It’s often the second or third question on any early awkward mommy date: “So, are you going back?” i.e.: Are you worth investing in? Or are you going to disappear the second that the clock strikes 12 weeks?
That question doesn’t have to be as intimidatingly black and white as it may seem--mommies are, after all, officially recognized as the world’s most resourceful species. There are many work gradients in between “all” (head back to work and relish the quiet at your desk--there’s a lot to be said for that), and “nothing” (100% mommy all the time, don’t miss a smile…or a tantrum--which there’s a lot to be said for too.)
Be creative and inventive. A few of the modern evolutions of working mommy life might not be so readily apparent but are absolutely worth pursuing. Here are five.
Your first line of defense:
1) Extend your maternity leave. Postpone reality--and any major decision-making--past 12 weeks. The world looks very different at four or five months than it does at three months. (For one thing, you may actually be getting some sleep.)
How to plan: Ask for the most time possible upfront. A mother who calls to ask to return a few weeks early starts off post-baby work life on a much better foot than one who calls begging for more time at the last moment. Once you’ve verified your company’s official maternity leave policy, explore other options. Can you extend it with sick, personal or vacation days? If it’s financially feasible on your end, is unpaid leave an option? Plan for the most, and cut back later.
2) Ease back in. Many mothers find the return to work less daunting if they can re-enter at least somewhat gradually. At a minimum, try to come back on a Wednesday or Thursday so that the weekend with your baby doesn’t feel quite so far away. Or arrange to work two or three days a week for the last month of your maternity leave.
How to plan: Schedule your return date accordingly, and talk to HR or your boss about a part-time ramp-up period (either at a decreased percentage of pay or by spreading out your remaining days of maternity leave).
3) Find flexibility at your current job. This is the easiest place to seek a flexible arrangement of some sort. You have goodwill and knowledge built up, and the cost of replacing you is much higher than the cost of letting you work an 80% schedule or at home on Tuesdays. In other words, you’re Beyoncé and the rose-scented candles in your dressing room are yours for the asking.
How to plan: No one will know you want those roses if you don’t ask. Most mothers who have been through it recommend asking during your maternity leave, once you have a sense of what you want, but before you return to work. Others highlight making sure that you proactively schedule a trial period or regular check-ins with your boss from the get-go to ensure that the arrangement is working on both sides.
4) Look for a new job with an element of flexibility. You work at Bank of Overachievers with long hours and lots of face time, and you just don’t see the flexibility thing happening. The stories of Fridays from home and job-sharing from your friends at Bank of Highly Rational People are just too tempting. It’s time to find something else that suits you a bit more now that you’re a mom.
How to plan: Be wary of the grass being greener on the other side. Your friends may only have those great arrangements because of the goodwill that they built up, and you will be putting in plenty of face time at any new place at the start, regardless of the culture. Head back to your old job and give the whole thing a bit of rational thought from your desk. If it still seems to make sense, MomCorps or MayBrooks can be great resources--these companies help connect moms with jobs that have some flexibility. It’s much easier to interview for something that’s clearly understood to be flexible upfront than it is to ask for flexibility when you’re accepting a job offer.
5) Freelance, consult or take on project work. This is the holy grail for many mothers. Work when you want to. Make it to that morning music class, and head downtown for a meeting in the afternoon. Work at night after bedtime. Don’t accept any projects in August so you can lie on the beach with your baby and rub Butt Paste on sandy diaper rashes. Stay just engaged enough in the workforce that fully on-ramping when Tinkerbell heads off to kindergarten isn’t an issue. There are some downsides, however, that any mother excited to whip out her MacBook at the local Starbucks should be well aware of. Half of the job of any freelancer is looking for the next job. This becomes less of an issue over time as you develop a stream of recurring clients, but networking to find clients early on is time-consuming, and often not at the best times for a new mom (industry happy hours at 5pm anyone?).
How to plan: Again, the devil you know--would your old company be interested in using you in a project-based or consulting capacity? If you’ve been in a client service business, is there an opportunity to work directly for some former clients? (And--a shameless plug--consider Prokanga, which does the time-consuming networking for you, and helps connect qualified mothers with project work.)
The most important thing to remember: there is no right answer. ‘Leaning in’ isn’t for everyone…and neither is ‘reclining’. Explore a few options, and find what works for you. Then tune out the peanut gallery.