Mom to Vivian (3) and Ria (5 months)
Occupation: Counsel, Crowell & Moring LLP
Length of Mat Leave: 18 weeks
What was your experience like returning to work after having your children? How has COVID impacted that?
I went back to work for about one month before COVID hit. My husband took a month of paternity leave to stay home with our youngest, and after that she was in daycare for just one week before we were all sent home.
That first month back, I experienced physical anxiety like I never had before in my life (despite having the most supportive boss, teammates, and clients, many of whom are moms themselves). I had been promoted while on maternity leave and was returning to a position with more responsibility and more projects than I'd had when I left. I had to remember again how to get back into a pumping routine, and prevent the low supply issues I'd faced with my first daughter. I was stressed about my ability to juggle the additional responsibility at work along with my additional kid.
Then COVID happened, and the delicate stability I'd reached by the end of that first month disintegrated, as it did for so many others. At the time we thought it would be for a few weeks. I wasn't worried. I thought, "Of course, everyone will realize there is no way to do this. We can't possibly be expected to operate this way longer than a couple weeks." And now here we are. It's hard to believe we're almost at six months of two adults balancing two jobs and two kids under the age of four with no help.
What do you find difficult about being a working parent?
COVID has taken every anxiety and stressor about being a working parent and magnified it exponentially. Before the pandemic, I was anxious about moving forward in my career while still being the mother I wanted to be. I had a decent balance by working part-time when my older daughter was a baby. But even on a reduced schedule, I didn't feel confident that there could possibly be enough of me to make both my daughters feel loved and supported. I had a strong sense of guilt about how much attention I'd been able to lavish on Vivian, and struggled to figure out how to carve in that same special time for Ria, who was about five months old and still seemed so tiny.
Working parents often talk about feeling like they are failing at everything because they can't focus on doing any one thing really well. With COVID, the situation we found ourselves in was essentially: You felt like a failure before? Well, now try doing your job without child care, with your kids' routines, friends and other trusted adults taken away, amid a backdrop of a global pandemic, utterly inadequate leadership, and mass confusion about what's safe and what's not. Try focusing on calls while your three year old is crying "I lost my school and my friends," and can't understand what happened to her life. I can barely understand it myself, let alone try to explain it to her. The hardest part of the last five months is the sadness I've felt for the loss in my daughter's life, coupled with my own exhaustion and inability to do much to make it better for her.
I'm lucky and privileged in many ways, with a strong community of other parents in my workplace, a supportive employer, and an equal partner in my husband. My husband and I have our education and stable jobs and are not in danger of losing our home. So many families are not in this position. It breaks my heart and makes me furious. My biggest takeaway from this crisis has been that in our time of need, the government essentially told American families that we are on our own. That's always been true in many ways: we don't have paid parental leave, our child care costs are astronomical, and we lack a basic social safety net. This individualistic, every person for themselves mentality has never been more harmful to our society and our kids' futures. We can do a lot better for our families.
What do you enjoy about being a working parent? Any silver linings it you're working from home?
I truly enjoy my job and I'm good at it. I work with wonderful people and have great relationships with my clients. That has been one saving grace during this time, and I'm grateful for it. While the pandemic has completely upended my three year old's life, having both of us work from home has actually worked out pretty well from the baby's perspective. Ria is still exclusively breastfeeding between my conference calls and has her three favorite people around her at all times. I haven't had to deal with pumping all day or worry about how she's adjusting to daycare.
We've been present for all her milestones, from moving to solid food to first words and now she's getting ready for her first steps. When I can muster the energy and creativity, it's been fun occasionally organizing educational activities for Vivian, like our baking soda/vinegar play-doh volcano (she was transfixed) or painting huge butcher paper murals. I've learned so much more about her developing personality, from the jokes and songs to the tantrums and defiance.
It's also really strengthened the partnership between my husband and me. His employer has provided COVID-specific caregiving leave, which he's been taking to be able to care for our kids for 4+ hours a day so I can work. We have never had to communicate so much to coordinate our conference call schedules with the baby's nursing/nap schedule and now my older daughter's virtual school schedule. We talk every evening after they're in bed about how it's going, what needs to change, what the day looks like tomorrow and what we both need. We're more careful not to throw blame on each other when something goes awry, because we literally only have each other to rely on! We've had many, many conversations about what we want our family's values to be, how we want to talk to our girls about race, and what we are going to do to get out the vote in November.
In some ways, despite the stress, guilt and panic that we've often felt since March, this time with our girls has been a gift. We'll never look back and feel like we missed out on time with them at this age. I hope when they grow up they will remember feeling safe and secure in our home despite the craziness going on outside. I would love for them to see our example and know that they're capable of having beautiful kids and fulfilling careers, even through unforeseeable circumstances. Mostly I hope the world is better by the time they have their own careers.
After being back at work for some time, have your views about career and family changed?
I have more perspective this time. Even though I feel more general anxiety with two kids than I did with just one, I have more faith that things will settle down and that we'll eventually find our groove. I remember so vividly how much better things got when my first daughter was four months old and the "fourth trimester" finally ended. Then at six months everything about breastfeeding got easier. Then she started crawling and walking and became this interesting and fun toddler. It just kept getting better and better. And I remember when she turned one, I finally felt like I could exhale and believe that she was actually thriving.
So even now when things feel overwhelming, I remind myself that I just have to hang in there and wait for things to get better and better. If it's tough to feel creative at work or to have energy to play in the evening, I know with more certainty that this is a phase, it's not forever, that the kids and I are constantly growing and changing and learning.
Knowing what you know now, what’s one thing you wish you could go back in time and tell yourself as you were preparing to return to work or getting ramped up in your role?
Having two kids has forced me to let go of any last remnant of perfectionism. For most of my life, perfectionism has been this voice in my head that has always convinced me that I'm not good enough yet. That if only I can get to the next stage in my career, or move into a larger, nicer home, or achieve some milestone, then I can finally feel comfortable and safe. It's a lie, a race I'll never win.
I wish I could have let go of perfectionism sooner - to tell myself that what I have to give to my family and my job is good enough. It takes constant practice to acknowledge and recognize perfectionist thoughts, and replace them with self-compassion. My goal is to be kinder to myself because that's how I'd want my daughters to treat themselves.
What did you choose for childcare, and how has it been for your family?
Daycare prior to COVID, and we just hired a nanny for the first time to get us through the duration of the pandemic.
Do you have any tips on working from home with a newborn?
Try and shift the baby to a consistent nap schedule sooner rather than later. This becomes easier after 3-4 months. If it's possible and you have a partner, work in shifts. When it's your child care shift, try and keep your phone away if it's at all possible, because attempting to do all the work and child care things at the same time is a good way to go nuts. I realize this is not realistic with all jobs.
Schedule 10 minutes of buffer time between conference calls so you are not back to back (for example, 20 minute calls instead of 30 minutes or 50 minutes instead of a full hour). You can use that ten minutes to drink water, feed your baby, change a diaper, whatever you need to do. Wraps and baby carriers are the best for forcing a nap when it's needed.
Don't stay up unnecessarily late scrolling through the news. If you're nursing and you have a partner, coordinate the partner giving one bottle overnight so you can have a longer stretch of sleep.
Anything else you'd like to share on motherhood or how you're doing navigating COVID?
One thing I've really taken to heart was from Glennon Doyle's amazing video telling parents not to worry about screen time during the pandemic. In the video she says not to worry too much about how the day went, but just try to "finish strong."
She says kids remember their general feeling about how the day went but not many details about the middle. I've really taken that to heart. No matter how crappy our day was, we put our girls to bed every night with the same routine and emphasize how much we love them and talk about the exciting things we'll do tomorrow. We finish strong, get as much sleep as we can, and try again the next day.