Husband: The imperialist milk will not be tolerated by the proletariat.
Husband: The people will not take milk from your imperialist regime.
I stared blankly at my phone, reading his text messages three times before my jet-lagged brain understood. My son won’t take the bottle. I left them at the hotel in Shanghai hours ago for meetings.
Me: Have you tried warming it? Have you tried burping him first and rubbing his tummy?
Husband: I’m sorry, he just won’t drink it.
I felt sick. I reread the messages. The taxi stopped quickly, jolting me into the divider and back to present. I looked at the mirror and into the driver’s eyes. His mouth was moving. It took me a minute to realize I needed to pay. I tried to ignore the bad feelings — the what-were-you-thinking-feelings, while sifting through the metal in my bag.
Two fractured conversations and three security guards later, I accepted I was in the wrong place. My mind was on my little 8-month-old unable to eat, and my body was trying to get to a meeting with a client in a foreign land where I didn’t speak the language. I was in a sweaty near-sprint through crowded streets. Eventually my heels, heavy laptop, breast pump and self-consciousness slowed me down to a skip.
I found a new cab and pantomimed ‘wait’ with one hand, while calling for translation help so I could give him directions. I placed my phone against the driver’s ear, hoping the invasion of his personal space didn’t shut the whole thing down.
Convinced I would still get to my meeting on time, I focused on the breastmilk situation. I could return to the hotel in two hours. He would be okay. I breathed in deeply. I returned to note-taking, undaunted by the bumpy ride before my client visit.
After two days of nursing between meetings, my son took bottles. I pushed past the fatigue and reveled in Shanghai’s spectacular contrasts. Luxury shops sat within a block of traditional wet markets, where I could buy anything from fresh fruit to live eels. Slick skyscrapers were softened by barefoot musicians playing erhus on the street. Sightseeing and people who wanted to touch my son: his dark skin and curls raised gleeful curiosity. I learned the Chinese word for beautiful, piàoliang, a gift bestowed upon my infant, everywhere we went.
Five months earlier, my return to work was decidedly non-triumphant. Work had been my happy place, my fearless place. After 12 weeks feeling defeated by car seats and failed swaddles, I wanted to feel competent. At anything. Out of step with the corporate rhythm and aching for my baby, I struggled to find my footing.
Taking my son to China didn’t feel like a real choice. I was filled with hormones and hubris. Of course I would continue my international job … why wouldn’t I? Yes, with my son! The idea of leaving him was painful. Figuring out the logistics, how to feed him during my absence or handling two weeks’ worth of breastmilk from afar was more than my tired brain could process.
I had always considered my work challenging. However, in the U.S., it was like running on a treadmill in sneakers, at a reasonable temperature with a water bottle. In China, it felt like I was running through the forest, with a blindfold on, uphill … barefoot. It was thrilling and tested everything I had learned about negotiation and strategy. Sometimes, it was hard to come back.
Traveling with my family, though, I felt no real urgency to return home. The work and the people I was doing it with were all there.
I was facing a hurdle with my business partner in China, a headstrong CEO. We had fun and worked hard together. I was at a crossroads in the negotiation and advocated returning to Shanghai. I knew attempting the discussions by phone would be disastrous. At this point, I was near-obsessed with my goal, establishing my firm’s Chinese operation. My sleep-all-day-baby was an active toddler by then, making it impossible for my husband to work remotely during my meeting-filled trip. I scrambled to stitch together child-care I was comfortable with. I hired a Chinese ayi (nanny) for 10 days through a local agency and my sister-in-law for the second half. My employer agreed to cover the babysitting fees and I dismissed fears about the financial drain of yet another trip. My personal needs felt small against this complicated business challenge — the kind I liked best.
The deal happened. Barely. I loved seeing my best professional self again and was exhausted but dizzy with accomplishment when that phase ended.
The astronomical costs of traveling with my family etched a hole in our savings. At the time, I justified it as a career investment. I didn’t want motherhood to alter my work trajectory or image. But it was a huge sacrifice.
Now, employers vying for talent, provide better options to breast-feeding moms. Two years ago, The Washington Post reported the “newest benefit for working moms” was for companies to cover travel expenses for a caregiver and baby during the return to work transition. Now, companies are offering to ship breast milk when a new mother is on a business trip to allow for more work/life flexibility.
These perks are a positive shift. Striving for retention does not equal promoting growth. According to the CDC, nearly one-third of first-time moms are now over age 30, marking a steady increase in maternal age. With more women starting families later, the need to support mothers already established in demanding roles will expand.
Unfortunately, many opportunities for career growth are still wrapped in un-family-friendly packaging. Understandably, we scrutinize anything that reduces time with our kids, from networking events to travel. However, with almost two-thirds of American mothers primary, sole or co-breadwinners for their families, we can’t afford to stagnate professionally. Ambitious assignments can lead to more senior roles that ultimately offer greater flexibility and control. If traveling with your baby makes work/life integration feasible, ask your employer to help with the costs.
It’s been five years since my last China trip. It wasn’t easy and the use of savings made us financially vulnerable later. Despite the struggles, bringing my family (three visits in less than two years) enabled me to combine an extraordinary professional challenge with motherhood.
Many moms struggle with the return to work. The gloomy voice, in my foggy-new-mom-head, made me feel incompetent until I engaged in a project aligned to my strengths. Working in China helped restore my self-confidence and connection to my pre-baby identity.
Leslie Forde heads product marketing for an educational publisher and advocates self-care for Moms from her website, Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs.
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