This Fall, I celebrated my first anniversary of returning to work after becoming a first-time mother. Ironically, in the same month, I started a new job. In retrospect, it’s not a coincidence.
They say the first year is the hardest for significant life changes. It’s a period of unknowns, new obstacles, and inevitable mistakes made along the way. And frankly, since I don’t have much to compare it to at this point, I’d say year one of being a working mom was quite the cluster.
Within six months of returning to work, my husband needed hernia surgery, and I found myself now caring for an even bigger baby than the one I gave birth to a few months prior. My constant companion Hazel, the beagle/basset mix that no mere mortal could resist loving was diagnosed with throat cancer. Sadly, we had to put her down. Then last, but certainly not least, we were told my infant son needed surgery.
Three strikes and I was out.
I was about ready to give up and quit my job.
But I recalled so many times playing sports growing up that my parents would tell me: you have to finish what you started.
Also, I reflected on my mother, who is and was an incredible working mom. Giving up would not be following in the amazing example she set for me.
I wasn’t going to let all these curve balls life was throwing me take me out of the game. I enjoyed my work and knew that I had so much more to give, grow, and achieve in my career. If and when I decide to stop working, I want to be like the sports greats that went out on top and retired on their own terms (looking at you, Elway).
Eventually, as time passed and the storms seemed to settle, I found myself celebrating an important milestone: over a year back at work post-baby. That’s huge because, according to the Harvard Business Review, 43% of highly-qualified women with children are leaving careers for a period of time. With those odds, I may have been better served pursuing the professional athlete track.
I realized this was an important milestone that was worthy of introspection. I had a few battle wounds, and I certainly did not get a trophy. Still, I consider successfully finishing the first lap in this marathon called working motherhood worthy of celebration and reflection on everything I learned this past year.
With that said, here are the five things I learned.
You are your own commissioner and referee.
Remember, you make the rules of the game. Besides, you should not feel bad about setting boundaries that are going to work best for you and your family.
Flexibility at my job was no longer a luxury; it was a necessity.
This caused me to explore other job opportunities that worked for my family so I could be there for them when they needed me.
For example, my son’s daycare required he be picked up by 5 pm. For every minute you were late, you were charged ten dollars. Factoring in the work commute and accounting for extra time in case of traffic or an accident, this meant I had to leave work at 4 pm every day.
In searching for a new job, I made this newfound constraint a priority to discuss before accepting a new position. I prefaced by sharing with potential employers that I would plan to start my day earlier than my colleagues and leave slightly earlier to remain at 40 hours a week. I was very upfront and honest with my new employer about not only what I needed, but how I proposed to make sure I still fulfilled my job responsibilities. This was also a test of my new employer in a sense. If I loved the job, but they had an issue with the hours, then it wasn’t going to be the right fit for me.
At first, I battled guilt internally, thinking this made me a “lesser” employee. However, as the year progressed and I was thriving in my role, I realized though my rules of the game may look different than my peers, that doesn’t mean I am not worthy of being in the same league.
Your scoreboard may look a little different.
Just as the rules of the game may have changed, I found that my idea of success and happiness in my career also changed. How many hours I worked that week, the caliber of client accounts I worked on, how many business trips I went on and other metrics that I consciously or subconsciously used to score my happiness and success in my career started to look different after my rookie year of being a working mom.
My new scoreboard included scoring myself on questions like:
- Was I present at work while in the office?
- Did I get home every day at 5 pm?
- Was I present for my family while at home?
- Did I feel challenged in my job without being overwhelmed?
- Was I able to take that week of vacation with my family as planned without checking email every hour?
- Did I see my role at my company as a long-term option to support my family?
I learned that it’s important to define my own measure of success and not to let others define it for me or pass judgment on our differences.
What works for your peer may not work for you, and that’s okay.
The people on your team won’t always be wearing the same jersey.
Shared experiences don’t always equate with sisterhood. I thought knowing other working mothers would somehow magically create this special team that we were always part of together. However, in my first year as a working mom, I realized that you need a well-rounded team to support you.
Just because someone is a working mom doesn’t mean they are always going to share your values and may not be the best person to draft to your team. When I returned to work after a much-appreciated 20-week maternity leave, one of the first things the head of PR said to me was, “the maternity leaves now are crazy. Back in my day, I was back in the office after six weeks, doing my job.” This comment wasn’t meant to be harmful, but it did imply the “suck it up and get back to work” old school mentality.
In contrast, there were a number of my colleagues who didn’t have children that were incredibly supportive and often asked how I was doing, how my child was doing, and to see the many baby pictures I had on my phone.
I learned that it’s important to surround yourself with an all-star, supportive team and not to assume that people whose lives look different than yours won’t understand your struggles. Similarly, you should not assume that people whose lives are more similar to yours will have the compassion or provide the support you need.
You may start to understand Dennis Rodman.
It’s inevitable, whether you are a working mom, stay at home mom, or something in between, at some point in your first year of motherhood, you will probably lose your mind. You might even find yourself starting to relate to the infamously-unhinged former basketball player Dennis Rodman. Is he really that out there? He may just have a newborn at home…
It may be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
There will be numerous moments/days at work where:
- You cry because you are frustrated or stressed
- You miss a deadline
- You feel like your brain is mush (sleep deprivation tends to do that)
- You feel overwhelmed like you can’t possibly get everything done on your to-do list
- You doubt yourself
- You want to throw your hands up and quit
Make it through the first year; I promise, some things get easier.
Think of your first year of motherhood as your 2007 Britney Spears moment. It’s going to be rough, but you will get through it, stronger than yesterday.
There is no “I” in team, but there is a “me.”
Your life is not more important than others, but it is different, and that’s okay. In my first year of being a working mom I vividly recall a conversation I had with my manager. When I had a planned commitment with my family and couldn’t cancel for an after-hours work emergency, I was told that it came off as if my time was more valuable than my teammates. This caught me completely off-guard because every minute since becoming a mother, I had been giving my time to someone else, constantly prioritizing someone else’s needs over mine. From the moment I woke up to the minute my head hit the pillow, I was giving my time to either my child, husband, co-workers, friends or family as best I could.
The hardest punch to the gut for many moms is being told they are selfish.
To be part of a successful team, of course, you can’t act in your own self-interest all day, every day. Even Lebron can’t win a game single-handedly. However, that also doesn’t mean that you are selfish for prioritizing the needs of your family when necessary.
What helped me to get through the challenging times in my rookie year as a working mom was repeating the mantra, “Work is part of my life; work is not my entire life.” My career is important to me, but other aspects of my life are important to me as well.
At the end of the day, my family members are my MVPs.
Caroline Prettyman is a Digital Account Strategist at Whittington Consulting in Richmond, Virginia. Caroline studied Business and Marketing at the VCU School of Business, graduating in 2013 with a Bachelor of Science. She considers herself an “ad woman” with heart and enjoys Zumba, yoga, anything on the water, and all things digital. Caroline is a full-time working mom who lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, dog, and 2-year-old son.