“I’m out on maternity leave.”
I typed the automatic response for my work email address, and stared at the screen. I was out of the office — indefinitely. What would that mean for my career? I wondered.
I knew I wanted to return to work in some capacity, just as I knew I wanted to stay home with my twin girls. But because both motherhood and freelancing were new territories for me, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle the return to work.
A few months later I sat staring at the screen again as I started my first freelance writing piece. It was a magazine story, a departure from the investigative news stories I had written for years. It was comfortingly familiar to be back in the world of writing, interviews, and editors, but fitting writing in with caring for children was harder than I had imagined.
It’s taken years and many adjustments, but I’m back to writing in a way that works for my family.
My return to work after leave was more roundabout than many. I took my maternity leave from work despite my intention to stay home; my boss encouraged me to take the time to be sure of my choice, and I valued that flexibility, though I still decided to stay home.
The return to work after family leave, whether in an office environment or as an entrepreneur, is a brave new world of balancing work and family. For most of us, motherhood changes the way we see our work and shapes our choices going forward.
Office culture during pregnancy and leave ranges from fully supportive to hostile, which for many women is a deciding factor going forward.
For Jennifer, who made partner at her law firm at the same time she found out she was pregnant with her daughter, the worst part was building up in her head how difficult her return would be after three months of leave. But in fact, it went smoothly.
“It was like nothing had changed in terms of the work environment,” she said.
Her tradeoff was working a bit during leave with her daughter and later with her second child, but she found the practice accommodating throughout her pregnancy, leave and return.
Carrie, who has two children, also experienced a smooth return to work after both children, even though she was away for several years with her second child.
With her first, she took six weeks of leave and jumped back into her telecommuting position, though having her son with her meant her days stretched much longer.
“When I came back to work the first time other than forgetting my passwords, it was like I never left,” she said. “The biggest difference was that taking the time to pump, feed, and change my son while working made my 4 hour work days turn into about 8 hours.”
When her second child was born, Carrie decided to stay home with her kids. Her return to work four years later, at a new company, was nerve-wracking, but again it went smoothly and her company was supportive.
“Honestly, I don’t think I would change anything. Each break I took the amount of time I needed for me and my family,” she said.
For Janet, an unsupportive work environment and a freelance job that wasn’t a good fit made pregnancy and the return to work miserable at first.
Work in the office while pregnant was unpleasant, and she left crying most days. She decided to stay home with her daughter, and became an at-home mom for three years. But she felt pressured to return to work.
She placed her daughter in preschool and tried freelancing, but both she and her daughter were unhappy.
“Having a child stirred something in me that made me feel like if I was going to work, I wanted to make a difference,” she said.
She began to build her own fashion brand that supports regenerative agriculture, sustainability, and human rights, and fell in love with the work.
“I began to find my true love and a void that needed filling,” she said.
The work hasn’t been easy, however, and Janet is often met with hostility for including her daughter in work calls and meetings. Working with a child around is more difficult than she initially imagined, but Janet has gained confidence in her work and parenting choices.
“I think people need to remember we were all children once, at some point we all need our parents in different ways, and that we should be more accepting of children in most places in society so that they can better navigate the world as an adult later in life,” she said.