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Employer Warning: Years 1 & 2 can be unproductive

I started working for my current employer almost four years ago, a non-profit organization.  I love the work; I do important work in communities that don’t have access to these services.  One reason I chose to work for this organization is because it prided itself in being one big happy, supportive family, professionally and socially.  Many of the employees have families.  In their time with the organization, they have juggled life with young ones, life with medical conditions, and life as primary caretaker to less able partners.  One of my colleagues works primarily at home, as his partner is home-bound.  Where there is a meeting he has to attend, he is able to skip the meeting or make other accommodations (perhaps call in) if he cannot find a caretaker for his partner.

When we found out we were expecting a baby two years ago, even though I had worked full-time before and after my first two children, I was again nervous about how to handle the juggle of a baby and a full-time work load.  This time, however, I had the flexibility of working at home when I returned to work on most days, whereas my jobs when I had the previous babes had been more rigid 9-to-5 (rather, 8-to-4) jobs.  The most flexibility I could finagle back then would be working an hour earlier than the standard office hours.  Telecommuting or working at home was not an option.

In the past year, I have continued to manage the familiar juggle: family, food, home, activities, baby care, [urbanMamas], and – of course – work.  Admittedly, all through the baby’s first year last year, I let my work slide, slide, slide until – one day – I felt buried under something so deep that it would take me weeks to dig out!  Along the course of the year, all the time I was taking to continue volunteering at the schools, to leave “work” 30-60 minutes earlier to get kids to activities, to pump (& all its related tasks), and to make frequent visits to our health care provider for frequent check-ups on a baby with some weight and skin issues….  All of added up to a whole lot of nothing, when it came to my work.  To add to this: with piecemeal childcare in the first year, I was often only *really* working when the baby napped, which he dutifully did about 5-6 hours a day in that first year (hallelujah!).  (Also, he’s in FT care now, so no more working from home for me!)

Over the course of the past year, as I have attempted to ramp up with my work, I have also attempted to demonstrate that I could work and be a mother at the same time.  The baby has traveled with me to meetings in Arizona, New York (twice!), Seattle (a few times!).

The other day, I felt I hit the lowest of my working lows.  I had a talking-to from my boss.  He called to ask about my “progress” with certain aspects of work.  I came up with a few excuses, knowing full well that the number one excuse was that I had an under-two-year-old at home, resulting in a mama brain unable to focus and resulting in a schedule equally unfocused.  I knew the day was coming.  I knew I was slipping.  My resolution for this year, now with baby one-and-a-quarter [practically self-sufficient!], was to begin refocusing on myself, which included regaining traction at work as well as making time to spend away from the home.

My boss is father to three himself, and one of his babies spent long periods of time hospitalized when a baby.  On the one hand, I knew he understood.  But, was it acceptable?

In ensuing days, I am left wondering: should “family friendly” employers somehow acknowledge and accept subpar or less-than-100% from mamas (and even papas) of young children?  Even when I feel like I am giving my all to family, home, and work, I am still not achieving 100% in any of those categories.  We all know that life with little ones is particularly hard in those early years.  Those of us with older children know it gets better.  Should we cut ourselves some slack at work?  Can we?  Will we sacrifice our jobs?  Does bringing baby on work travel give the impression that I am less committed to work?  What is this all supposed to look like, to be working outside the home while parenting [especially the youngest of the young]?  How should it feel?  Should we feel buried by it all, and just let it pass as the offspring age?  Does something have to give?  Can’t that “something” be some slack from my employer?  Is that too much to ask?  

(thanks for listening....)


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This is a tough one, so many perpectives. Makes me think it's time for an urbanmamas whine night.

Sure is.

I'm so sorry this happened to you as I know that you have long prided yourself in being able to successfully manage a full time career and the needs of a growing family. I have envied you for that on many occasions although maybe I have never said it...

Part of the reason that I decided to quit my job when I had babies was because I worried the stress of juggling would far outweigh the stress of the actual job. I was in sales and although I could have easily physically transitioned to a working from home situation, I knew the discipline that it would really take to actually be successful and wondered if I had it in me to split my time/body/mind in new ways. Going through the motions would not have worked. I'm not saying this is what you've been up to, it's what I saw a lot of my co-workers doing during my years of working--and these were people from all walks of life, not necessarily people with small children--and then they wondered why they were not successful. It takes so much mental focus to be successful and I was not sure I'd have it.

My boys are older now and for the first time in many years I'm contemplating going back to work and I still really worry about the juggle. My husband works in an environment in which he's expected to work around the clock when certain projects come up. He's got 4 weeks of un-used vacation time, with no real possibility of taking more than 2-3 days off in a row. I am virtually certain that if I went back to work, I would not be able to rely on him to take on more with the kids--not because he doesn't want to, but purely because of the workaholic mentality of his boss and above. It sucks. Our family needs balance and it seems so impossible to achieve without some major changes. We are rather conservative by nature, so the thought of drastic change feels risky. I'm not sure how it will all shake loose.

All this to say, yes, I think something has to give. You could say that I took the easy way out--just quit work to focus 100% on the family for some years. I don't regret my decision in terms of what it's meant for my family, but for me personally, I'd love to have a paycheck again. I'm driven. I like thrill of securing a new customer and the pride in receiving a hefty commission check. I was one of the more successful trainers in my company. Companies are missing out on a lot of parents like me because of their inability to take a more creative, flexible approach to hiring and retaining employees.

Sorry about the long comment...It's an issue I think about often and admit that it overwhelms me. It feels like one of those big American issues like gun control or immigration or our economy or healthcare--something needs to happen, but I don't know what or how. I've mentioned it here before, my husband is Norwegian and although I don't have any desire to move to Norway, theirs is a value system that I appreciate and wish we had a bit more of here in the US.

If employers are serious about investing in employees long term, that means understanding that there will be peaks and valleys in productivity as our lives change. Those 12 weeks of (usually unpaid) FMLA leave do not begin to address the shift in priorities when you have a new baby. In my twenties, I regularly put in 60+ hour weeks. In the past four years, which have included two births, a death, and an autism diagnosis for my son, my productivity has taken a dive. I am reducing my hours to half time this month because I just can't keep up any more.

I have been lucky that my employer is willing to negotiate a job share, so I can keep my job and still keep up with my son's many therapy and medical appointments. I think they are willing to do that both because I work for a progressive organization and because I have 19 years of experience and plan to put in another 25+ before I retire. As a long term investment, a few years of reduced productivity are worth it to keep a good employee.

But I know that if either of those things were not true [if I worked for WalMart instead of a do-gooder non-profit, or if I were a new employee], then I would just be screwed. And even with this arrangement, I will still feel like both my work and parenting are half-assed. Quitting entirely has never been an option financially, and we need the health insurance. The drop to part-time will put us below the federal poverty line, so I worry that the added financial stress will counteract any stress reduction that comes from the reduced workload.

I don't know what the answer is. Certainly more paid parental leave, universal health care, support for breastfeeding at work, support for part-time or flexible schedules, respite care for parents of kids with disabilities, an economy in which one income is enough to support a family, and a social climate in which it is acceptable to take time off to care for children would be a good start.

I suspect we'd all be better off if we could have one paid year off after birth or adoption, and then we wouldn't have to worry about being a lousy parent or a lousy employee. But it's interesting here the problem seems to be it's harder to work from home--too much calls to us, perhaps?

I am also wondering where your partner is. I really hope he or she is making dinner and cleaning the house and participating equally. (I know this can be a touchy issue.)

I also think this is the time to let some things go. Family comes first; then work. After that, everything needs to option. Volunteering can go out the window for a few years. And maybe the older kids need to scale back a bit on some activities?

We can't do everything! That's okay! Don't beat yourself up about this.

Your open and honest post is so appreciated. I don't feel that years 1 & 2 necessarily are/need to be "unproductive"--and am hoping that the title of your post doesn't send across that blanket statement. :) I would hate for employers to automatically assume that is the case with employees who are parents of babies/young children. Many of us "working outside the home" mothers/fathers just tend to organize our time differently after having children. That is the reality of life for a lot of us. We have more and more responsibilities, which we are able to do and do very well, but can take a bit of juggling at times. This juggling, however, does not have to result in us being non-productive. Also, if mothers/fathers were given decent maternity/paternity leave (beyond the ridiculous standard 12 weeks) in the US, perhaps parents WOULD be able to take a year "off" (as in many nations) and then return to work eager & ready for the workplace/jobs that they once enjoyed.

I struggle with this every day! My company is consistently ranked as one of the best to work for, yet, the demands are not in line with the needs of parents. Basically, I have to choose whether to be there for my child (meaning, I try to be at work for no more than 9 hours and not work in the evenings after bedtime) or get promoted (which requires working 60+ hours a week). I am driven, I want to have a successful career and I certainly don't want to be seen as a slacker. But, I also want to see my child in the morning and make dinner and have a nice evening with my family each day. We are now expecting child #2, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to take 6 months off work, but I know it will be doubly hard returning full-time with two little ones. I feel I have to resign myself to accepting a stagnant career for a couple more years (at least) and seeing where I am both emotionally and professionally. I truly wish companies were more open to telecommuting and reduced work hours, or at least (in the case of my company) removed the expectation that you should be working in the evenings and on weekends to keep up or get ahead. I would take a break from working if we could afford it just to reduce the stress from trying to be a successful working mom.

Thank you for this honest post. I feel like so many working mamas (myself included) still try to put the best spin on things, pretending like we can do it all. It takes courage to speak honestly about this stuff. Sarah is right on that we need more paid parental leave, health care, etc. Working moms feel the burden of our society's messed up priorities.

Not too much to ask at all. But I wonder what 100% means anymore. Does that automatically equate to more than 40 hours a week for a full time job? Though an eight hour day seems about all, and more than I can handle on any given day, maybe that's unrealistic. Lowering my expectations is the only way I have been able to balance work with kids. Everyone gets less of me than if there was only one or the other. Could be that it has a balancing effect too?

as most of you know I experienced a very similar situation with my job and third child, though I think I was working less and traveling much less than you. I, too, brought my baby with me a few times visiting the office in Virginia or in New York; it was extremely hard and I was far less of a nose-to-the-grindstone type than I'd been even when I was extremely pregnant. my second-come-to-Jesus talk with my boss -- who, though he did have a young child, was also less empathetic with my situation (his wife worked full time and managed, why couldn't I?) -- resulted in a conversation about "100%". either I give it, or quit. I quit.

like cc, I see 100% as really meaning the willingness to work 60+ hour weeks and only in the direst eventualities put our family before work commitments. if there's a deadline, work *always* comes first, and lateness is sign of lazy/disloyal/non-committed employees; while this could be understood in the case of some jobs where life is truly on the line, for the most part the crises are invented or entirely procedural (the new CEO insists we all give entirely new strategy presentations and we need your spreadsheet by midnight! conference call at 5 a.m.!) and will not change the world or even improve it mildly.

even now, as a freelancer, I often feel desperately sad that a child's needs get in the way of some story I really, really want to write -- but if I don't this afternoon it's moot -- and a meltdown means I need to pick up Truman early, and that was every last bit of my free time. so, I'll get the next story. there goes my hope to establish myself as the go-to expert on, whatever.

six months of maternity leave, paid, should be the absolute minimum we'd accept. true mastery of a field should not be dependent upon a continual and never-interrupted stream of maximum effort, but should allow for periods -- even several years -- of quiescence. fields need to lie fallow, why shouldn't we? and there is nothing said of those 60/80 hour weeks and fierce loyalty we put in when we were in our twenties.

if I had decidedly more time and energy and a little money, I'd start a community-supported maternity leave program. we'd raise enough for rent, utilities, food and health care for a year for women who give birth, adopt, or undergo something like Sarah mentioned -- an autism diagnosis, a serious illness of a family member, a death of a parent or someone very close to you -- and give the mamas a chance to nurture. we'd all be better for it (and those companies who employed us later would get a much better person for it). now THAT would be a job worth staying up late to work for, hmmm?

I do not have a 60+ hour a week type of job. Mine is 8-5 M-F and for the most part when I leave my job I do not think about it. They have flexed with me to work one day a week at another location so I can take my son to a EI pre-school program to received speech services this year for school. Allowed me to miss work and make up the hours to take him to the Dr, and speech appointments. Even though I just have to be on for 8 hours a day I to some times wonder where my brain goes. I feel like I didn't go for the promotion because I was pregnant at the time didnt know how my life was going to change. Didn't want to have to travel. I come in exhausted and wonder if they are annoyed with my lack of focus due to sleep deprivation.... I feel lucky that they put up with it all and that I have a boss that feels family comes first but understands that we have to support ourselves. If only we could have naps at work... anyone?!?!

Do mothers who have left the workforce to care for their baby wonder about being able to find a job AT ALL when/if they decide to go back to work later on? I often wonder about this. This economy is sadly changing everything, and the choices seem slim, making it worrisome to leave a job to care for a baby, if one doesn't want to go back to work after the short 12 weeks...

As a small business owner and a mama, I can see many facets to this issue. Our culture is terrible about segregating children into special compartments where "regular people" don't have to deal with them. Children might be the future, but if you have them, that's your fault and your problem.

As parents, we need more (paid) time off with our kids, but we have to be careful that the burden isn't shifted to small employers. Did you know that companies with fewer than 20 employees provide more than 70% of jobs in America? Those businesses are the engine in our economy. If we put to much pressure on them, we all suffer.

So what's the solution? I know that most developed countries provide better paid leave for parents than does the USA. In some EU countries, both parents can get up to two full years paid time off. It's part of the social safety net. It is provided because the benefits to society are huge--those babies grow up to be healthier, smarter and better members of society. It reduces potential costs of other social programs like healthcare, special eduction, corrections, etc.

Unfortunately, Paid Family Leave is not even on Oregon legislators agenda this session because it doesn't stand a chance in this year's bipartisan climate. My question is how do we create real change in this society given the perineal stagnation of our political systems? The stakes are huge. Endless work is done to try to create better social equity. Years go by and nothing changes. It's so disheartening.

First on the productivity - I certainly changed my attitude towards work after the baby. However, I don't believe I have to put in 60 hours a week to be a productive employee. Working smarter (more efficient) rather that working more is the key. I know this cannot be applied to all jobs, unfortunately. If a boss thinks a lot of his/her employee and finds her very valuable, the boss would rather keep her after the baby comes despite her being less willing to put in extra hours. After all it is better to have a great employee willing to only work 40 hours a week than to look for a new one who may just turn out to be average.
On the government help - totally agree with Mamasita. We need government to help out working parents. In addition to all the benefits mentioned by Mamasita there is one more, a big one. Everybody is freaking out about social security running out of money as baby boomers retire, because the ratio of working people to those receiving benefits will go down. Well, if we make it easier for parents to work, even work part time, less of them will stay at home and more will be contributing to the social security fund.

oh do i feel you...which is why i quit my super demanding job. i felt like i was giving everything my all and coming up short for everything. not a good feeling. i quit when my youngest was 10 months old and my oldest was 32 months old and have now been home for five months. our lives are still crazy and chaotic, but i guess that's to be expected with young kids. this is the right solution for us for right now. i worry a bit about finding a job when that is right for us again, but then again i work in recruiting and most of my friends are recruiters, so i'd like to think i can find myself a job since that's what i did professionally! no easy answer, but it's nice to know that we are all in it together and we have the freedom to make choices. the thing that finally allowed me to turn in my notice was the realization that nothing is forever! good luck on the journey!

I found that when I tried to work flex-time and part of the time at home when my first born was young, I actually ended up working more, because I could always be working at home. I was working weekends and nights, nap times, half-heartedly playing games with my son with one eye on the computer, responding to work questions . I finally figured out that I would actually be a better employee and mother if I went back to work full-time, but only full-time. No more weekends or nights. I put my son in full-time daycare. It was expensive and hard on the budget, but he enjoyed it, and I was able to concentrate on work at work and on my family at home. That was just my experience, but sometimes flexible employers really ends up meaning you can always work.

Its so very hard to be the "boss" at home and be 100% ON with your family and with housework and child care and discipline, and then go to work and fall behind on everything from productivity to efficiency to concentration to even social interactivity. I feel like a yo-yo and it batters my self confidence. I think this might be why its so hard for a lot of moms to go back to work. You have to wear two different hats and it never feels good going from one to the other.

I think that bringing your baby to work sets a wonderful precedent for working families. Even if it's a small step, you are working toward the change we need.

After much antagonism at work, and being told that I was no longer a team player - I opted for a career change. Before becoming a parent, I would have faced them square on until they recanted, but I had different priorities as a new mama. Maybe that is why social change is slow to happen for working mamas?

I know that as a boss, I would hire a mother over any other. No one can multi-task as well!

I have read this with interest as I am from the UK where we can have up to a year's maternity leave, and six month's maternity pay. After that we can request flexible working and parental leave.

I feel strongly that in the US there should be more maternity provision and/or flexible working. I feel really sorry that mothers feel they have have to leave their babies other at three months. For me, going back at six months felt too soon, and at 12 weeks I had barely mastered breast feeding after recurring mastitis. I just couldn't have contemplated going back full time at that stage. I could barely remember my name, let alone what I did for a living!

Just my twopence's worth anyway. Basically, I agree that bosses should give parent's of the under-twos a break because that's our real full time job.

They are some instances that we not that productive specially between those days that we are so stressed out in our work. Instead on focusing ones self to the income of the company why not try a new strategy to work out for both employers and employee. It also good to have some refreshments in the middle of stressful work.

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