday routine makes me question my work/life balance decisions.
6. Setting a realistic schedule: night meetings. Small changes can be HUGE for parents. Night meetings are a reality for many of us. If I have night meetings, it’s a big help if they are on nights that my husband is home (and not out of town on business). This ensures that Theo doesn’t spend 11 hours at daycare to be picked up by a babysitter. In an ideal world, Council agenda items would be scheduled after 8:00 p.m. which would allow me time to run home and tuck Theo into bed before returning for the meeting.
7. Setting a realistic schedule: flex time and part time. Flexing my schedule is the main way I am able to create balance. I want the opportunity to take an extended lunch on Tuesday to attend a new parents group. This helps offset a long meeting the following night.
8. Breastfeeding and why this topic makes me mad. My approach in life is not to be “in your face” about topics, especially topics that I know make some uncomfortable, but I have made an exception for this one. Theo has had some trouble gaining weight, and allergies to formula which adds to my stress on this topic.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies are breastfeed for a year, and for as long as is mutually desired by the mother and baby. (Here’s a quick primer about the needs of nursing mothers.) I have found breastfeeding really difficult. I have found it impossible to place work priorities over the nutritional needs of my son. Support for women in this same position can make a world of difference.
giphy (6)The truth is that what is covered by the law is not enough to support many breastfeeding mothers. In order to maintain supply it is recommended that a woman pump whenever the baby has a bottle. For me, this would be at least four times per work day, yet I am only allowed to pump twice (once for every four hours worked). I am also expected to pump at about the same time every day (10 a.m. and 2 p.m.), which may or may not reflect the times when I am ready to pump.  The result is that not only do I come home without enough milk for the next day, I also need to pump when I get home, before I go to bed, and often between 3-5 a.m. in order to maintain my supply.
Worksite lactation programs are very important. The breastfeeding Coalition of Oregon has some great resources about best practices, the business case, and the legal standards in Oregon. Check your state for relevant details.
9. Childcare: Onsite or Referrals. Last year, Oregon was rated the leastUntitled affordable state in the United States for center-based infant and toddler care. The average cost of childcare will likely exceed the cost of sending my child to college. Add that  to the following factors and you’ll understand why my search for care was such a stressful one:

  • Research shows 90% of a child’s critical brain development happens by age 5,
  • Infant care is more limited in hours,
  • Child and infant care center hours are not based around parents who work a 4×10 work week. Surprisingly, most centers open no earlier than 7:00 a.m. and close no later than 6:00 p.m.
  • Most centers charge for five days a week. They do not prorate for a condensed week.

Family Forward Oregon has some great information about this topic and others related to family friendly workplaces.
10. Compassion and Comradery. Thank goodness for ELGL! I have faced many difficult days balancing family and career. Those days are made a tad easier by the support I receive from peers — whether it is a good laugh, quick phone call, or stopping my desk to look at Theo’s latest photos. The show of support makes a difference. I work in a department where only one person has small children at home, and none in my immediate work group. New parents need to know that they aren’t alone, that everyone struggles to find the right balance, and we can laugh (later!) about the conflicts that arise.
Your Help
07d2d6417cd7775d88df4404ebfa794dLet’s continue to lend support to each other in finding the right work/life balance. New parents are just one part of the equation. Many of you have experienced balancing work after the loss of parent, during a medical condition, or while transitioning jobs.
I hope you will take a few minutes to add your ideas for how we can ease the transition for those battling the work/life battle.
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