Making Decisions About Work and Career

Woman working on computer with babyMost women make plans about how work will fit into their lives after the baby is born: stay at home with the baby until she is ready for school; stay at home for three months and then return to work; stay at home for six weeks and then go back to work part-time; or another plan.

Once they become mothers, however, many women find they need to reevaluate these plans. Motherhood can deal surprises. You may find that you now want to stay home for longer than you had originally planned. If your baby had to be hospitalized, you may not feel you’ve had enough time with him before returning to work. Conversely, you may not have realized how financially difficult it would be to stay at home, and you need to return to work sooner than you thought.

I’m not ready to go back to work:  This is a very common predicament. Even the most die-hard career-driven executives are shocked to discover that going back to work is not as easy as they thought it would be.

For the lucky ones, the solution might be as simple as calling up the boss to say au revoir. Other women will struggle with conflicting feelings of love for their child, the enjoyment of their careers, and financial considerations.

Some women who give up careers to stay at home will struggle with their new roles. Others relish the freedom that being at home offers. Whatever choices you make, there will be an adjustment period. In addition, while many employers have compassion for the different needs of working parents, many do not, and mothers struggle to adapt to a work environment that does not acknowledge their needs.

Let’s take a look at some options to consider if you are weighing the advantages and disadvantages of work versus home:

Crunch the numbers:  If you have a choice about whether or not to return to work, add the numbers up and see if going back to work is going to be as lucrative as you thought. Some women find that when they total up the costs of everything from childcare to transportation, their profit margin is actually quite low.

  • Childcare: babysitting or daycare. Don’t forget to include extra costs, such as fees for extended days at daycare, overtime for sitters if you work late sometimes, or vacation and holiday days for babysitters and year-end bonuses for full-time sitters or private school teachers. If daycare is your choice, check their schedules; are there days they are closed when you will have to go to work? If so, you will need a sitter to cover you.
  • Extra activities: these are programs that you sign your child up for so that he and the sitter will have something to do, such as music classes or tots gymnastics. Don’t include these costs if you would be doing them at home yourself.
  • Transportation: to and from your workplace.
  • Clothing: costs of business suits or uniforms. Also include dry-cleaning costs for your work clothes.
  • Food: lunch or breakfast at work.
  • Housecleaning: include the cost of a cleaning person or service if full-time work will make it impossible for you or your spouse to do this.
  • Take-out: these costs usually increase for working parents who come home too tired to prepare a full meal every night.


If you conclude that you must return to work
: There are other options to explore besides going back to work full-time.

Leave of absence: Unfortunately, there is no consistent plan for new mothers in the United States to take a leave of absence from their jobs, as there is in some countries, so what you can work out will depend almost entirely on the policy of your specific workplace.

The Family Leave Medical Act (FMLA) is the closest thing we have to national maternity leave in the US. It requires that businesses of over 100 employees allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave (although your particular company may provide paid leave anyway), with a guarantee that the employee’s job (or a similar one) will be held until she returns. Many employers find ways to get around this requirement, and you and your employer may not agree on the definition of a “similar” job.

Your best bet, if a leave of absence is what you would like, is to approach your employer with a plan, in writing, that outlines exactly what you want, when you will be back, and your expectations when you return. You may have more success with this than you think. It cost companies money to replace workers.

Part-time work: You could try to work out a part-time arrangement with your boss, or look for a new part-time job altogether. Part-time can mean working two to three days per week, or working three or four hours a day.

If you once worked full-time, and plan to return to the same job on a part-time basis, be aware that there might be an unspoken assumption that you will fulfill all your former duties—only in less time. It pays to spell everything out ahead of time, in great detail, so that no one is surprised.

Flextime: With this option, an employee works the same amount of hours, but spreads them out differently. This might mean that a portion of the workweek is accomplished at home in the evening, after the baby has been put to bed, or during naps. Or it might mean compressing the workweek by working four ten-hour days and having one extra day a week at home.

Job sharing: In job sharing, two or more people share the responsibilities, and the work hours, normally performed by a single person.

The benefits to your family are clear. You will in effect be working part-time and will be able to spend more time at home with the baby. The employer benefits as well. One person is rarely equally gifted or qualified for all facets of a single job. Having more than one person doing a job means the employer can capitalize on the different strengths each one brings to the table. The employer also gains a happier employee, one who does not feel so torn by time not spent with her baby.

A new, untried work arrangement can be intimidating to employers, though, and convincing them to give it a try can be a challenge. As mentioned earlier, it helps if you can outline every aspect of the work and time division between you and your coworker. Who will do which tasks? Who will be in on what days, and for how long? How much will each expect to be paid, and how will the benefits be split between you? How will you and your coworker communicate with each other and your boss?

The partner you choose must be someone equally invested in making job-sharing work and with whom you feel you can communicate effectively.

Work at Home: More and more women are working at home, at least part of the time. Modern technology has made this option a realistic possibility. Even meetings can be conducted with people who are in multiple locations.

In some situations it is necessary to see coworkers face-to-face and to be in the office from time to time. Again, you need to work out details with your employer ahead of time to avoid unmet expectations or potential conflicts.

A number of women have successfully started up their own businesses working at home. The possibilities are endless—women do everything from jewelry making to freelance writing to telemarketing from their homes.

Take Your Child to Work
: Once upon a time, going into the local general store and seeing the whole family behind the counter, including the youngest members, was not at all unusual. Nowadays it is not as common. The importance we place on “professional” behavior inhibits our willingness to incorporate children into the workplace. This is especially important for women, who have struggled long and hard to be considered viable professionals and who have sometimes had to hide their domestic lives in order to be taken seriously.

Of course, there are jobs where it is simply not possible to have a baby with you. If you work in a factory, in a department store, or as a surgeon, for example—you just won’t be able to have your little one with you while you work. Even in those situations, though, some type of compromise may be possible. Perhaps there is a spare room in the building that could be used for childcare for you and for other workers as well. Perhaps you can negotiate another job with the same company where it is possible to have your baby nearby.

There are some unexpected benefits to having your child with you at work, aside from the obvious ones like being able to breastfeed more easily and not missing your baby’s first attempts to crawl and other milestones. Some people report that having a baby around completely changes the work environment in a positive way.  People are friendlier and more casual. Clients get to know the baby and look forward to visiting and seeing his progress.

A company that publishes children’s books allows their employees to bring their newborns to work and reports that it doesn’t seem to impede their work. This company found that, in fact, employees are even more productive, perhaps because they aren’t worried about their children.

There is no doubt that having a child at work means that sometimes you will get less done, and that you will have to sharpen your organizational skills and occasionally take work home. This type of arrangement will not appeal to everyone. For some parents, and their employers, however, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. Many employers will prefer the inconvenience to losing the employee who has decided to stay home with her baby. Some parents offer to skip their next raise, or take a slight pay cut, to balance out any lessened productivity in exchange for the chance to have their child with them.

New careers: Babies seem to inspire changes in every part of women’s lives, and work is no exception. This is the time when returning to a career you had doubts about to begin with seems all but impossible. “If I’m going to leave my child, it better be for something important,” you may say.

Many women are inspired by their babies to start a new career that fits in better with their new lives as mothers. That may mean a job with more flexible or family-friendly hours. Or it may mean a career that is not so high-powered that they have to work late into the night.

Still other women find that motherhood inspires them to think up a new career that will do some good in the world. Having a child raises sensitivity to the many areas in our world where things are less than ideal. Women start not-for-profit agencies to aid other families, help assuage hunger, or improve education. Other women become inspired to become doulas, midwives, or childbirth educators, careers they knew very little about before they had children.