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One Big Step For Me, Another Small Victory For Working Mamas

Aaron and Kaspar came into the office with me this Wednesday for some meet and greet time with my work buds. Everyone of course circled around and cooed, and Kaspar smiled charmingly and then passed out on my shoulder. Aaron took him home, afterward, while I met with my boss. I officially return to work next Thursday, and as much as I was excited this week to introduce Kaspar around the office, I was also there on some serious business.

I wrote during my pregnancy about my conflicted feelings around ultimately returning to work after the baby arrived. Your comments confirmed that this is indeed a tough issue for all moms, no matter the individual circumstances. I like working, and need to work, and I don’t want to be a stay-at-home mom. That said, I didn’t actually like working as much as I worked before I was even pregnant… it was just a regular full-time schedule, but I felt like I was overextending my time and energy resources in the name of securing financial resources (without a lot of wiggle-room; we live comfortably, but living in NYC is something like nursing an open cash-wound). I also felt like I was barely fitting life in, in-between. Now, of course, I realize that I had free time then like I won’t know again until Kaspar’s off to college. I’m in no rush to get there, but those resource stakes are higher now, all of them: time, energy, and money. Money is obviously just plain necessary, but time and energy are all the more precious now that I have a baby who I am either spending time with (and directing my energies toward)… or not.

Everyone has a different threshold for this kind of thing, so there isn’t a universal ‘perfect solution.’ As my return to work approached, though, and we secured our childcare setup, I got really honest with myself about my feelings around this, and my options. The fact is, if I’m tapped out, I won’t be giving my all while at work, regardless of whether I’m physically sitting at my desk. I also won’t be able to parent in the way that I want to, both in the sense that I won’t have the face-time I want with my son, and also in that an overextended mom is not a creative, relaxed, balanced, happy mom. I want my baby to grow comfortably into his creative, relaxed, balanced and happy self. It is therefore my responsibility to figure out how to model that in a genuine way (of course, some days we all just have to fake it).

In any case, I knew I just wouldn’t be my best self— either at work, at home or otherwise—on a full-time work schedule. I felt anxious just imagining it. I felt even more anxious imagining that (given the wiggle-room issue) I didn’t have any options. But then I realized something important: we only have the options we ask for, or create. And in this case, it was going to be crucial that I ask in just the right way so as to create my own ideal scenario.

Here’s what I did: I made a list of all of my accomplishments on the job over the last two years, of the ways I’ve contributed to direct-revenue generation, as well as improvements I’ve initiated within the organization. I listed my demonstrated personal strengths that make me important to have around. I researched the average salary that other professionals in my role, industry and zip code make. I didn’t go into the meeting with all guns blazing, but I did go in with my ducks in a row.

We chatted for a few minutes, talked about current priorities in the company, and then I said, “I’d like to talk about getting some flexibility in terms of my work week. I want to work a four day week. Let me tell you why I should get to, and why that won’t compromise what I do here.”

Here’s what I did not do: I did not talk about how sad I'm going to feel leaving my baby in order to come to work. I did not use phrases like “I deserve,” or “I need” (I stuck instead with “I’ve demonstrated” and “I can”). I didn’t act flakey about asking for what I want, or act like I thought it was too much to ask for. I definitely didn’t cry.

My closing remarks ran along the lines of, “Look, it’s a different work world than it was. Good people mean good business, and I think that all of us do what needs to be done. When a big project is on the line, I’m willing to stay late to make it happen, and that won’t change. By having a four-day work week, though, I won’t be thinking about when I might be able to sneak in personal errands, and I won’t be too drained to give my work the attention and enthusiasm it deserves.”

Now, the cynical part of me knows that this is America, where everything (and everyone) potentially boils down to mere numbers at the end of the day. I also know that companies fire people they shouldn’t, and keep other people they shouldn’t, all the time. I know we’re all braving a bad economy. I know I could have gotten turned down, in which case I’d have some hard decisions to make, or some more negotiating to do (longer, but fewer, work days? Benefit cuts?). Now I also know that being honest with myself about what’ll feel right for me, in my life, and then proactively finding and presenting a way to make it happen, is not only possible, but also completely empowering.

I will work hard and make sure I follow through. I’m grateful to my boss for his open mindedness, and as a result feel all the more committed to delivering on the job (take note, bosses of the world. It pays to treat your people right).

And, I will enjoy the hell out of my work-free Fridays with my son.

(As a final thought, I did not just do this on my own. I got some great advice and encouragement from a few very savvy ladies—you know who you are— and I also read the book The One-Life Solution by Dr. Henry Cloud. I recommend it.)

Have you modified your work schedule, or even the type of work you do, since becoming a parent? Have you come up against any resistance or had to do things that didn’t feel ideal? How’d you make it work for you? What do you struggle with most right now?