How to Handle 'The Return'

By Amy Joyce
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Today is Mother's Day, but my big day isn't until June 19. If all goes well, I'll hold our firstborn, a baby boy, in my arms around then. Meanwhile, my career will go on hold for six months and possibly change forever -- depending on how I handle The Return.

Which, of course, is the question that looms for every working woman who stands on the threshold between the cubicle and the crib. To stay at home or return to the job? To return to the old job or consider a new one? And how, while pondering the pros and cons of a pacifier-free home, not to spend more time brooding that the old job might be filled by a baby-free hotshot?

This step into parenthood (which I share with my husband, an editor at The Washington Post) is something I've expected for most of my life. I've always known that I wanted children, but I've also always known that I wanted to work. I'm looking forward to a generous leave, yet I'm worried about what I'll do when I come back.

Because I will come back to work. Definitely.

Um, right?

I've spent the past five-plus years writing the "Life at Work" column in the Business section of The Post. Every Tuesday, I host a Web chat about people's lives on the job. Many of the questions I receive go something like this: I'm pregnant, and that's all anyone at work wants to talk to me about. I fear I've just become the "pregnant lady." How do I make the conversation about the job instead? How do I ask my employer about a flexible schedule without looking like I don't care about work? If I take a part-time position, will I still be considered a contender? The salary my nonprofit pays me is less than my nanny's salary; does that mean it's time to give up and stay at home?

Pah. These simple questions. I know enough about equal-employment laws to say what employers can and cannot do. After that, it's all common sense: Steer the subject away from babies. Make them remember why you get a paycheck. A flexible schedule doesn't necessarily mean you'll work less. Part-time work is still a career. If work is important to you, figure out how to do what you want. Easy.

But now I suddenly want to know: Where's my career-advice columnist?

So many people tell me things will change after the baby is born. And I know I don't really get it yet. I don't get what they're feeling when they describe an intense nostalgia as they give me the Gymini play mat their child has outgrown. I can't fathom the tug they say almost made them quit their jobs at the end of their maternity leaves. And I can't understand completely what it must feel like to want to rush home when there's always another story to work on.

The truth is, at 33, I can't imagine life without a career. I think I'll be a better mother because I have a job, showing my son that women can be mothers and workers, good cooks and great policymakers, football tossers and reporters.

And yet, as sure as I am of these things, I'm equally unsure about what to do. Which kind of surprises me.

People started asking me questions early. Not about what name we might choose or what diapers we'll buy; instead, they want to know how much time I'll take off from work, whether I'll come back, and, if so, whether I'll come back to the same job. I stutter and stumble in response. I couldn't even tell my boss recently whether I'll leave on my due date or work until the contractions start. Part of me is drawn to the idea of going home and trying this "nesting" thing I've been told since my second trimester I'd want to do. (Still waiting.) Another part of me doesn't want to go on leave so early that I'm sitting at home, staring at the diapers we've stocked, wondering if our child will be an "up to 10 pounds" or a "10 to 14 pounds" when I could be squeezing in just . . . one . . . more . . . column.

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