Advice for the new working mom

Returning to work after having a baby is hard. What if we approached it differently?

Over the course of my time in my last job, I had three babies. It was an intense, exciting time and my employer was truly incredible about it all. Throughout those years, I was diligent to not let the cracks show as much as possible. In a time when working remotely was less common than it is today, I was partially remote and home with my kids while I worked. For years, I was pumping between meetings. And for about half of my employment, I was managing postpartum anxiety and depression.

Through it all, I was constantly concerned with making sure everyone knew I was committed to the job and doing good work, not letting my work be impacted by my divided attention. I was careful not to talk too much about my children at the lunch table. I came back to work too soon after each of my maternity leaves, not wanting to disappoint my employer, and I answered emails even through labor (not joking). 

At the same time I was vigilant to make sure I was getting enough time with my babies, that they had enough milk to get through a day with a babysitter, that they were always in good care, that the babysitter was happy, that they were emotionally well adjusted to the schedule we were keeping… The list is unending. “Having it all” is exhausting.

About six months after leaving that job, a friend I worked with had her first child, the first baby in that work environment that hadn’t been mine. She shared that she didn’t know how I always had it so together, that she was struggling to manage it all. I nearly fell over, because I couldn’t believe that she had been convinced by my charade that I had anything together. Once the initial shock settled, I also felt sad that I had paved the way for her so poorly. 

In our patriarchal society, women in the workplace have to work harder to prove themselves. Even in the best environments, young mothers can be perceived as less committed or qualified for career advancement than their male counterparts. 

So, when a working mom feels the pressure to prove that her status as a mother won’t be a problem, she’s not crazy. But, as I exit the baby years and manage my own team, I’m realizing that conforming to a point where it is undetectable that we’re mothers in the workplace is only making things worse for everyone - for ourselves, for our children and for our colleagues.

That is not to say that working dads aren’t facing similar challenges, but culturally the burden of proof is on the mom. For the record, my husband runs the lead in our household management, often managing the cooking, cleaning and childcare like a rockstar. Throughout the stay-at-home order, he also experienced the same pressure I felt when I worked at home with children to ensure that his work got equal attention. But, in most cases, the changes a new dad faces are invisible to their employer and colleagues, and as such they typically don’t require the same adjustments as new moms to accommodate childbirth and nursing. 

Imagine if a nursing mom didn’t feel embarrassed about blocking out time in her day to pump or to store her precious liquid gold in the staff fridge, because she knew she was critical to the team and that being a mother is part of the package. What if we were confident enough in our contributions to our team that we could be transparent about needing a flexible schedule in order to manage childcare? What if we all felt safe enough in our workplace to confide when we were struggling with mental health, lack of sleep, hormonal shifts or even just challenges at home? 

We spend most of our life at work, so shouldn’t we be able to be who we are? When people feel safe enough to be themselves, they are free to enjoy their work, build relationships with their team and clients and they’re far more open to feedback and direction because they have nothing to hide. When you feel safe and connected, you feel more loyal and committed to the work and the employer. As I lead my own team now, I am striving to create an environment where people thrive and feel safe, because I truly believe that’s the best way to do great work together. 

So, new mom who’s coming back to work and trying to figure it all out: You’ve changed. Embrace it! You don’t need to be who you were before the baby, because who you’ve become and are becoming is remarkable, and your workplace is lucky to have you.

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Colleen Cook works full-time as the Director of Operations at Vinyl Marketing in Ashland, where she resides with her husband Mike and three young daughters. She's an insatiable extrovert who enjoys finding reasons to gather people.