“I told my colleagues about how you’re already back at work, and they were shocked,” my postnatal doula said as she cradled my newborn son while I worked on an article. “But then I explained that you’re American.” Ah, yes. It’s true: I’m a single mom who went back to work six weeks postpartum — and I have a lot of regrets about it, too. How truly American of me.
Although I am American, I live in the U.K., which prides itself on offering generous maternity leave. Here, statutory maternity leave is 52 weeks, and that can be shared with your co-parent of any gender. Under statutory maternity pay, which covers 39 weeks, eligible moms receive 90% of their standard pre-tax weekly income for the first six weeks — then £145.18 (about $192 U.S.) or 90% of their pre-tax weekly income, whichever is lower, per week for the next 33 weeks. Many employers also offer maternity schemes that offer more substantial pay and benefits, but this of course varies. While I don’t know any Americans who took more than five months off work after giving birth, most of my British mom friends took between nine months and a year off — or even longer if they had a partner who was able to support them on one income.
And then there’s me. Though I have citizenship here, as a freelancer with mostly American clients, I am not eligible for those maternity benefits. I’m also a single mother — so if I don’t work, there’s no money coming in.
None of this seemed like a major issue to me during my pregnancy. In fact, when I broke the news to my main client, I naively assured them that I’d probably be back on the job after two, three weeks, max.
I believed it, too. A family friend regaled me with wholesome tales of tucking her peacefully sleeping baby into a sling and working without interruption from home. I’d seen my own sister go back to teaching five weeks after giving birth to her second child, whose overdue arrival had eaten into her precious maternity leave. The fact that I worked from home seemed like a blessing; I saw myself filing copy while occasionally rocking my angelic infant as he napped.
Then I gave birth. Never mind the fact that my kid apparently doesn’t do routines or baby slings or anything that might allow me the freedom to use both of my hands at the same time; I also needed time to deal with the exhaustion and sheer anxiety and wonder of parenthood. But not too much time — there were bills to pay, and the savings I’d set aside were being gobbled up by whatever life-saving baby item I decided I needed to order off Amazon Prime each day.
While I joke about wanting a second income rather than a husband, it wasn’t just money that drove me back to work. I enjoy the validation I get from my job, and not working left me feeling insecure about my career. I felt anxious about being replaceable, and not being able to provide for my small family. It was the longest stretch of “unemployment” I’d had since graduating college, when I spent three weeks watching Law & Order reruns in my pajamas. As ridiculous as it sounds, having just reproduced an entire human being, I felt…unproductive.
And so I returned to work, part-time at first, after just six weeks. The first day back, my baby sat on my lap while I teleconferenced in for our weekly editorial meeting. I’ve got this, I thought.
The next day was a different story. I was too busy changing diapers to get any work done, and the fear that I’d never be able to juggle work and motherhood triggered the first of many meltdowns on my part. A concerned friend rushed over to take the baby for walk, and I used the time to start booking babysitters. Now that my son is past the three-month age requirement for daycare, we’ve been able to establish a better routine — but it’s still fraught with anxiety and mom guilt.
I don’t necessarily regret going back to work so quickly; I’m the sole provider for my son, so there really wasn’t any other option. I do regret, however, not managing my own expectations — and I regret trusting that what worked for someone else’s baby would inherently work for mine. There’s been a lot of trial and error, especially in terms of figuring out childcare and separating work life from baby time.
Of course, tending to my own personal needs and self-care comes last. With no co-parent to do daycare drop-off (I spend two hours a day going back and forth) or hold the baby while I eat dinner (my nightstand drawer is packed with Clif bars), there’s simply no time or energy left for…me. But hey, at least I have the WFH advantage: being able to slouch around in scummy sweats and unwashed hair all day without judgment.
This is all, undoubtedly, a work in progress. But I’ve at least picked up some pointers in the process. Here’s what I wish I’d done differently, and the hacks that helped me — and can help you — survive (for now).
Learn your rights.
I’d heard the U.K.’s maternity perks spoken of in such glowing terms that it didn’t occur to me to read the proverbial fine print until I was well into my pregnancy. That’s when my accountant informed me that my tax status (pro tip: do your research on pregnancy and taxes) as a limited company rather than an individual made me ineligible for maternity pay, unless I hired someone to do my job for me — a scheme I didn’t see my editors approving. There were also complications with other childhood benefits based on my income.
While the outcome may have ultimately been the same, I wished I’d done more research with my accountant beforehand. If you’re thinking of trying for a baby, look into all those tax and human resources policies as soon as possible; there may be time to make a change that’ll pay off.
Buy a nursing pillow.
The few rare moments of hands-free work-life balance I had were thanks to my Boppy, which wrapped around my waist and supported my newborn as he nursed and ultimately fell asleep. Writing with my top off and my arms reaching over a snoozing infant isn’t ideal, but it was my only option in the early days. Another working mom hack: Set your iPhone’s settings (under general, then keyboard) to a one-handed keyboard, which makes it easier to type while you’re baby-wrangling.
Be open and honest with your boss.
I’m fortunate that my editors have been flexible with me — giving me work, and space, when I need it. I berated myself the first time I had to rush off mid-shift to take my fussy baby to the doctor, but my editor was completely understanding and never made me feel like I’d let the team down. If you need to try easing back into the rat race via a temporary scaled-back schedule, it’s worth an ask. Is there flexibility for you to work from home for part of the week, or have one weekday off to attend to doctor’s visits and playgroups? Can you skip out of after-hours engagements? You won’t know unless you ask.
Don’t feel guilty about saying “no.”
As an ambitious person, I’m hard-wired to say “yes!” when an exciting work opportunity comes my way. But now, that “yes” is immediately followed by panic over how I’ll make it happen. Is the project worth booking babysitters and cutting back on the already limited time I get with my son? If the answer to that isn’t an immediate and obvious “yes,” I have to pass.
Bring on the bottles.
I dutifully followed my lactation consultants’ advice against introducing a bottle too early. Now I have a baby — and a stockpile of every teat, bottle, and mid-flow nipple known to man — who will sometimes go days refusing to drink from anything that isn’t my boob. Unless you’re available to pop in for feeds during the workday, having childcare makes a bottle — whether it contains breastmilk or formula — a necessity. Talk to a lactation consultant or doctor about getting your baby comfortable with a bottle, and don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it. You can always nurse in the mornings and evenings.
Make pumping a priority.
And because you’re not nursing your baby as much as you may be used to, it’s vital that you take the time to pump to avoid discomfort or infection. If you work in an office, lobby your employer for a clean, private space for you and your Medela. Stand firm about having the breaks you need; the work will still be there when you return. It took me a week of swollen breasts and spilling breastmilk all over my desk as I raced to answer every Slack message mid-pump to get over feeling like a slacker for taking a much-needed breather.
Celebrate your victories.
It’s easy to feel deflated or like you’re phoning it in — as a mom and as an employee. That’s why it’s so important to hold on to the feel-good moments when they come, whether it’s a compliment from the boss or a grin from your baby first thing in the morning.
Try — and fail, and succeed, and fail again — to be present.
Daycare allows me more freedom to focus on work; that’s my time to be the most productive employee I can be. But when my baby and I are home together, it’s his time. I used to juggle my workload by constantly scanning my phone and checking work emails while distractedly waving a rattle at my baby, but no more. He gets my undivided attention, and the phone and laptop don’t come out until after bedtime. And when I have a day off, I make the most of it by working in playdates, a baby class — and extra cuddles.