Health Team

What every new mom should know about returning to work

Posted December 1, 2020 3:20 a.m. EST

— Many new moms spend their days luxuriating in their newborn's company. Maybe they've got three weeks, or six, even six months or a year of full-time motherhood, in which they can devote themselves completely to their children.

But 72% of mothers work. Over 64% of mothers are co- or primary breadwinners, defined as married or unmarried women who either outearn their partners or bring home at least a quarter of the household's income through their wages. And most of us have absolutely no idea how to mesh our new roles as mothers with our jobs. The secret to work/life balance? I've always thought it was: Pick one.

That's because there are very few models for how to be mothers and workers successfully at the same time. Gen X women are the first raised with the expectation of doing it all, and yet little in our society has changed at the emotional or structural level to support us having careers and families.

Ali Velez Alderfer, mom to a three-year-old son, wants to help with that struggle. Her new book, "The Working Mom's Handbook: A Survival Guide for Returning to Work After Having A Baby," is "the road map I wished I had been given to help me navigate the emotions, politics, and logistics of being a working mom," she wrote. The book goes narrow and wide, including the logistics of freezing breast milk and how to handle the avalanche of postpartum emotions.

An associate producer of global programming for CNN and former staff writer at Buzzfeed, Alderfer outlines her own experiences as a working mother; what every newly pregnant mom should be thinking about; and how to work and parent in a world in crisis.

CNN: When you were pregnant, what were you imagining about going back to work?

Ali Velez Alderfer: I didn't have a clear picture of what it would look like. I was in the nesting phase and preparing for baby at home. I knew that my mom would be coming out to help for as long as she could, but I hadn't thought beyond that. I wasn't thinking about day care until it was almost too late, and that caused a lot of anxiety. I really didn't think about that transition enough when I was pregnant. That's part of why I wanted to write this book.

CNN: What do you mean by "too late"?

Alderfer: A few weeks before returning back to work, my husband and I tried to sign up our baby for day care and everything was full. The waitlist for infants was up to 18 months — and 18 months later, he'd no longer be an infant.

People should start thinking about their child care needs as early as possible. It's all part of the process of having a baby. Whenever one of my friends tells me they're expecting, I say, "Start looking into child care now." It's one of the things that nobody told me. It's my No. 1 warning to expectant moms.

CNN: This book focuses a lot on decisions and choices, but not all women have the luxury of choice.

Alderfer: I know that not everybody has the luxury of full-time child care, whether that's a nanny or a nanny-share or day care. Single moms or moms who work in more demanding jobs or odd hours, of if you work in retail or service — most of those people are working because they need to and they can't afford to miss a shift.

But the message is the same for everyone: Try as hard as you can to build a community. Make your village. If you don't have a close family, emotionally or geographically, some people have found a lot of support in moms' groups, online or in person, which are free to join and help you find people in your area in a similar situation — someone who can take your kid for the afternoon while you pick up a swing shift.

There isn't a perfect system. There are no perfect answers. Whatever you can work out that's right for you is right.

CNN: You talk about how the concept of "having it all" has affected working moms. It's an ideal that, it turns out, is pretty hard to achieve.

Alderfer: I was the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year college. The expectations were very high of having a career and being successful. But I'm the only daughter, so my parents also wanted to see me get married and start a family. When I graduated from graduate school, one relative said, "You should be married by now and have at least a kid or two." I still feel that pressure.

On paper, I do have it all. I have a nice house in the suburbs, a spouse, a child, a great job. But there are a lot of anxious and stressful moments when I feel like I'm not succeeding in any one area, and I'm constantly redefining what having it all means.

The day I turn off my phone and spend the day with my family, I feel like I'm missing something at work. Or, I nailed that thing at work today and had a successful moment and was recognized, but I missed dinner with my kid. Or one day everything is great, and the next day, everything goes to hell, I miss a deadline and my kid has a fever and I don't have any child care because it's a pandemic and my dog threw up on the stairs.

It's important to be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot handle, and to redefine "having it all" as needed. A lot of women shift priorities after they become mothers. Some decide they want to spend more time at home with their families and can't handle the stress. Others need a break from home life or they need the income. You have to be self-aware and know your priorities.

There are many valid choices, but you have to make that choice for yourself. No matter what, you're going to need help, some kind of village, whether it's made up of family or friends or employees. And asking for help is a sign of strength. You can't have it all, all by yourself.

CNN: Explain the concept of "mommy tracking."

Alderfer: It's this unwritten policy that employers or managers put into effect, sometimes unwittingly and sometimes in the form of literal discrimination. They assume that after a woman becomes a mother, she can't or doesn't want to handle the same responsibilities.

Sometimes it's a totally subconscious thing where people are trying to be sensitive or give a break to a mom returning from leave, but they end up underestimating what she's capable of or wants. When a new mom comes back to work, they're put on this mommy track, where people say, "Oh, she'll have doctors' appointments and soccer games. She's not going to be able to handle the same workload."

But that's not their decision to make. Sometimes she's passed over for promotions or advancement. And nobody ever assumes that a man who comes back to work after becoming a father is weaker for it. Often, women come back to work stronger because they've learned to multitask in new ways. We're more powerful because we have all these new skills.

CNN: But there are doctors' appointments. And fatigue. So how do we handle these new realities and also make sure we're not tracked?

Alderfer: Transparency is the key from both sides: Sitting down with your manager and saying, "I'm ready for more." Or: "I need to do less." Sometimes my partner goes to the doctor and I go to work; it's not only the mom's responsibility to parent 100% of the time.

CNN: You spend some time in this book educating women about their legal rights when it comes to breastfeeding and family leave. What's missing in public policy?

Alderfer: I am a very big supporter of the idea of universal child care. It's insane in this country, the amount of money people pay for child care. If there was an affordable, sliding-scale option for child care from birth to school age, parents could feel supported in their community and go out and work to earn a living, not to just pay for child care.

There are also many changes employers could make. Many of them have free food or gyms as perks. Why not on-site child care? If parents were supported in that way, that could be revolutionary. Workplace productivity would be so much greater.

CNN: How did the way you see your book and its mission change when Covid-19 hit?

Alderfer: I started writing this book in mid-February, and I'd just gotten this perfect schedule for work, writing and child-rearing. I felt like I was nailing it. And then Covid hit and school closed and I was working from home, no commute to clear my head and no child care. It definitely threw a wrench into the book-writing process, but it made me more motivated to work hard and get it done.

I wanted to speak to the enormous challenges parents are facing right now, but I also wanted to evolve that to parenting in any sort of crisis with anything that's unexpected or creating added struggles.

That means taking the time to react and grieve for whatever has changed, and to adapt and move past it and work hard to create this new normal. Give yourself a little bit of grace as schedules and rules go by the wayside in survival mode.

CNN: You have multiple lists of "things that are OK." What's the inspiration behind this, and why do women need to be reminded that it's OK to hate pumping, be super anxious, cry at work or go out for drinks?

Alderfer: There is so much pressure to be a supermom. I wanted to remind women and moms that we're all human, that we all have these moments of weakness and moments of strength. It's OK to feel like you're failing, but it's also OK to be proud of your success.

It's OK to want to talk about your kid all the time and wear the same outfit for three days in a row. It's also OK to not want to talk about your kid at work and to not cry about leaving your kid in day care. I want moms and all parents to know that whatever you're feeling or thinking, it's OK. It's OK to be whatever kind of working mom you are.

As long as my kid goes to bed healthy and happy, that's OK parenting. And when he's not, I find ways to support and take care of him. You have to find what works for your family.

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