Supportive Workplaces

Returning to Work as a New Mom

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done was drop my baby off at day care when my maternity leave ended.

By Emily Ongstad, Ph.D., SWE Editorial Board

CREDIT: Tetiana Garkusha

I hadn’t spent more than a few hours away from my son since he was born. He was my world for the previous 10 weeks, and while other people floated in and out of the space we occupied, he was my sole focus.

So, when I crossed that threshold back into the office building, I was a corporate employee again, but one with a very different identity from when I had begun my leave a few months earlier. This transition was difficult for me.

When I first returned to work, my son was sleeping four to five hours at a time during the night, so, despite waking up to feed him a couple of times, I felt somewhat rested. A sleep regression was inevitable, though, and “good” nights turned into two hours of sleep at a time.

Making smart decisions in an analytical, science-driven role is challenging when you’re sleep deprived. I’ve had to accept that I make more mistakes and seem to forget more than I used to, but I have come to embrace sharing because I seem a little off.

As I learned to juggle work with mothering an infant, I realized I am fortunate to breastfeed my son, but I also worried about how to handle my morning-heavy meeting schedule and workload while still managing to pump at sufficient intervals. Although I block my calendar in the mornings and afternoons to pump, there are still meetings that are unavoidable. I join those meetings through Microsoft (MS) Teams, and in the “video-on” culture I work in, I have concerns about my colleagues’ perceptions of my not being in person or not being on camera. I’m certainly not comfortable sharing why my video is off, however.

Despite feeling stretched from filling so many roles at once, I now know how much strength and opportunity for growth the role of new mom can give a person.

Learning to continually adjust

My current schedule is such that I can’t be found at my desk a good chunk of the day, so I join meetings virtually with no camera on, and I’m sleep deprived and slower to respond to everything. I find myself wondering how this impacts the way I’m viewed as a professional in my organization. Being a mom is hard. And being a working mom is harder. But being a breastfeeding working mom is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m grateful, however, for technology that makes being a working mom easier and enables me to continue to perform my job effectively.

The MS Teams platform is now universally used, and hybrid meetings have become common. And, thanks to Bluetooth, I can take some of my earliest morning meetings on the drive to day care. My phone is always with me, and I keep an eye on the app that day care uses so I know my son is eating and sleeping — and so I can be energized by the adorable pictures they post. While I’m grateful for this technology, I still find that compartmentalization is what gets me through the day. I focus to get as much work completed as possible during work hours so I can spend every spare minute at home with my son and my family.

Technology has helped me continue to work effectively, yet I experienced one professional miss this year. My son had started teething, was super fussy, was on a “nursing strike,” and I was far behind on everything for a new project kickoff planned for the end of the year. As it turned out, the project didn’t go forward for a very valid reason, and we are now revisiting it for progression in early 2023. But I felt I had let the team down, and I had let my department down. Might I have mitigated the risk effectively on the first round if I wasn’t an exhausted new mom? Probably. But this was my new reality, and I learned a lot from that experience about prioritization and better identifying weak points upfront.

Despite feeling stretched from filling so many roles at once, I now know how much strength and opportunity for growth the role of new mom can give a person. I’m more efficient, and I prioritize better, both at work and at home. I do love my career, and it’s still fulfilling for me, even as a mother with new priorities. And I know my most important work begins when I leave my job at the end of the day.

Acknowledging Temporary Constraints Can Produce Supportive Workplaces

Asking the right questions can ease new parents’ transition back to work.

By Alina Bartley, SWE Editorial Board

“You’re not meeting expectations.”

It is not the worst thing a leader can say to you, but for me at the time — five months postpartum, wearing pants a few sizes larger, and taking client calls at the urgent care center while my child wheezed from her first bout of respiratory syncytial virus — it might as well have been.

I was used to a fast-paced work environment. But when I returned from my leave of absence, I felt sluggish and unfocused. I was less decisive and it took longer to do my work. I wanted to quit a job I had loved just six months ago.

At home, I spent about an hour with my baby each night before logging back on to my computer. I second-guessed the decision to do day care because we experienced week after week of hand-foot-and-mouth disease, respiratory illnesses, and stomach viruses.

No one could prepare me for the loss of confidence I experienced as a new working mother. To address my downward spiral, I began to ask myself a series of questions and drill down after each incident that led to my loss of confidence. For example, I attended an in-person workshop and had to step away to breast pump. A question that only I could answer was raised, and my leader asked that I attend the entire meeting next time. By focusing on the constraint alone — having to breast pump at a regular interval while at work — I can do two things next time: ensure my leader and peers are aware of my pumping schedule and use a wearable breast pump such as Willow or Elvie during the meeting.

The questions I asked myself included:

  • When something did not go well at work, did I ultimately disappoint myself or someone else?
  • If I disappointed someone else, was it because of my actual ability to perform good work or a new and likely temporary constraint I was experiencing as a new parent?

The answer to this second question gave me the right tools to converse with my peers and leaders. More specifically, I realized that temporary constraints are just that: temporary. A child’s first year of life is incredibly fluid. One week the baby detests the swaddle, but the next he loves it. One week the baby experiences a sleep regression, but the next she magically sleeps again. The mom may be comfortable traveling at eight months postpartum but not at seven.

Leaders who ask new parents questions such as, “Are you still willing to travel?” and “Do you want to continue with this assignment?” overestimate the parent’s ability to know how they will feel weeks or months later. Instead, leaders should encourage frequent dialogue and welcome answers such as, “Not right now, but I will let you know if my answer changes.”

Workplaces that help new parents discuss these temporary constraints allow them to become proactive and for co-workers to become supportive. Focusing on my constraints as a new working mother and not my ability to perform good work helped me to see the difference and regain confidence.

Emily L. Ongstad, Ph.D. (she/her), is an associate principal scientist in cardiovascular disease research at AstraZeneca. She holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in bioengineering from Clemson University and a B.S. in bioengineering from Michigan Technological University. An active SWE life member, she currently serves as editorial board chair-elect.

Alina Bartley (she/her) is a director with Alvarez and Marsal, assisting clients with supply chain management solutions. She graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering and from The University of Texas at Austin with an MBA. A SWE member since 2009, Bartley has enjoyed working as a leader within her local Houston Section and with collegians at the global level. She currently serves on the editorial board.