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Making It Work

Back to the Office and Easing the Effects of Separation

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 25 No. 4, 2008, pp. 42-44

"Making It Work" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help mothers who wish to combine breastfeeding and working. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My baby is six weeks old, and I'm due to go back to work in six more weeks. I'm very torn; I never expected how much my baby would need me and I would need my baby. At the same time, there's no way I can quit my job at this point. What are ways I can help minimize the effect of the separation on the both of us? I have some (but not a lot) of flexibility in my workplace.

Mother's Response

It's so difficult to think about returning to work when your baby needs you so much. I worked full-time when my daughter was a baby and it was like having my heart torn out each day. Here are a few things that worked for us to minimize the effects of our separation.

First, continuing to breastfeed helped immensely. We could reconnect instantly when I sat down to nurse. It was amazing how all the frustrations of the day just melted away. Second, I was able to find a daycare less than five minutes from my workplace. This allowed me to go on my lunch hour to nurse my baby and play with her. It meant packing my lunch each day and eating at my desk so I'd have time to spend with my daughter, but it was worth it! (My first choice for daycare would've been with a family member, but that was not available.) It's not always possible to have the baby so close to your workplace, but I found the proximity was really helpful for my peace of mind. Third, I made a commitment to be home when I was home. In other words, my husband and I were very cautious about accepting invitations for activities where our baby was not welcome. We already spent so much time away from her that we didn't want to have even more separation. We also had a family bed at night so we could get in extra cuddle time. A side benefit was that I slept quite well even though my daughter nursed several times during the night. I was already exhausted from working and caring for a baby -- I personally can't imagine how I could have gotten any rest if I had to actually get up during the night to care for her.

It's hard to leave your baby with someone else each day. I found it helpful to think about all the ways that I could keep in touch with her -- pumping my milk, visiting during the day (which also let me keep an eye on her quality of care), and keeping her close to me in a sling or in bed when we were together. It can be a rough transition at first. I was fortunate that my manager allowed me to accrue some vacation days while I was pregnant, so I had almost three weeks of working half days when I returned to work. I think it helped us ease into the new routine. Again, this won't be possible for everyone, but it's something to consider.

Lastly, if there are LLL meetings in your area that fit your work schedule, go to them! I had a 40-minute drive to the closest evening meeting when I was working. Sometimes I thought about skipping it because I was so tired, but I was always glad I went. It's so helpful to have other women validate the effort you are making to breastfeed your baby, even when you have to work. If there are weekend or evening meetings in your area or if your schedule permits attending a day meeting, take advantage of them.

You are already doing a lot by breastfeeding and taking three months leave. No one likes the separation, but by focusing on being the best mom you can be, your baby will feel secure in your love. Good Luck!

Dawn Burke
Suwanee GA USA

Mother's Response

Wow, 12 weeks before you have to go back to work, that's great! I had the standard six weeks off for a vaginal delivery, and I was unwilling to stay home longer, as that would have been unpaid. With the increased food and energy costs this year (not to mention diapers, clothes, and daycare!) we definitely relied on my income.

I started checking my work emails from home when my baby, Karen, was about four weeks old. While still technically on maternity leave, this allowed me to build up hours for when I started back so I didn't need to work eight-hour days.

Karen went to daycare for the first time at seven weeks old. I worked from home in the morning, took Karen to daycare from about noon to 3 pm. I picked her up, brought her home and nursed, and worked more from home when my husband got home. This went on for a few weeks. I gradually began leaving for work earlier each morning, and my husband started picking Karen up from daycare. I still would need to be home by about 4:30 to nurse, but it gave me more "face time" at work.

What actually caused me to quit working from home in the morning was that Karen started nursing less, and so she started making noise during my meetings. She wanted me to play instead of staring at the computer and talking to the air (speaker phone). That was when I really started pushing toward getting into work in the morning every day, whereas before, there was usually one or two days a week where we got a late start and I would get to work around 11 or noon and stay later into the evening. It was great for flexibility, but it also felt like I was always working.

Now that Karen is one year old, she is mostly sleeping through the night, and I can get in to work by 8:15 am. Karen also nurses so much more quickly and eats breakfast at daycare, which helps speed up the morning routine. My supervisor has been very supportive of my gradual transition back to work, and I've had a very successful year.

I think the key is getting both parents involved to minimize your baby's time at daycare. That helped me to stay at work longer and not worry about my little girl not getting enough family time. With a little bit of flexibility, there really are some creative options, and possibly some combination of ideas that will work best for your family.

Edie McKelvey
Lake Jackson TX USA

Mother's Response

I remember being exactly where you are. When I was pregnant, I was expecting to return to work after 12 weeks and work my 50- and 60-hour weeks, just as I had been doing while I was pregnant. Even the day before my son was born, I had worked a 12-hour day. My career was a major part of my identity, and I expected it to continue to be even after I gave birth.

After my baby was born, I was shocked to discover how much I needed him near me. My career was suddenly so much less important. I left the house without him briefly when he was a few weeks old, and I teared up as I was walking out the door. It was clear that he needed me even more than I needed him. I didn't anticipate the strong biological connection we would share.

I also felt torn about my job, though, and my husband was very concerned about finances. We had foolishly bought a house while I was pregnant, and that was a new responsibility for us as well.

What surprised me, however, is how much flexibility I had in the workplace -- flexibility I hadn't known existed. I returned to work earlier than I had planned, but for fewer hours. I didn't work anywhere near full-time until my son was eating solids. I was able to gain that flexibility by showing my employer that I was committed to the organization, but I was dedicated to taking care of my baby the way I wanted to. That was not negotiable. My employer offered my husband and me the chance to work opposite shifts. I came in at night, and usually my baby came in with me, too. He wasn't a distraction for the other employees that way, and I got to keep him near me. My son fed from me exclusively. Sometimes, he would stay with my husband at home, but usually he was with me -- at least in the early months.

What is most interesting to me, however, is how my career actually seemed to do better once I had a child. I think I was more focused. I wasn't willing to just be at work for "face time." I had to be accomplishing something -- and I did. When my second child was born, however, I was unwilling to continue to juggle staff employment and mothering. Our family had gained in wisdom about the needs of a baby, and we'd also gotten savvier about finances. Ironically, now I have four children and I live in a much more expensive part of the country. Our income is about what it was 12 years ago when both of us were working full-time and couldn't imagine bringing home less!

Kathleen Whitfield
Los Angeles CA USA

Mother's Response

That is such a difficult place to be. Feeling trapped into something that goes against all your instincts and inner wisdom is truly torturous. Rather than "fix" that, I wonder if I can't add some meaning to it, instead.

Consider rephrasing your question about minimizing the effects of separation to, "How can I stay connected with my baby through the difficulty we'll both be experiencing, and reconnect at the end of a stressful day? How do I live with the stress, and how can I help my baby live with the stress?"

Breastfeeding is really one of the very best ways to ensure that you're getting reconnected every day. Sharing sleep can help a lot, as babies need a lot of physical contact with people to be emotionally okay, and that's one way to give a lot of physical contact without it taking time away from anything else. If the last thing you do before you leave for work, and the first thing you do when you get home, is snuggle and get a big overdose of skin-to-skin contact, you'll stay connected in a way that would be much more difficult otherwise.

Some moms find their babies switch around to doing most of their eating through the night, when mom's home, and sleep quite a lot when she's away. There isn't any reason to discourage this, apart from ensuring that mom is getting enough sleep to stay sane.

The more moms acknowledge the real emotions they're experiencing, the easier it is for them to stay open to the connection with their babies.

Linda Clement
Victoria BC Canada

Mother's Response

Talk to your employer about going back to work slowly. It might be possible for you to start in more of a part-time position, or take work home with you, or work a flexible schedule.

Breastfeeding is a great way to ease the separation. If you work close to the daycare provider, try to visit and nurse during lunch. Pumping while at work and then nursing when you are home is a great way to reconnect. Many working mothers find that sleeping close to their babies at night helps them get more sleep and respond to their babies needs faster. Finding La Leche League meetings in your area that take place in the evening or that are specifically for employed mothers is a great way to meet other mothers in a similar position. They can be wonderful sources of support to help you make the transition!

Jessica Sypolt
Herndon VA USA

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