Leaning In vs. Leaning Out….My Postpartum Return to Work

In May I started a very gradual return to the office after the birth of our daughter–now almost 5 months old. In many ways, I never took a formal maternity leave. As a consultant, I was fortunate to continue a significant part if my professional life from home. But as anyone who has ever worked remotely for any period of time can tell you–this set up only gets you so far. Even when all work deliverables are at their best, I crave professional interaction with my colleagues, networking and the knowledge sharing that is part of a regular day-to-day work life, particularly in a large diverse, organization. Even when I can log into a seminar remotely–it’s just not the same as being present. So, I have started going to office two half days every week.

That said, I love being a Mom at home! Life at home with Diya and this remote work setup has a nice, smooth routine with good stretches to work between nursing and napping and great play breaks throughout the day–not to mention the recent arrival of her Granny Sue staying with us for summer. It’s safe to say we have a comfortable equilibrium. She’s changing and growing everyday and its hard to imagine missing a second of these changes due to my desire to be at the office. At the office, I desire to get home as quickly as I can to be with her.
This blog is about striking that optimal work-parent balance.
Having followed the attachment parenting method to this point, my daughter and I have a physical attachment (and the breastfeeding dependence) which can be broken, but it creates a Crazy amount of unnecessary separation anxiety for both of us in doing so. Every parent and child is different, but I still feel that to return to work full time at this stage of her life would be denying her basic needs that she still has for physical maternal closeness, particularly breast feeding.
One of the best books on early parenting that I read was The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff. The concept is similar to attachment parenting. The researcher highlights parental behaviors of tribals and traditional societies around the world and shows several common threads in parenting behaviors–Notably, women continue to work in these societies and communities, starting immediately after the birth of their children, but they always have their children with them–often wearing them. Rather than taking exclusive time off for maternity leave and nursing–women manage these tasks along with their other responsibilities. Parenting isn’t as much about being with and entertaining their child as it is about being present and being a guide for socializing the child into the community from day 1. This also plays into how people view themselves as individuals vs. part of a collective . And this style of parenting very much relies on the latter. The continuum concept highlights this notion of a continuum between mother and child, as well as traditional and modern societies. The researcher shows how child rearing through what many in the US today view as “attachment parenting” and a bit of common sense-can produce healthy, happy independent children.
Taken with this concept–I have tried to maintain my regular work and life activities since D was born and tried to make her a part of these activies–from morning yoga and work to making dinner. I wear her her around the house and on outings. She now helps me stir batters in the kitchen and pick up stuff around the living room (carrying small objects as i wear her in the baby Bjorn). I’ve taken her into the office, and she’s probably pretty familiar with the Lotus Notes interface by now. We take plenty of time out to play, but I’ve tried to be more of a guide than a full-time playmate.
Most professional settings do not allow for this kind of working situation–at least not for any period of time. But If I have realized anything about professional working environments in 2013–if you’re good at what you do–you can create the working environment that best suits you. Employers in most professional settings are flexible, and good employees have the power to negotiate their ideal working environment. Women often feel they must face a trade-off between working and being a mother, and they do not question the traditional schedule set by their employers. In today’s working environment there’s really no need to face this trap. I encourage women in this situation to question the boundaries of the full-time work week and negotiate a schedule that works best for them.
The questions I now face–how to return to work and how much to work? The advice I’ve received goes full-spectrum–from not returning at all to “leaning in” and getting back into work asap.
When D was 2 months I picked up a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s book , Lean In, which definitely made me think, and even made me feel a bit of guilty remorse for not leaning in enough and maximizing all my work opportunities. Then after a few conversations with friends I received the wake up call: “Hello! You just had a baby and you still haven’t taken maternity leave! You are leaning in.” In some respects this is right, but for my classic type A persona–I can never be doing enough. Then as I analyzed Sandberg’s book and scrutinized it more closely, I realized that rather than questioning gender stereotypes and the traditional role of women in the workforce, this book is actually reinforcing them and suggesting that we, as women, need to be acting more and more like men in the workplace. It doesn’t gel with me. In response, it makes me feel more and more like LEANING OUT. I agree with the premise of looking for opportunities to grow in a profession, but not just to make it to the top, and certainly not at the expense of my relationship to my daughter and family.
A friend then shared this Bloomberg Review of the book with me. It proposes that perhaps men should be taking a lesson from women–and stepping back.
Whatever the situation–the bottom line here lies not in whether we choose to lean in or out, but in choosing the path that best works with an individual’s parenting style. It may be difficult, but it certainly isn’t impossible to be both a good mother and working professional. It just requires making one’s own path rather than letting others choose it.

Photo credit to Serendip Studio

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