Why Going Back To Work After Having A Baby Is Harder Than It Should Be

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Between 2015 and 2020, the amount of women working in high-level positions in corporate America rose by 5 percent — a great step forward in a still highly segregated work world.

But though there was an increase, only 21 to 28 percent of women hold those positions overall. This creates a challenge, especially for mothers who work full-time and often don’t have a say in what benefits they receive at work.

That translates to a lack of breastfeeding and pumping resources, paltry or non-existent paid parental leave, limited ability to care for the family and work at the same time, and sometimes a fear of job loss and limitations on advancement.

Medela, a breastfeeding awareness giant, launched Kin, a single-source solution for employers to support their employees when they return to work after having a baby.

"Women’s presence in leadership roles is not where it should be in many industries, for a variety of structural reasons," says Dana Kirwin, Director of Employer Groups at Medela. "Employers need solutions to help level the playing field and strengthen their pipeline of female talent. Kin can help employers support new moms and provide a positive culture for new parents so they can thrive at home and at work."

9 Powerful Women Share What They Wish They Knew Sooner About Being A Working Mom

So if you’re a new mother, are planning to be one, or have been in the game for a while, there are a few things women in leadership positions think you should know.

Because the challenges faced by working mothers are vast, here are some of the major issues and what you can do about them.

Childcare can be expensive and requires strategic planning in advance.

People often say that it takes a village to raise a child, and with childcare that’s absolutely true. It’s a struggle no matter how old your children are, but particularly when they’re young.

“Daycares have waitlists a mile long and you almost have to put your children on a waitlist before you even start trying to conceive,” says Nicole Rodriguez, the director of client operations at a Fortune 100 company. “In addition, the costs are so outrageous — but you also don’t want to go ‘cheap’ on your childcare.”

Christine Gillott, a global fraud manager for a worldwide food chain, has paid more than $500 per week for childcare. Despite the steep price, she wasn’t satisfied with the care her children received.

“I have had several situations with caretakers where they were not honest with me, and it completely makes me feel like I failed my daughter,” Gillott comments.

For working mothers of color, it's even more difficult. Black mothers earn 40 percent less than their white colleagues, leaving virtually no money to pay for childcare.

Since the 1970s, childcare costs have increased by a whopping 2,000 percent. And thanks to the pandemic, costs skyrocketed another 41 percent. That equates to $14,117 per child, annually.

To bridge the gap between expensive (and sometimes dicey) childcare programs and work, you have a few options.

Allison Price, director of learning experiences at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, has in-laws and parents who can watch her children a few days a week.

Rodriguez used private and in-home daycares, which can be a bit cheaper.

Jennifer Bealer, Progyny executive vice president and general counsel, who founded the company's Parents at Progyny group, suggests fitting the childcare facility to your needs. For example, one that has long hours, socialization, and outdoor time — to limit the list of places you’re looking through.

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Missing your children while at work should be expected.

It can be hard for women to leave their babies at home or daycare, especially if they’re crying out for their mom as you drive away. You’re going to miss your children, and it’s going to be difficult.

“When I returned to work after my maternity leave both times, I felt like my world was caving in on me,” Rodriguez says. “Leaving my sweet, new babies, who cannot yet speak to me or tell me if something is wrong and rely on me for everything, with someone else was gut-wrenching. The feeling of leaving your baby that first time is inexplicable.”

Tracy Lendi, a vice president of training and education who pushed for a women’s lounge at her office, adds that missing your kids can lead to resentment of your career. “I do get resentful of work because by the time I get home, I am too tired to play, or I have to ‘adult’ and get dinner and chores done,” she says.

There is some hope, though. While it never really goes away, you’ll start to miss your children less and enjoy your time apart more as they get older.

Many women and parents constantly worry about job security.

As a leader in the workplace, your job doesn’t stop. You’re constantly being asked to do more and sacrifice your work-life balance. For some new mothers, that leads to concerns about job security if they put their family first.

“No matter how much I do, how early I get up, or how amazing the quality of my work product is, I will always be seen as a ‘working mom’, which has a negative ring to some,” Lendi admits. “A working father is known as a ‘family man’ which sounds so much more stable.”

Rodriguez had a former boss tell her outright she needed to put her job before her children or risk losing her position. They even gave her a laptop to “be available” during maternity leave.

The kicker? The company’s vice president was a mother herself.

“That conversation was one I would never forget, and something I have carried with me as a leader in my own company today,” Rodriguez adds. “I have many working mothers under my leadership today and I will never make them feel like they have to choose between their job and their children or family.”

Black mothers, in particular, have an added level of job security stress. Half of all Black women workers are mothers, more than two-thirds of which are single working moms, yet there is a lack of protection when it comes to workplace exploitation. That means exclusion from maternity leave, paid sick leave, and health insurance.

Medela is trying to solve these problems by helping businesses welcome and accommodate working mothers.

“Medela is committed to helping employers get an easy, measurable way to show their commitment to working parents — and a competitive advantage by providing a supportive, family-friendly environment that attracts and retains employees," Kirwin states.

"Supporting new moms in the workplace is not only the right thing to do — it makes good business sense."

Employer shortcomings make it difficult to balance motherhood and career.

Virtually no job will supply everything everyone wants all the time, but some employers unfortunately really need to step up their game. Gillott would love to have a credit for childcare costs, for example.

Dana Bishop, an RN supervisor, hopes to one day see more resources for sick-child care and the ability to work at home when her child is ill.

In other cases, parents who adopt children aren't granted the same benefits as birth parents. This unique situation happened to Lendi.

“There was no support for adoptive parents with my organization. It is frustrating because if I were to birth my own child, my insurance through work would cover that. If I am adopting, I have to cover the medical expenses and living expenses for the birth mom. That is out of pocket," Lendi explains.

"I can do FMLA but that comes at a price with a reduction in salary. The benefit is I can keep my job title or a comparable when I come back.”

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Finding the perfect work-life balance means improvising.

Finding the right balance between your work life and being a mother can be difficult, but women are often expected to just "figure it out." You have to factor in your work hours, your commute time, your kids’ obligations, and your needy clients or colleagues.

“There just isn’t enough time in a day,” Bishop comments.

Bishop has her older children help with chores at home to allow for more valuable time spent together when she isn’t working. But there’s always a push and pull, which Price describes as determining “what is the least inconvenient inconvenience this week.”

The other big problem with work-life balance? Sleep. You never get enough of it, especially as a brand new mother.

Price and Rodriguez relied on lunchtime naps, whether that was 30 minutes behind a closed office door or an hour-long sleeping session in the backseat of the car.

Gillott uses lists and a detailed calendar to keep herself on task when she’s tired. Bishop does the same, and supplements it with caffeine.

Career advancement feels impossible at times.

Depending on the company and bosses, career advancement while being a working mom can seem a little out of reach for some.

Lendi notes that people make assumptions about her personal goals at work, but they never actually ask her what she wants to do. “People just assume that you are overextending and could not handle any more,” she says.

For Bishop, because she works for a 24/7 operation, she struggles handling issues that happen on the nights or weekends, something she thinks might hinder her advancement at work.

Black mothers face even more challenges here; studies show that promotion levels for Black women are dramatically lower than other employees.

Breastfeeding as a new mother poses a new set of challenges in the workplace.

According to a survey from Kin, 87 percent of moms plan to continue breastfeeding or pumping when they return to work, but roughly half of working mothers are concerned about the safety and sanitation of facilities, and one-quarter of women don’t have any dedicated space supplied by their employer to pump.

“My first maternity leave, I pumped through a lot of meetings, some of which were even in person,” says Price, who has privately worked with human resources at her company to secure nursing rooms. “Fortunately, I was surrounded by tons of coworkers who were supportive and encouraging, and never made me feel like a bad employee for taking time to pump, or a bad mom for not wanting to miss a meeting.”

Finding an appropriate time to pump is difficult for many mothers. Every three or four hours, you’ll likely have to pump, and if you don’t, that can be bad news for your baby — and your body. In fact, some moms suffer from severe discomfort or infections if they don't pump on schedule.

“My kids all weaned earlier than I wanted to because I couldn't pump as much as I needed to and my supply suffered,” Bishop adds.

Bealer thought of it like adding three meetings to her day. For her, she struggled with logistics.

She needed her equipment clean and ready to go, and needed a spot that was quiet with a door that locked. Because the pumps make noise, she tried to schedule time to just reply to emails while she was pumping. And managing and finding a place to store the milk itself could be a problem as well.

“Once, I had leaned over to grab some papers while pumping and spilled milk on my dress right before a work dinner,” Bealer says. “After working so hard to pump and work, and balance everything, crying over spilled milk is totally OK sometimes, especially when it’s yours!”

Kin is aiming to combat these issues and help moms who breastfeed.

In the workplace, specifically, they help mothers advocate for private nursing pods. Kin also provides 24/7 virtual support from lactation consultants as needed, alongside access to other pediatric experts.

And if you're ever caught without your supplies or a way to get your milk home, there's no need to worry — Kin also offers the best breast pumps, cleaning products, and a milk shipping service.

“Parents shouldn’t have to choose between returning to work and continuing to provide breast milk to their baby," says Kirwin. "Medela is committed to being an advocate for women and new parents in the workplace, while also making it easier for employers to do the right thing and support their employees when they return to work after baby.”

RELATED: Why So Many Moms Dread Returning To Pre-Covid Times — And How We Can Support Them

7 Powerful Ways Female Professionals Can Advance Their Careers

Being a mother doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your job. For professional women who also happen to be mothers, there are a few ways to advance your career while also tackling the challenges of being a parent.

1. Don’t change your work identity.

Becoming a mother doesn’t mean you need to compromise your position at work, and if you don’t want to identify solely as a working mother, you don’t have to. Remind your company that you have a job you’re there to do, and you’re going to do it.

“Mothers have tremendous skills, and there is nothing wrong, unprofessional, or unseemly about reminding employers in any setting or circumstance about this,” says Julie Schwietert Collazo, the co-founder and executive director of Immigrant Families Together, and a leader who always welcomes children at meetings and events.

Rodriguez agrees, adding, “Don’t ever let someone make you feel like you have to choose one or the other. A good company and a good leader will never make you do that. It is absolutely possible to do both, and if you are career-driven while also wanting to be a mother, find a place that will support that.”

2. Don’t think you need to be a superhero.

That being said, don’t worry if you can’t do everything all at once. You can’t be everything to everyone all the time, and if you need to change your goals to reflect that, there’s no shame in it.

“The best thing I have learned as a working parent is that no one else's pace is yours, and that your goals can change with the times,” Price adds. “I have become much better at living one day at a time. Make peace with your timeline or your goals changing. It doesn't mean they don't matter, it just means you're adapting based on new information and situations. That is not weakness, that is strength.”

3. Never be afraid to ask for help.

You aren’t alone, and you definitely aren’t the first working mother.

Gillott suggests remembering that some of the most powerful women, like Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Hillary Clinton, were both working mothers — and they didn’t do it alone!

You have a network and colleagues, so don’t be afraid to call on them when you need them.

4. Remember that this is just one stage of your life.

New mothers can easily become overwhelmed with the amount of work they need to do, both on the job and at home. But keep in mind that it’s just one stage of many, and soon enough, that stage will pass, and the next one will likely be easier.

If you need to focus on your family more and on work less at some points, that’s fine; just be honest with both yourself and your employer about what you can handle at any given moment.

“That way, you never find yourself in a position where you could lose your job or cannot succeed because you jumped too far ahead too fast,” Rodriguez advises. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

RELATED: Why Including Women In The Boardroom Is So Vital Right Now

5. Ignore societal expectations.

The reality of living in a patriarchal society without full gender equality is that women are often expected to be just a mother, and to shut down every other part of their life when they have children in order to do so.

But desiring professional growth is not a bad thing, and is important for your children.

“I believe that to be a good mother to my son, I have to fulfill my professional goals and desires,” says Karen Hauck, the chief operating officer of a major company, who initiated a breastfeeding program at her workplace.

“To work to be the best version of myself for the world. To help others achieve their best versions. This includes my son, but also those I work with and the clients/industries we serve. A woman can be the COO of a multi-million dollar company and be a loving, caring, nurturing mother,” Hauck adds.

6. Recognize and respect your limits.

Having a child means you’re taking on a lot of responsibility, much more than you had before. It’s OK to know that you have limits and to acknowledge them.

Keep them in mind as you work, and be upfront and open about them. Some people will try to take advantage of your newfound responsibility outside the office, but if you keep communication open, they won’t be able to.

7. Pick and choose your goals.

You don’t need to do everything all at once. Try to spread out your goals and work toward one thing at a time, so you don’t get overwhelmed.

“It's a matter of priorities, temporary pain for significant gain, and what your goals are for yourself professionally and what you want your home life to be like,” Bishop recommends.

It doesn’t mean your other goals aren’t important, just that you’re giving yourself some extra space and time to achieve them properly.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that women and mothers are powerful members of the workforce.

Though working can be a struggle sometimes — whether you’re frustrated you don’t have the resources to be there for your kids, or your child feels the same way — showing your children that you can work and parent at the same time sends a strong message that they can do anything they want, and even enact change if they try hard enough.

The bottom line in all of this? Whether a mom is working or not, it doesn't mean they're a better mother; they're just dealing with a different set of challenges.

So while it can feel trying and frustrating to be at work and away from your children, remember that you're doing the best you can and are setting a great example for your child.

Kin is here for all of it, too. That means consistent virtual support and access to pediatric experts.

And for breastfeeding mothers, Kin will help you advocate for better resources to breastfeed at work. They've even drafted a letter you can share with your employer to push for better spaces and better benefits.

“The time is now to make real change and improve equity in the workplace," Kirwin notes.

Additionally, there is a national movement for paid parental leave. Medela has partnered with PL+US, advocating for leave for new parents, along with White House advocates.

"Too many women and new parents don't get the support needed — parental leave and support for them to be able to breastfeed when returning to work. No mother should feel forced to choose between her career and how she feeds her baby.”

-Created in partnership with Medela

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Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer and best-selling author who loves writing at length about her niece and nephews, and covering mental health issues that relate to families in every stage. She's been published in The New York Times, Smithsonian, Wired, and National Geographic Traveler.