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Back to Work, Leaving Baby and Peace of Mind Behind

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Want to know what hurts way more than childbirth?

The first time you leave your baby to go back to work.

At least for me, it did. After 12 weeks of maternity leave, I went back to the office a couple of weeks ago. What a shock.

I was prepared, in the abstract. After all, I had a lot of advantages, I thought. I was lucky to be working for a great company that allowed me to take as much leave as I did, with pay. (Most American moms don't have that.) I have a great child-care arrangement for my daughter, Irene. She's mainly with her father, with a part-time nanny to cover the hours neither of us is available. I even have an understanding boss who was willing to let me ease into returning to the office full time by working at home part of the day.

But none of that mattered. The first day, she cried the whole time I was gone. I struggled not to cry myself. By the end of the week, I felt as if I had been pulled in a thousand different directions -- and that I had done a lousy job at everything.

I love my work. And I don't consider my salary optional. So I know we have to pull this off. After all, millions of mothers across America do this every day, right? So in the hope that the weeks to come could go more smoothly, I asked some more-experienced moms for their tips about making the back-to-work transition.

Here's what they had to say:

· Ease back into it. When Suzanne Dove, a program manager in Madison, Wis., who used to live in Fairfax, returned to her old job at a federal agency when her now-21-month-old daughter was 4 months old, she started by working half time. Her husband also had flexible hours, so they could minimize the time the baby spent away from her parents. "She was only in day care a few hours a day, which let her get used to it -- and let us get used to it." This is an option that's not available to all parents. But if you're lucky enough to have it, take it. And at least ask your employer for some leeway. You might be pleasantly surprised at the arrangement you can work out -- without hurting your career prospects long term.

· Telecommute, if possible. When she returned to full-time work, Dove worked from home two days a week. Her daughter was still in day care those days, but because it was nearby, Dove was able to stop by and nurse her when she was hungry instead of pumping breast milk and sending bottles. She said she was grateful to have an understanding boss who helped her work out a schedule.

· Develop simpler routines."I find that I have to be so much more organized," said Inger Moran, an administrative assistant who lives in Arlington. "When I was not working, I could always say to myself, 'I'll go do that later.' Now, even though I work 20 hours, I have to schedule everything. If I don't, it all slips by." And it also helps to minimize all other responsibilities and activities. "We pared down a lot of stuff, so that we could have more time together," Dove said.

· Share the care. When you're at home full time and your partner has returned to work, it's easy to take over the household chores as well as handling the child-care duties. You can't keep this up once you have returned to work. Moran said that she had to make a point of asking for help with the laundry and dishes once she started working again. "As a stay-at-home mom, I just did it all, no questions."

It's best to talk about this new division of labor explicitly and find ways to make it easier. Dove and her husband chose a day-care provider near their home rather than one of their jobs so either one could handle drop-offs and pickups.

If neither parent has the time to cover chores, hire someone. Dianne Lane, a consultant in Manassas, said a housekeeping service was essential. "I have figured out how much it costs me per hour and how many hours it would take me to do the same thing (if I could find the time to do it), and there is no contest -- it is worth it," she wrote in a recent e-mail.

· Separate work and baby."I didn't spend a lot of time at work thinking and talking about my daughter," Dove said. "I found that when I thought a lot about my baby, I really missed her and felt sad and less productive. Instead, I tried to just focus on my work to finish and then go home (and tried not to log on to e-mail after putting the baby to bed!)."

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