by Patrice Sosoo
Something interesting happens when you become pregnant. Out of nowhere, everyone becomes an expert in parenting and doles out unsolicited advice like candy on Halloween. Some of it good and helpful, but a lot of it makes you question how these people were able to keep a child alive.
Armed with my own research, I felt good about becoming a mother for the first time. We welcomed Kingsley, our son, four weeks before his due date on January 26, 2017. Like all new parents, we experienced lots of WTF moments, but between our village and all-knowing Google, we had a good handle on things. To top this off, my employer increased our maternity leave policy right before I gave birth. It went from three months to six months and so, I spent 26 weeks in a blissful baby bubble of: eat, sleep, poop, repeat.
As my time at home was coming to an end, something dawned on me: not one person gave me advice on how to transition back into the workplace as a mother. I didn’t sweat it too much, I naively thought, “things will be just like they were before.” I’ve never been more wrong about anything in my life. I spent the first month back at work, silently crying in the bathroom stalls. Here’s the advice I wish someone shared with me on balancing motherhood and my career:
You are not the same person. Prior to baby, I was ambitious, eager to climb the corporate ladder and willing to put in the blood, sweat and tears to get to the top. I still consider myself ambitious but my priorities have shifted. Instead of staying late in the office to finish up a project (and let’s be honest, put in face time for the higher ups that value that sort of thing), I had to run out the door by 5PM to pick up my son. Guilt was a constant companion of mine as I tried to do everything the same way I did pre-baby, and failed. Raging hormones, a post-baby body, new priorities, increased family responsibilities and a relentless workload were all happening at the same time. A little voice inside of me kept saying “this is too much.” I should have listened to that voice, and exercised patience with myself.
Ask for help. I’m a strong believer in, if you want something done right, do it yourself. I planned my own wedding, my first baby shower and I even have my own funeral planned because if Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” isn’t playing on repeat, I’m going to haunt my family and friends. Anyways, that do it yourself mentality flew right out of the window after Kingsley was born. I tried to continue at the same breakneck speed as before but little tasks started to slip through the cracks, and when I did get to complete a project, it wasn’t up to my typically sky-high standards. I wish I raised my hand more and relied on my team and supervisor to help lighten the load. Asking for help meant I was working smarter, not harder.
Slow down. According to some experts, the average mind processes 60,000-80,000 thoughts per day (consciously and subconsciously). According to me, the average mind of a working mother processes one million thoughts per day. Between worrying if taking time off with your baby hurt your career trajectory to what you’re going to make for dinner that night, our minds are constantly racing to figure out how we are going to accomplish it all. It’s overwhelming to cross off one task, only to add four more to the never-ending to-do list. Today, I tell new moms heading back to work to pick three things that need to be accomplished each day, and crush that list. Don’t set yourself up for failure with an unrealistic to-do list of 20-30 items. As you find your balance, you can add more, but start slowly.
Set boundaries. “Can you look at this before you go?” “Do you have time to talk about this project for 5 minutes?” These were the requests I would get around 4:45pm, right before I needed to run out and pick up my child. I already felt guilty leaving “early” since most people stuck around the office until 6/6:30pm. It didn’t matter that I was going home only to get back online and finish working after I cooked dinner and put my son to bed. This resulted in me becoming burned out in a matter of weeks. I had to refocus and push back on these little requests that could wait until the next day. I also had to be more realistic and upfront with people about my time. Of course, there are some unavoidable emergencies, but I didn’t need to treat everything as a fire drill. Give your coworkers your full attention when you’re in the office and when you’re home, shut down the laptop and do the same for your family.
The biggest lesson I learned is to put my oxygen mask on first.
When I’m not happy and operating at 100%, things fall apart. Not just for me, but for the people depending on me too, like my family or my team at work. I am deliberate about stealing little moments of joy to recharge, like making sure I have lunch away from my desk every day to connect with coworkers, or closing the bathroom door at home to complete my nightly skincare routine. As I prepare to head back to work after baby number #2, I look forward to putting my own advice into practice. I encourage all working moms around me to do the same.