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When my friend Ingrid gave birth to her daughter in Sweden, she and her partner were given 15 months of paid leave to share or take individually. That gave Ingrid time to recover from the delivery, bond with her baby, and see her daughter through to the toddling stages before she even needed to think about going back to work.
A quick poll of my friends in the U.S. shows a very different picture. Most are lucky to get six weeks of leave (usually partially paid), if anything. Now, a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau says that women are working longer into their pregnancies, and returning to work faster that they did forty years ago. Maybe it's due to the fact that women are having children later in life, when they're more established in and committed to their careers. Maybe it's due to the fact that more and more families rely on two incomes to make ends meet. And maybe it's because their companies offer them little choice. It's clear that the U.S. is lagging behind other countries when it comes to acceptable maternity leave policies for women. In fact, out of 173 countries worldwide, the United States is one of only five that doesn't guarantee paid leave to give birth and care for a newborn. One of only five. (California is the only state offering paid family leave).
Most of my friends polled said they worked right up until the day they went into labor—mostly to maximize their time off with the baby. They all shared the same concerns about returning to work: feeling pressure to go back to work before they were ready; feeling guilty or sad about leaving their children in daycare or with a sitter; shelling out a ton of dough for childcare, and sometimes barely breaking even. Some definitely wanted to stay in the game, either because they loved their jobs, or because they'd heard first-hand accounts of how difficult it can be to get back into the workforce after several years away. Even for those who definitely wanted to go back to work, the transition triggered some unexpected emotions.
At the end of the day, what's right for one woman may not be right for the next. A case in point: Our 4 Women, 4 Decisions article.
A year after having my second baby, I'm grateful for part-time, flexible work that allows me to be with my kids while also doing work that I love. For me, personally, I know that working makes me a more content mother during the time that I spend with my kids. But, it's a constant juggling act. For those of you pregnant women about to embark upon this same juggling act yourselves, our experts offer their best advice with 10 Challenges and 10 Solutions.
At the end of the day, you need to do what's right for you and your family. Take it from these real moms who've been there before:
Real Moms Talk Back
"I worked through all four of my pregnancies—as long as possible in order to maximize my time at home. Â I was able to take 12 weeks with three of the four; 10 weeks with one of the four. (I get 10 weeks paid.) Â I think the minimum it takes to get a bit of your brain back is 12 weeks—I definitely noticed a difference going back earlier."—Kathryn in Cleveland, Ohio
"It's such a new challenge to stay motivated to be the employee you were before you left. My boss, co-workers and customers expect me to jump right back and start where I left off. I, on the other hand, could care less about the job— I just do enough, as efficiently as I can, to get through my day so I can go home to my baby."—*Marilyn, Las Vegas, NV "I had my life planned out neatly, but when my son came 4 1/2 weeks early (I had worked the day my water broke), everything went out the window. Best laid plans, eh? I can say that I have enjoyed staying home with the diversion of working on my Ph.D. part-time. It's truly the best of both worlds—I have adult conversation and I am staying current in my field, without the stress of sick days and day care."—Nik in Leesburg, VA
"My company had no paid leave and the six weeks of disability just didn't cut it for me. To be honest, I think I was just able to sit without wincing at six weeks.Â I worked in an office and the transition was pretty difficult.Â Aside from pumping every 2-3 hours in an empty HR office, going back to work at eight weeks was just too early for me."—Katherine in Wilmington, DE
"I worked through the entire first pregnancy, went back after my 3-month maternity leave.Â My company was nice enough to let me work from home, but after a year I felt like I was trying to do too many things simultaneously and resigned.Â I have been home with my two boys now for almost three years and love it."—Jill in Charleston, S.C.
"I now understand why women give up their careers after having children . I don't even think my hormones are balanced yet—howÂ do they expect me to take a 1 p.m. conference call when it interferes with my pumping schedule? The thought of that sends me into a tear-filled rage."—*Natalie in Santa Fe, New Mexico
"Most of me is absolutely delighted to be back at work, especially as it's on a part-time basis, as I desperately needed more balance in my life."—Helen, in London, England
"It helps that I really enjoy my job and have a reasonably flexible office environment with supportive co-workers.Â If I showed up 45 minutes late because I had been sick all morning, no one asked questions.Â I'm now on the other side, with an assistant on maternity leave, and I told her, please, don't check your email, don't even think about us!"—Kelly, in Boston, MA
What's your experience been? Did you work through your pregnancy? Did you return to work soon afterwards? Chime in below.
Dana Rousmaniere is FitPregancy's Managing Editor. She's grateful to have a flexible job that she loves and time to be with her kids.
* Some names have been changed