Deciding When to Work After Having a Baby

If you're deciding about returning to work after maternity leave, learn from these four women, who weigh up the same decision about going back to work after baby.

Deciding When to Work After Having a Baby Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

What to name the baby, which obstetrician and hospital to go to, whether to use cloth diapers or disposable, which kind of car seat to buy ... These are just a few of the decisions you face when you're pregnant. Unfortunately, many women have no choice when it comes to one of the biggest decisions of all: whether to return to work after the baby arrives. But others do have that choice, and if you're among them, the decision tree grows even larger: When will you go back to your job? Who will look after your baby? Will you work full time or part time? From home or outside? Before you know it, your decision tree grows into a full-fledged forest.

Experts on work and family issues say that one of the best ways for working mothers to make smart decisions is to learn from women who have been there. So we asked four mothers in dual-income families to share the thinking that led to their choices. We hope their experiences will help you as you make your decisions.

Try To Plan Ahead

Carrie Jones, third-grade teacher, Willcox, Ariz. Married to Jason Jones, a seventh-grade science teacher. Mom to Chloe and, when this was written, expecting her second baby.

Decision she is facing: Whether to give up her job and stay home with her new baby or go back to work full time. Her choices: Jones stayed home with Chloe until her daughter was 3, and that's what she would like to do when her second baby arrives. She wishes she could return to work part time, but that's not an option. "It's hard, as a teacher, to come up with anything too creative," she says. Pros of staying home: As an educator, Jones believes it is important for mother and child to be together for the first few years. "I know that when it comes down to it, family should come first," she says. She also wants to breastfeed, but pumping isn't easy for an always-on-the-move teacher. Plus, it's very hard to find licensed, quality child care in her small town. Cons of staying home: Leaving her job would send the family's health-insurance payments through the roof, and breaking her teaching contract could jeopardize her future career. Jones also feels very close to, and responsible for, her students and doesn't like the idea of handing them off to another teacher. Financial issues: Money is tight for this two-teacher couple. And it's possible Jones would have some financial liability if she broke her employment contract. How she feels about her choices: Frustrated. The only quality child-care option she can think of is to have her mom, who lives 90 minutes away, stay with them during the week to take care of the baby. "But that's a last resort," Jones says. Her best advice: Try to plan ahead and look for a family-friendly employer. "Our maternity leave here in America is really sad compared with other countries," Jones says. "It's frustrating, because there's just not a lot of ways to spend those important first years with your baby."

Stay Flexible

Valerie Aitchison, a family lawyer, Portland, Ore. Married to Will Aitchison, a lawyer, and mom to twins Alex and Luke.

Decision she faced: Whether to go back to her very demanding legal career or stay home with her twins. How she worked it out: Aitchison thought she wanted to stay home with her children full time. "My husband and I both felt that would be best for them," she says. But she wasn't completely sure staying home would be right for her. So she decided to take a year off, then re-evaluate her decision. "But after four months, I'm definitely feeling that I'll be able to continue doing this at least until the twins are in school, and I won't need to go back to the office," she says. A nanny comes in weekday mornings to help with the twins. Pros: Having so much time with her children. "I feel very fortunate to be able to be here for them all the time and watch them grow and nurture them along," she says. "It's a good thing for me and for them." Cons: Aitchison intends to return to work someday, and when she does, she'll have a lot of catching up to do. "While I'm out of the workplace, the field of family law is advancing without me," she says. She'll also have to learn how to balance the demands of her career with the needs of her children, who will be accustomed to having a stay-at-home mom. Financial issues: Fortunately, the family isn't dependent on Aitchison's salary. How she feels about her decision: "I'm very happy," she says. "Having twins is more difficult than I ever anticipated and makes it even more clear to me that this is where I want to be on a full-time basis." Her best advice Be aware that your feelings about working may change after your child is born. "If you have the option to stay home, it's important to remain flexible about the decision to return to work until after you've had some time with your baby."

Trust Your Gut

Suzanne Phelan, Clinical Psychologist/Researcher, Providence, R.I. Married to Jack Phelan, an independent filmmaker. Mom to son Joseph.

Decision she faced: How to work full time without putting her son in day care for huge amounts of time. How she worked it out: Phelan loves her job and couldn't imagine giving it up. On the other hand, she wanted her child to be well cared for. She signed Joseph up for day care in a woman's home, but after dropping him off the first day, she realized it was the wrong arrangement. Instead, she hired a nanny, and then she and her husband rearranged their schedules—Phelan goes to work early in the morning, her husband goes in late, and each works from home one day a week. The result: Both parents work full time, but Joseph is with the babysitter only about 15 hours a week. Pros: Joseph gets one-on-one care when his parents are at work, and the Phelans get to spend plenty of time with him. Cons: Having a nanny for 15 hours a week costs as much as full-time family day care would cost. It also can be tough for Phelan and her husband to concentrate during work-at-home days. And sometimes Phelan feels she's missing important things at the office by leaving at 3:30 p.m. Financial issues: Although a second income is welcome, money isn't the only reason that Phelan works. Working because of personal desire more than financial need, however, sometimes can leave her feeling guilty. When that happens, Phelan tries to focus on the positive. "I think I am a better mother because I feel better about myself," she says. How she feels about her decision: "Overall, I feel satisfied on all fronts. It definitely has its challenges, but it's working out." Her best advice: When it comes to making day-care decisions, go with your gut instinct. The family day-care situation that Phelan originally chose may have worked for another baby, but she felt strongly that it was wrong for Joseph. "He was a subdued, quiet child, and that just didn't seem like the right place for him," she says. "You have to allow yourself to change your mind if something doesn't feel right."

Do What It Takes

Sara Shay, freelance editor, Maple Glen, Pa. Married to John McCauley, a chemist with a pharmaceutical company. Mom to son Jacob.

Decision she faced: How to work part time at home to stay close to her child. How she worked it out: Everything was going well for Shay when Jacob was born. After 4 1/2 months of maternity leave, she was telecommuting four days a week, working at home in Pennsylvania for a business magazine based in Boston while a nanny cared for her son in the next room. But Shay's plans fell apart when she was laid off two months after her maternity leave ended. She wasn't sure what to do: She wanted to keep working, but because of the slowing economy, she knew that finding a job wouldn't be easy. Plus, she really wanted to continue working at home, and she didn't want to lose her wonderful babysitter. "I wasn't ready to look for a job where I had to commute and put Jacob in day care," Shay says. So she decided to try freelancing from home, even though it could take a while to get established. Luckily, her sitter agreed to work just two days a week. Now, Shay works two days a week launching her freelance-editing career. Pros: Shay has plenty of time to spend with Jacob, and when she is working, she knows he is with a nanny she likes and trusts. Cons: Finding work hasn't been easy, and sometimes she only earns enough to cover child care. As a feminist, Shay says, she sometimes feels conflicted about having her husband go off to work to support the three of them while she stays home. Financial issues: Shay and her husband can survive without her income, but it worries her that she's not putting much money away for retirement. Fortunately, as it turns out, the two are financially conservative and had saved money before Jacob was born. Now they are postponing unnecessary expenses until Shay's work situation improves. How she feels about her decision: Although she obviously would rather not have been laid off, Shay manages to see that gray cloud's silver lining. "Some good things came of it—like being able to spend more time with my son," she says. She also feels fortunate that Jacob could be cared for at home. "It is a luxury to be able to have in-house day care," Shay says. "But we both felt that our son's quality of life was the most important consideration." Her best advice: "If you can figure out a way financially to spend more time with your child, it's worth it."