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Post-Maternity Leave: When Is It Time for a Detour?

Life as a working mom often comes with a few hurdles — especially in the aftermath of maternity leave

Post-Maternity Leave: When Is It Time for a Detour?

Runa Knapp

"Your career is a highway, and it's perfectly fine to move the car into a slow lane occasionally because you can always move back into the fast lane." - Pam Habner, CEO of US Branded Cards & Lending at Citi.

Much like this quote, life as a working mom often comes with a few hurdles — especially in the aftermath of post-maternity leave. Whether dealing with demanding clients in the office or realizing how quickly our kids grow while we're away, there doesn't seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting while working.

Luckily, I was able to take some time off after the births of my daughter and son to find my career path—even with a brief stay-at-home mom detour.

How I navigated work after maternity leave

After the birth of my first child, I took an additional four months on top of my accounting firm's three-month parental leave. Though, when it came time to return to work, I felt torn. My husband and I needed to make ends meet with dual incomes, but I also needed to decide if I wanted to send my daughter to daycare where she'd be exposed to germs (and the like).

Ultimately, after speaking with my company who'd been supportive, I decided the best compromise was for me to return to work on a part-time, hybrid basis until she turned one. Then I would slide back into my full-time position.

At least, that was the plan.

Everything seemed to work out okay, but the birth of my second child changed everything. At that point, my husband had taken a demanding new role with a new company. His days of coming home for dinner became a thing of the past, replaced by missed bedtimes and travel for weeks.

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With no family in the vicinity, a demanding toddler and baby, and no help post-workday, I could no longer maintain a full-time schedule. I returned to work on an indefinite part-time basis. It was the best decision we made as a family.

Mom hugging her daughter at the front door before she leaves for work Getty / MoMo Productions

When the schedule no longer worked

After my two-year-old son's bout with RSV and an overnight trip to the ER, I knew something had to give. Despite the uncertainty of what life would be like without it, leaving my career felt like an overdue break-up that had run its course. So, with tears in my eyes, I called my boss and put in my resignation.

This became the precipice of a new journey—a detour from the fast lane while still doing the stay-at-home mom thing.

I had worked my tail off in high school, gotten into my dream college, and given my all to one firm for twelve years. But I soon realized becoming an entrepreneur had always been in my cards, and I knew it would put me back onto the career "on-ramp" without sacrificing time with my kids.

Why the post-maternity leave transition back to work is so hard for moms

"Transitions are a natural part of life, and they can often bring about positive growth," says Ryan Sultán, MD and Director of Integrative Psych and Research Professor at Columbia University. "However, they can also be challenging and demand a lot from us emotionally and mentally."

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"Mothers especially may also struggle with changes in identity and self-esteem. Open communication with your employer about your needs and challenges can foster understanding and lead to necessary accommodations."

Sultán notes it's essential to extensively research the industry, roles and skills when seeking a new job.

"Highlight the skills from your previous role that would benefit your new career," Sultán says. "But be patient — career transitions take time. Celebrate each small victory along the way."

There are ways to make the transition smoother, Sultán adds. A phased, flexible return for the first few weeks, finding reliable childcare, and even meal-prepping essentials the night before can reduce morning stressors.

Starting a new adventure

In the three years I stayed home to raise children, I was floored by the number of women in my community who were just like me: eager to re-engage in the workforce post-baby/post-school-aged children while maintaining a work-life balance.

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One of those women, a fellow mother from my son's preschool, became my business partner, and in 2019 our company was born: FoundHer, a recruiting firm that helps women and stay-at-home moms return to the workforce.

While the start of our business coincided with my children starting school full-time, being my boss allowed me to do drop-offs, pick-ups, and drive to post-school activities and games and manifested the perfect scenario for our family when we needed it most.

Likewise, Sultán says boundaries, self-care, and support are critical to finding a work/life balance.

"Decide when you'll stop working each day and stick to it," Sultán adds around setting boundaries. "Avoid checking work emails after hours. And don't hesitate to ask for help. Lean on your partner, family, and friends. Consider joining a support group for working mothers."

"Remember, each journey is unique. Embrace the challenges and triumphs of balancing motherhood and a fulfilling career, and know it's okay to ask for help. You're not alone in this journey; your experiences will add to the rich tapestry of working mothers carving out their paths in the world."

Mom sitting at the kitchen table answering emails on a laptop with a baby in her lap and three other kids sitting with her Getty / MoMo Productions

How to navigate a career post-baby

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If any of this resonates, here are a few tips for all the moms trying to navigate their job/career post-baby:

1. Ask

If you're employed with your "dream" company but need a flexible arrangement post-baby, ask for what you want. The worst that could happen is your current employer says "no." Companies see the value of retaining top talent and may keep you employed in a facet that works best for you since the cost of replacing a top-performing employee is high.

If the answer isn't to your liking, reevaluate if the position fits you, and don't be afraid to explore other options.

There are many flexible opportunities right now with work from home, alternative work hours or work environments — even with some of the more traditional "old school" companies — that allow you to spend time at home and work in a more private space.

2. Set out your 5-year plan and reassess annually

Significant life events (such as having a baby) often change the perspective on what takes priority. Your goals may differ five years from now, so you should reevaluate your five-year plan often.

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Perhaps your goal today is to make sure you have a better work/life balance for your family and your mental health, so you may forgo opportunities that offer more money in a fast-paced environment for one that provides a slower-paced, flexible environment with a lower salary.

3. Purpose Over Profit

It may also be the time to find a passion that excites you. Many women, post-baby and during maternity leave, like to assess their career goals to see if they align. 53% of our candidates are open to exploring opportunities outside their profession.

Several women have expressed newfound interest in companies that meet strong ESG standards (environmental, social, and governance) or NFPs (not-for-profits) that align with their values or beliefs.

Dr. Blen Tesfu, MD and General Practitioner, emphasizes self-empathy as you adjust to this new lifestyle.

"Recognize that achieving work-life balance is an ongoing process that requires flexibility and adaptability," Tesfu says. "Be willing to adjust your schedule or make changes when needed to accommodate the evolving needs of both work and family."

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"Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that it's not always possible to achieve a perfect balance," Tesfu says. "Accept that there will be times when work demands more attention and other times when family needs take precedence. Strive for harmony and flexibility rather than aiming for perfection."

To this day, I will never regret my decision to move into the slow lane and leave the workforce to be home with my kids. My time with my kids created memories we'll all cherish forever. And, thanks to the detour, I've repurposed my accounting, analytical mind to pursue my passion for helping other moms like myself.

This article was originally published on Jun 07, 2023

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