It's Working Project

I wish my expectations of myself had been more reasonable. I wish I had known that the challenges of new working motherhood were not a failure on my part but of our society at large for its blind refusal to support new parents to the degree the rest of the world sees as a basic human right.

What is one piece of advice you wish you could offer your former expectant self?

Well…I just wrote a 300-page book answering that question (with input from hundreds of other moms)! But I’ll try to be brief. Essentially, I wish my expectations of myself had been more reasonable. I wish I had known that the challenges of new working motherhood were not a failure on my part but of our society at large for its blind refusal to support new parents to the degree the rest of the world sees as a basic human right. So there’s that! But I also wish that I’d known back then that the first few months back at work were just one giant transition, and that — no matter how hard they were and how not-good-enough I felt — they would ultimately set me up for success. Having to manage that juggle made me a more efficient, decisive, and smart worker. It also made me a more transparent manager and colleague, and therefore, I think, a better mentor.

What was your primary motivation for deciding to return (or not) to work? How early did you tell your employer?

I had my first son when my husband was starting his medical residency, and my second when he was finishing it, so I would be lying if I didn’t say that finances were a huge motivation to continue working full-time — we needed the income! But I was also very motivated by my career aspirations and by the management aspects of my job, which I realized suddenly included role-modeling being a working mom for the women coming up underneath me.

FOR MOMS: If you breastfed, was there a place for you to pump that met your needs and was conducive to your success? If you breastfed, how did you decide to continue? FOR DADS: What, if any, adjustments did you (or your workplace) make to your schedule after having a baby? Was it specific to your manager or larger, whole work culture?

I breastfed both of my sons for 10 months but went back to work after 3 months, so I pumped at the office (and countless other places all over New York City). I was lucky to have an office of my own (though the door didn’t lock), so I was able to make pumping time my concentration time, to focus on an assignment, or get through a ton of emails — mostly without interruption. I also had duplicates of my supplies as well as a mini fridge under my desk in which I could store my milk. I was very open about the fact that I was pumping so that it was clear that pumping time was work time, not a “break.” The hundreds of women I surveyed and interviewed for my book The Fifth Trimester reported being frustrated by the time spent around the logistics of pumping — getting to a good space, assembling the pump, finding wifi. I think there are many hidden things workplaces can do to help with a lot of this stuff. It ultimately makes women more productive and allows the company culture at large to be less resentful of the time new moms spend pumping.

How much leave did you take, and how comfortable were you taking it?

I took 12 weeks with my first son, and 14 weeks with my second (using vacation time for those two extra weeks). I was fully supported by my managers, who couldn’t have been more awesome, but as an ambitious worker, I hated the feeling that the work world was moving on without me. I also had to take several of those weeks unpaid, and that was a challenge.

How easy was it to put a childcare arrangement together and did it work for your family?

Again, I’m still learning as I go with this one. I was lucky that I didn’t feel wracked with the guilt some parents describe when they leave their infants in someone else’s care. The caregiver we hired when Will was 3 months old was with us for 7 years. Now we have an after-school sitter. I’m lucky the emotional piece of it wasn’t too hard for me, but the logistics were so challenging. My husband was in his residency, working frequent overnight shifts, sometimes for a week at a time. So the morning and evening childcare transition was largely on me. If someone was sick, my workplace had backup daycare — if they could squeeze you in. It was an awesome benefit, but I found that I often needed a backup to my backup as working from home wasn’t something that was culturally (or logistically) very feasible in my job.

When did the “new normal” set in for you?

Gosh, has it yet? I think I didn’t anticipate at first that every age and stage — and every new project at work — would bring its own challenges. But I woke up to that reality when I had a huge work project about six weeks after returning. My new normal was turned upside down temporarily. And then I learned it again, when my fantastically sleep-trained baby completely regressed — again, my new normal (sleep!) was totally rocked. Life will constantly throw surprises at you and THAT’s the new normal. As soon as I realized that, and realized that it meant I always needed both a backup plan and a backup to the backup plan, things felt more manageable.

What was your biggest challenge going back to work?

See my answer about that 300-page book!! And I could have kept going for more pages than that.

Who was your biggest source of support in returning to work? What was your biggest pregnancy indulgence?

That’s easy. My husband, Ben. Logistically, many of our family responsibilities were mine to handle because of the stages each of us was in in our careers when we had our babies. But emotionally, I knew he supported ALL of my ambitions and was very clear-sighted about what the years of future working parenthood would look like for both of us. He chose his specialty (psychiatry) in part because he knew that he’d eventually have hours that would allow us to have dinner together as a family. And when I wanted to make a big career transition, leaving magazine publishing to write my book and launch my own company, he is the one who urged me to pursue this dream.

As a working parent, a bad day is when _____ and a good day is when _______.

…I’m sick. Doesn’t happen often (knock wood!) but man does it make EVERYTHING else so challenging. I can count the times I’ve actually let myself go to bed sick on one hand since having children. They still have to get to school, I still have to meet my deadlines.


…I’ve found time not just to check off the boxes on my list, but to be good to myself — to exercise or have a phone chat with my friend as I commute home. Or even just to spend that commuting/walking time in my head, thinking big picture thoughts about my hopes and joys for my kids and my career.



Photograph by Nancy Borowick