Back to (Paid) Work After Baby, Part II
Our columnist and author and founder of The Fifth Trimester answers another round your most pressing questions about returning to the office post-baby—from how much leave to take to how to deal with feeling jealous of a partner who gets to stay home.
- Written By
- Lauren Smith Brody
- Maria Ines-Gul
In my last column, I shared the mid-Pandemic eureka moment when I realized that we are all in our fifth trimesters now. Not just new moms going back to paid work after maternity leave (as I’d defined that transition in my book and research previously), but every parent who is having to negotiate for rights and considerations that let us center our families.
We had so many good questions come in about returning to work that this column is a continuation of the last one, so we can jump right back in. Whether you’re taking care of a baby, a bigger kid, a partner, an elder, or simply yourself, I hope you can find solidarity, solace, and maybe even motivation (my long lost love!) here.
How should you respond to questions about an employment gap after taking time off for baby?
I swear I’m not being cranky when I say this: It wasn’t time off. It was time spent healing and bonding and doing what decades of research has told us is necessary for the perpetuation of the economy, advancement of women, and the health of a future generation who will rock the world one day themselves (more on this in the third question below).
One very good thing that has come out of the pandemic (and there aren’t many, so this one counts for a lot), is that talent interviewers and employers are simply going to expect that parents -- women in particular -- are going to have some funky gaps in 2020 and 2021. Now it’s our job to make sure that this progress isn’t temporary and that we normalize it for good.
Here’s where you come in. In your interview (deep breath), you can say: “I read recently that LinkedIn added ‘stay-at-home parent’ as well as other caregiving roles to its job description options. It’s been a very positive experience as a new parent myself to see this long-overdue recognition of the value of domestic labor, and of supporting and retaining women. I also saw a report from JP Morgan Chase that the US GDP would increase by 5% if we close the labor participation gap for women. So: My work at home was valuable. And now I’m ready again for paid work.” Boom. You’re informed, plugged in, forward-thinking, revenue-focused, motivated by equity, and also a great mom. Go for it!!
My partner is a stay at home parent, and I know it's wrong, but I feel jealous of their relationship. How do I deal?
Can I just say what a lucky kid you have? That child is *loved* -- by your partner who is clearly doing a great job, and also by you. You found that partner. You set up a family structure that allows your child to have a super tight bond with him or her. And you want to make the most of every minute you’ve got together. I see only goodness here.
I’ll get to specific advice in a minute, but first I recommend a reframe that lets you see what a great job you’re doing and what impact you have on your kiddo. When you are a parent, you are parenting 24/7 even when you are not physically with your child. Consciously or not, you are considering their well-being with literally every choice you make: the kale in your salad at lunch, the raise you’re negotiating for next month. Kale and compensation are parenting? Well, sure. You are making healthy choices in part to be strong for your child; you are making professional leaps for their financial stability. It all counts. (Saying this extra loud for any of the parents reading who might be going back into workplaces right now either after parental leave, or after so many cozy/crazy pandemic months at home.)
As for the jealousy, jealousy isn’t “wrong,” as you say. No feeling can ever be wrong. But it can simmer too long with a lid on top and boil over. So, tell your partner how you feel. I’m big on giving people actual words, so you could try some version of this: “I realize that your days at home are busy and hard in many ways, and our child is the absolute luckiest to be with you. Lately, I find myself feeling jealous of your time together.” Then give your partner a chance to say what they might be jealous of -- that you are the fun parent, perhaps, or that you get to have colleagues, and feedback, and nice clothes. Then offer a solution that’s mutually beneficial: You’d like to take your kid for special one-on-one time every weekend for a couple of hours to give your partner a break to either relax or pursue some non-parenting thing that satisfies them. PS: Better yet, if you have the ability to take days off of work occasionally, take over one of the regular hum-drum weekdays once a month/quarter/whatever too.
Will extending my maternity leave to six months make going back easier?
In a word: Yes. In another three words: It totally depends.
Thirty years worth of research has shown that six paid months of leave is the minimum needed, on average, to protect mom’s mental health, mom’s physical health, baby’s physical health (they’re more likely to get checkups and vaccines on time), your partner’s bond with the baby, and mom’s ability to maintain her income and status, and to not quit her job! In fact, the research is so compelling that -- little known fact -- the 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA that we tend to think of in the United States as “normal” was actually originally meant to be...wait for it...six paid months. After years of negotiations, it got whittled away to our sorry unpaid three months that most people can’t afford to take. And then signed into law. And accepted as standard.
The average human brain and body will do better with six months of leave. However, is your human brain and body being paid for that time away? And, even if so, is your employer (and are your colleagues) supportive of six months in a culture that, by law, has normalized 12 unpaid weeks as “enough?” These are big questions to consider, and I’d be irresponsible to share the basic research without also telling you to think about how these other bias-driven factors may make things hard all the same.
So, if the financial piece of the puzzle is okay for you, but you’re in a workplace where the thought of six months makes people do a weird thing with their face when you say it, I encourage you to do three things:
1) Read up and internalize all of the good data and research that backs up 6+ months so you can broadcast that message to any doubters and see it as a strength to push things toward what’s right and fair for all (this report from Brigid Schulte and team at New America is loaded with compelling evidence).
2) Talk about your future at your employer—projects that are on the horizon for after your leave, your long-term career growth—so that people see, obviously, that you’re committed to staying.
3) Insist that your partner also take some leave. I know you’re thinking, but if I have six months do they even need leave? Yes. Because if they don’t have it, the gap between their non leave and your humane six months could set you up for uneven co-parenting for the long haul. By six months, trust me, you will be really good at the baby stuff, and if your partner isn’t as well, you risk becoming the default primary parent, which makes going back to work (or just arm wrestling over who’s staying home when the daycare floods) much, much harder.
Lauren Smith Brody is the author and founder of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity and Big Success After Baby. You can follow her on instagram @thefifthtrimester.