The Big Decision: The tough choices we make as mothers

The toughest decision most of us have to make after our babies are born is whether or not to go back to work. The “having it all” myth has thankfully been debunked. The truth is that no matter which path we choose, we will need to make some sacrifices.

Many would argue that we’re lucky to live in the “post-feminism era.” The generation of women before us has fought hard to create a balance of power in the workplace, but this has led to making our decision even more difficult because we have more responsibilities and expectations. If we leave our jobs to be with our babies, we risk derailing our career trajectory and feeling as though we’re not living up to our potential. If we go back to work, we may experience sadness and guilt when we’re away from our babies and feel pressured to stay committed to our jobs despite new priorities at home.Working and stay at home mom

The conundrum has left me wondering how women have come so far in the workforce, yet so little has been done to help support our equally important job as a mother. The fact that the United States is the only developed country that doesn’t require paid maternity or paternity leave sends us a discouraging message about our culture’s values. We are faced with pressure and expectations from society, our spouses, our families, our peers and ourselves to make the “best decision.”

As more women have begun to have babies after we’ve established our careers, we struggle to balance our individual ambitions with our new responsibilities, desires and intense emotions that come with motherhood. This is my honest account of the decision I made, and my reflection on how I feel eight months later.

My Career, My Identity

Before my son was born, a large part of my identity had been tied to work. I evaluated my success in life by my career accomplishments and salary.

My reputation was also closely tied to my career. I met my husband and the majority of my closest friends at work, so their initial impressions of me were based on our interactions at the office. I was Kelly, the reliable, hard-working and amiable account executive. I was proud of the reputation I had established and worked hard to maintain it.

As my passions and ambitions changed, my career path followed. After 8 years in advertising, I moved into the non-profit sector, sacrificing salary and upward mobility for a stronger sense of purpose and fulfillment. I wanted my job and career path to reflect who I was and what was important to me.

But, Is This Really It?

Although I was generally happy at my job, my career was leaving me with a sense of emptiness. Something was missing. My desire to nurture, support and connect with others was not being met by my long hours in front of a computer screen. I was having a bit of a “mid” mid-life crisis. Anxiety roused from the feeling of “is this really it?”

My husband and I had been talking about having a baby for a few years, but we hadn’t felt compelled to take action until we both reached this point. We were ready to focus on something other than ourselves, our careers, and our frivolous lifestyle. We were ready to give up those things that didn’t matter as much anymore so we could have a life with more meaning. It was time for us to start a family.

The Unknown Life Ahead

When I got pregnant, it was hard to grasp how much my life was about to change. The idea of becoming a mom and sharing this new life with my husband was exciting, scary and surreal. I put any decisions about my career and childcare on hold because I felt unequipped to make them before experiencing motherhood.

I was often asked the question, “Are you planning on going back to work after your baby is born?” I was honestly torn. I felt like I should say yes, but I had so many questions needed to be answered before I could make that decision. Would I thrive as a mom or miss my sense of independence and productivity at the workplace? My future life ahead left me with many uncertainties.

Enter Connor

 The Overwhelming Emotions

The day Connor came into our lives, everything changed. When the nurse placed his warm little body on my chest, I felt a wave of intense emotions take over me. All I wanted to do was love and protect Connor with every ounce of affection I had to give. Suddenly, nothing else mattered more.

The Adjustment Period

The first two months with Connor were a hurricane of emotions. Initially, the focus was on survival. Simple necessities like eating and sleeping seemed complicated and draining. At times, my husband and I felt like we were straight out of “The Walking Dead.” Three consecutive hours of sleep became a luxury. It must have been the “love adrenaline” that fueled our run-down bodies each day.

In spite of the utter exhaustion, life had never been so rich. The love we felt for Connor was so intense. With all the challenges came an insane amount of joy unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Our hearts were willingly exposed as we watched him grow, change, and respond to us. People say that being a parent is like wearing your heart on the outside of IMG_0748 - Version 3your body. Now I know what they mean. We were so emotionally invested in Connor’s every move. As we learned and discovered more about him, our love for him grew deeper and stronger.

This time was filled with both highs and lows. Feelings of joy, love and gratitude were paired with feelings of uncertainty, isolation and loneliness. The adjustment period was just as shocking to us as it was to Connor. However, we were facing this challenge together, and our bond grew stronger as the three of us acclimated to the changes.

The Turning Point

As month 3 rolled around, something changed. It was no longer just about survival. It was about harmony. I was becoming more responsive and aware of Connor’s needs. Each day seemed to reveal a new aspect of his personality. He was responding and interacting with us in ways we could understand. We were finally starting to “get” this parenting thing.

IMG_1052Three months is the time that most of us are required to leave our maternal duties to go back to work. Physically, I was ready. But emotionally, I was deeply invested in my relationship with Connor. We had established a rhythm and a newfound understanding of each other. Connor and I were growing closer and closer every day. He was my sunshine, my little buddy, and the center of my world.

When the end of my maternity leave approached, I realized that I hadn’t thought about work. Not once. I was so deeply engrossed in my new “job” as mom and had no intention of leaving. However, I had responsibilities and relationships at my job that I needed to consider.

The Conundrum

I liked what being a “career woman” stood for. I had worked hard and felt pressure from society and myself to stay on that path. Working diligently and focusing on my career was what I was supposed to do.

However, my world had changed significantly over those last 3 months. My rational brain told me that I should return to work so I wouldn’t disrupt my “career path.” However, the thought of leaving Connor and disrupting the path that we were on together was heartbreaking. It seemed so unnatural and disruptive to stop in our tracks and never be able to return to this place again. He needed me, and I needed him. My emotions and my career goals had come to a head.

Go Back to Work or Stay Home?

The time came when I needed to discuss my return date to work. My heart was telling me that I shouldn’t go back, but my rational side was telling me to carefully think through my options before making a decision. I knew that the choice I made would impact my family, my baby and myself.

This post is meant to help other women feel that they are not alone in making this difficult decision. This is in no way meant to preach or advocate for staying at home or returning to work. It is an honest account of how I made my decision with the intent of helping others navigate through this difficult process.

Factors We Considered

  1. Financial situation

Having financial stability is a necessity for a baby, so we evaluated this situation first. We considered how much net income my job would bring in with the additional costs of having a baby and then determined whether we could live off of one income for an indefinite period of time.

My net income

Let’s just say that I wasn’t “raking in the dough” at my current job. My salary would barely cover my working expenses and childcare, so the financial benefit of returning to my job in the short term was trivial.

Living off of one income

That said, we knew that we still needed to look at the implication of living off of one income with the additional costs of having a baby. We took a hard look at our “needs” versus “wants” when we assessed our finances.

The “needs” included all of the expenses that we couldn’t cut. We used a family financing calculator and some other online resources that helped us get a realistic idea of our post-Connor financial situation.

The “wants” included all of our other arbitrary expenses, including meals out, shopping, gym memberships, vacations, entertainment and other splurges. We asked ourselves, “Are these things still important to us now that Connor is here?” This exercise forced us to take a look at our lifestyle and recognize that we could still live happily and comfortably without many of these “wants.” It turned out that what we really “wanted” most was to spend time with Connor.

  1. Childcare and family values

The next factor we considered was childcare. My husband and I had the conversation about my career and childcare early on in my pregnancy. We both felt more comfortable with me staying home with Connor versus hiring a nanny or putting him in daycare. We wanted to be the primary caretakers so we could witness all the special moments in his early years and influence the person he would become.

On the other hand, we also believed that Connor would thrive in a childcare situation that we felt comfortable with and trusted. My husband respected my career drive and said he would support whatever decision I made. He knew how important it was for me to be a happy, fulfilled mother so I could be a positive influence on our son. Smart man.

Having this honest conversation with my husband early on in my pregnancy helped mitigate any uncertainties we had about our expectations of each other. I knew where he stood, but I was also felt confident that he would support whatever decision I made.

  1. Career aspirations

The truth is, women are forced to make a choice that comes with sacrificing either your role as mom or career. Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCO, revealed this truth in her candid interview about motherhood. It’s possible to give time and attention to both, but inevitably, most of us are likely to feel like we’re not giving enough to one of these roles.

Successful career women like Sheryl Sandberg preach that women should not just think about the short-term financial impact of leaving their job to be with their babies, but also the opportunity costs that will set us back on our long-term career path.

I thought about those opportunity costs. I was honest with myself and finally admitted that I was okay with setting my career ambitions aside and veering off my career path during this time in my life. The truth was, I was less concerned with the setbacks I would face by putting my career on hold and more concerned about the opportunity costs of losing time with Connor during his early years. Time with him was worth more to me than a raise or promotion, gaining respect from colleagues and climbing up the corporate ladder. I didn’t believe that taking time off was career suicide; instead, I believed it would benefit my career by giving me a new, fresh perspective on life and naturally lead me to reassess my goals and ambitions.

  1. Innate personality traits and priorities

Priorities and Passions 

Aside from the financial and opportunistic impact of a career hiatus, I also knew it was important to consider what decision would make me the best version of myself. Would I be more fulfilled at home with my baby or at my job? Where would I feel the most present and engaged with what I was doing? I knew I needed to be fully committed wherever I was, because only being partially present wasn’t fair to any of the parties involved.

My personality is nurturing and people-focused (a typical ENFJ), so motherhood naturally fit my inherent traits. Being with Connor made me realized that I get my greatest sense of fulfillment through helping others. I loved giving to him and responding to his needs. My emotions were deeply invested in caring for him.

My desire to connect with others also motivated me to meet other moms, join groups and form a network of friends. Having a community was critical in helping me overcome the feelings of isolation that often come with the first few months of motherhood.

Although I enjoy being around people, I also need some solitude to center myself. My alone time with Connor gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate my values and purpose. It was lonely at times, but for the most part, it was refreshing. I savored those special moments and enjoyed “just being” instead of constantly producing. Boredom was nourishing to the soul.

Some of my other strengths were unexpectedly beneficial to motherhood. Being organized helped me build a daily eating and sleeping schedule for Connor (which was meticulously documented). I work well with structure, but I wouldn’t get bent out of shape if our schedule fluctuated to fit our needs. I let Connor take the lead and adjusted our days based on what was working best for him.

My patience also proved to be a virtue. I was able to spend long days doing monotonous tasks and stayed even-keeled in stressful situations. It was amazing to see how much sleep deprivation mellowed me out! I didn’t have the energy to sweat the small things.

Most importantly, I felt happy and fulfilled during my time with Connor. I stopped comparing myself to others and succumbing to the pressure of “doing more.” Instead, I did less. By slowing down, I could see all the beautiful things that were right in front of me.

  1. Studies on the Early Years

Importance of Bonding

Brain RulesRight after Connor was born, I vigorously read “Brain Rules for Baby” while I nursed him. The book was fascinating. A certain section of the book stuck with me and guided the way I interacted and responded to him. The author explained a how the brain’s main priority is survival, and finding safety is how a baby meets this need. Who do they look to for that safety? Their parents. Babies are intensely attuned to how responsive we are to their needs from the moment they come into the world. If their needs are being met, their brain will be able to focus on things other than survival (e.g., learning). If they don’t create bonds or establish perceptions of safety, they could be permanently damaged. This sounds extreme, but the point is that babies need to feel safe, secure and loved either by their parents or a caretaker.

Along similar lines, I also spent quite a bit of time reading about “attachment parenting” which focuses on the nurturing connection that parents can develop with their children. This philosophy, made famous by Dr. Sears, stresses the importance of parents being sensitive and emotionally available to their children’s needs during the critical early stages of their lives. The idea behind attachment parenting is that babies learn to trust and thrive when their needs are consistently met by a caregiver. Conversely, children who never experience this attachment may not learn to form healthy attachments later in life and often suffer from insecurity, lack of empathy and sometimes even anger and attachment disorders. According to attachment theory, the “critical period” to form this attachment is from 6 months to 2 or 3 years, the time when babies begin to look to particular people for security, comfort and protection.

These studies made me realize that the bond I formed with Connor during his first year would affect him forever. Working would certainly not prevent me from forming this bond (quality of time is much more important than quantity), but I knew that being with him all day would allow me to become a more responsive mother. As I learned to accurately read Connor’s cues, my consistent responsiveness began to motivate him to keep sending me signals, resulting in us forming a strong attachment to each other. An amazing nanny or daycare could also learn to read his cues, but their responsiveness wouldn’t be coupled with the type of love and affection that I could give to him. This was the most important factor in my decision.

An Honest Look at Staying At Home

When my maternity leave came to an end, I decided to leave my job to stay home with Connor. To be honest, my heart told me that was the best decision all along. I knew I would be wishing I was with him the whole time I was at work, and that wouldn’t benefit any of us.

How do I feel 8 months later? Here it goes . . .

Each day is filled with so much joy, yet so many challenges. Sometimes I feel like it would be easier to put on my work clothes and live part of my day the same way I did before Connor was born, but deep down I know that my job would never bring me the amount of happiness and gratitude that Connor has brought into my life. These past 8 months have been filled with a flurry of emotions, and I’ve often felt conflicted. At times, I feel so happy and grateful to be able to spend this special time with Connor, and other times I feel isolated and exhausted. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m able to experience so much joy every day playing with Connor, living life simply and freely, while my husband is bound to his job working long hours to support our family. At the same time, I find myself envying his daily social interactions at the office in an environment that rewards his hard work and accomplishments. Being a mother is the hardest and most important job I’ve ever had, and it’s truly the most fulfilling and gratifying experience to be able to spend so many special moments with Connor.

Connor has given me just as much as I’ve given him. He’s opened my eyes to the world around us. We stop to feel tree bark, look at a purple flower or watch a butterfly flying in a yard. We talk about the birds, the squirrels and the dogs in the park. We’ll sit on a blanket underneath a tree and talk about the grass, or we’ll sit in silence while I cuddle with him. As we poke around the park, I’m reminded that we are just one of the millions of species on this earth. I have a new appreciation and respect for life now that I’ve brought one into the world.

I have not once regretted my decision to stay home with Connor. I feel a deep sense of happiness when I’m with him, and the special moments that we’ve experienced together have forever changed my perspective on both myself and the world around us. I’m grateful not only the milestones I’ve witnessed, like the first time he crawled, but also for the everyday moments, like the cuddles before his naps or the sporadic smiles I get throughout the day. It’s those moments that will be will me for the rest of my life. Those memories are worth their weight in gold.

 The Next Chapter

When I decide to re-enter the workforce, I will return as a new person. I have a fresh perspective on life and new appreciation for our world. I am more confident and balanced as a mother. Knowing that I’m responsible for another life has giving me a renewed sense of purpose. I have learned, grown and changed more than I ever could have in the office. That’s why I believe my decision will not be detrimental to my career. I am a better person because of the decision I made.

In This Together

Having a baby changes everything. A move across the country, career change and marriage didn’t even compare to the changes that occurred when my son was born. I guess that’s why some people call it a “life shift.”

No matter what friends tell you, or how many babies you have been around, no one can possibly prepare you for your baby or predict how you will feel when he/she comes into your life. The intensity of the emotions most of us experience is unfathomable until we become parents.

This is why we all need to support each other and the decisions we make. No decision we make is an easy one, and no decision is the best for everyone. It involves determining what is best for your family, yourself and your baby.

I wish that someday it will be easier for women who have established careers to have the option to take a break from our jobs for up to a year during our babies’ highly critical development period. Far too few part time jobs are available, and too little is being done to help give women any option at all. (Read this perspective on corporations’ treatment of women/mothers.)

Until then, let’s support each other and the tough decisions we have to make. That’s what being a mom is all about – doing the best that we can.

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