From Parental Leave To Full-Time Work: Calling A Career Into Question

My office, a few years and a few homes ago. Still a mess. Photo: DI

I haven’t worked for almost a year. Summer vacation, then maternity leave, then parental leave.

In France, maternity leave is sixteen weeks long (three to six weeks before birth, ten to thirteen weeks after). We’re then allowed to take a few months of parental leave (six months for a first child). We’re not paid, except for a little familial allowance, but we keep our job. Since I’m lucky enough to have a companion with a good job, that’s what I did. I simply couldn’t imagine going back to work when my baby was ten or even thirteen weeks old.

As all of you moms probably know, six months fly incredibly quickly with a baby. And a few weeks ago, it was time for me to go back to work.

Let me say firstly that I’m actually very lucky, and my return to work happened in the best possible circumstances.

We easily found a daycare for our son. The “maternal assistant” (official name in France, but everyone says “nanny”) is great, she takes wonderful care of the baby. She has only two children in her charge, and the other one is the son of friends. Our son loves her, and loves his playmate. I began to leave him with the nanny for a few hours months ago, so he got progressively accustomed to her. That perfectly worked. He never cried when I left him, which is almost vexing for me, but far better for him.

I hadn’t completely lost touch with my job (I’m a senior high school teacher), since many colleagues are also friends, and often came to see us. I chose to keep receiving and reading work emails. I even went to a few meetings during my parental leave (once with the baby, who’s a really nice little chap).

I went back to work for little more than a month before the summer vacation.

So why was it so hard for me?

Of course, there’s a timetable problem. You all know it. I’m aware that it won’t get better for years. Making time for work, children, husband, housework and personal activities is a constant struggle. Especially for geeks, who have a lot of personal activities. And for geek moms, who want to share a lot of geeky activities with their kids. I don’t know how I will manage it. I don’t know if I will, if any mother does. I’ll have to make choices. But we all have. And choices are one of the interesting parts of life, after all.

But that wasn’t the worst thing for me.

The worst were the weeks before I went back to work. The weeks when I had to think about my job.

I love my job. Or I suppose so. I’m considered a very enthusiastic and committed teacher. So I have to be, haven’t I?

That’s the tricky thing with long-term leaves. When I’m working, I usually don’t think about it. Of course I think about lessons, and students, and books to study, and activities to run, and exams, and a lot of things, but I don’t think about the very fact of working.

I don’t think about how great it is to have time to write, to read for fun, to design games for your friends and kid, to bake cakes every week, to write for GeekMom.

So great. So much fun.

And I suddenly had to admit: more fun and greater than work.

That lead me to deep wondering. Had I picked the right job, finally? Wouldn’t I be happier as a freelance writer? As a journalist? As an author? Or even as a stay-at-home mom?

Shouldn’t I be ashamed not to feel better about my job? Could I be a good teacher if I was so happy while I wasn’t teaching?

Time is a dangerous thing. It leads you to dangerous paths, dangerous questions, with no real answers.

Then I was back at work. I smiled, and taught, and built projects and lessons for next term, and so on. I like it. Of course I’d rather write for a living. I don’t know if this new awareness will make me a better teacher or a worse one. I don’t know if that matters.

Have any of you experienced the same questions after a leave? Have any of you made a different choice, and changed your career on account of them?

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17 thoughts on “From Parental Leave To Full-Time Work: Calling A Career Into Question

  1. Your post makes me feel very nervous. I was laid off right before I was suppose to go back to work, and after looking for 6 months for a job, I went back to school.

    I’m due to graduate in December, and I’m more than a little nervous about entering the job market again. I’d much rather be a stay at home mom and write, but we can’t afford it.

    1. Neither can we (afford such a life). But more importantly, I’m not sure that would really be good for me.
      Perhaps that’s different in other countries, but I don’t know any woman of my generation who’s a stay-at-home mom.
      Except for one who’s a full-time writer and publisher, she only works from home, that’s not exactly the same thing.
      And I’m not sure I’d like such a life, after all.

      1. I do know quite a few stay at home moms, but I don’t know if I could do that.

        I am hoping to be able to work from home, which I think would be best of both worlds. But we’ll see what happens.

  2. Yes, I used to have a customer service job. I live in the US, so I had 12 weeks off unpaid before I returned to work. After five months of being miserable, I quit, and now I edit on a contract basis from my house. I’m so glad I made the decision.

  3. in Quebec we have up to 50 weeks of maternity and parental leave. That’s really great and i love every moment of it but i dread even more the moment of going back to work. As soon as i was back i search for another one with a better schedule. And now that i’m planning for #2 i don’t know how i’ll cope with everything. I would rather be a stay-at-home mom but it not possible…

  4. I have been a Stay-At-Home-Mom for 7 years. I went back to work when my daughter was 3 months old and quit after 2 months. My kids are now 7 1/2 and almost 5. I have just been offered a full-time job. It seems to be a very good job – decent pay, in a field I am interested in, with a very good company. I think I’m going to take the job because I want to go back to work and we could really use the 2nd income. But it means a significant lifestyle change for the whole family. My kids will have to be in daycare after school and in the summer. They will see a lot less of their friends who have SAHMs. My husband will have to take on more of the drop-off/pick-up/general kid-chauffeuring duties. My husbands work schedule gives him a Fri/Sat weekend so we will only have 1 day a week all together. I am excited about the prospect of returning to work, but very nervous too because I know how hard it is going to be at first.

  5. I feel for you, my friend. It’s such a tough part of life, once you’ve become a mom.
    I have a teaching degree also, but was home with our four children until we moved to NY. Then, four years ago, I had to go back to work, because the cost of living here was so high. I worked full time for a year and the minute we could squeak by on a part time salary, I dropped my hours.
    Even with ‘older’ kids I felt like our quality of life really suffered when I worked full time. It was so nice to be more financially secure, but I was miserable the whole year, always feeling like my family and I were missing out on the important stuff.
    One of the reasons we’re making a cross country move this summer, uprooting our life, is so we can live in an area that has a lower cost of living. It’s a trade off, leaving really great extended family here in the east, but we also had to think about our daily life and the quality of every day life.

    Every person has to make the choices that work for their family, and their own sanity. I hardly feel qualified to make our choices, much less tell someone else what they should do. The best of luck in figuring it all out. 🙂


  6. I think motherhood can change our perspective on life and what’s important to us. I don’t think your career as a high school teacher was a wrong choice; it sounds like pre-baby, you found it quite fulfilling! But sometimes, as life changes happen, what we found fulfilling before no longer gives us that same joy. I think it’s like some board games my husband and I play. When I first started playing them, I absolutely loved them; but, over time, I found other games I liked better and what I enjoyed shifted.

    I think careers can be a little like that. One career may have been very fulfilling for us, but, after a baby comes, we find ourselves craving something different. I’ve been considering a bit of a career change myself, shifting from a demanding project management role to editing. I’ve been blessed in being able to be a project manager working from home, but I had a brief contract as an editor and really enjoyed how laid-back it felt! I’d love going back to it now that my baby is here and growing so quickly! It’s not that project management didn’t fulfill me, but I no longer necessarily crave the challenges it presents.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences and feelings! I loved their diversity and their wisdom.

    In my case, there wasn’t a strong serious questioning. I’m going back to work. This work, since I cannot write for a living, which is the only career I’d like better… Except for DADA teacher.

    But there was… a strangeness, at least. Feelings I wasn’t used to. That’s probably for the best. Most of time, we don’t have enough time and enough distance to ponder such things.

    Thanks, again. You’re great.

  8. Yep, I’m right with you. I took a full year off of my career in medicine and am now days away from going back full time. I love my job (loved?) and do honestly miss it, but … this is the first time in my life I’ve been away from work/school for any significant time and I was shocked at how much fulfillment I got from domesticity. I’m the career girl! The money maker in the family! And yet I can see myself being very happy as a stay-at-home-mom. Even scarier, I can see myself being very miserable and resentful of a busy career that I worked so hard to get but which will inevitably keep me away from my family. Like your situation, there’s not really a realistic option for me to stay at home. I find these last few days off nearly unbearable! I can’t decide if it’s a feeling of excited anticipation or impending doom. Whatever it is, I know what you mean that I’ll never be able to look at my job in quite the same way again. For better or worse.

    1. Thank you for sharing this experience. You seem to feel the same that I did a few weeks ago. I especially like that: “I can’t decide if it’s a feeling of excited anticipation or impending doom.”

      Good luck and courage! Let us know how you dealt with your return to work.

  9. I’m in a similar boat. I want more than anything to be a full-time writer. I work on my novel and my stories and jot down the beginning bits of every little idea that forms in my head. You never know if that one idea will be your Harry Potter or Twilight. But I’m on the flipside of you. I have no choice but to work. Until my writing can pay the bills by itself, Hi Ho Hi Ho, its off to work I go. Luckily I love my job very much and while it doesn’t pay much, it does in fact, pay the bills, and I’m satisfied professionally. I can not be a stay-at-home mom and full-time writer as much as I would like to be. Its irresponsible and ATM, impossible. I’ll have to work, write, and mom all at the same time to achieve my dreams.

    I often find myself guilted by the SAHM crowd. Never intentionally of course, but the things they get to do with and for their child(ren) are things I could never dream of. I very much want to take her to a farm but none of them allow Saturday visitors. They want a weekend too. Weekday camps and mom-get-togethers and play groups are out of the question. Most are in the middle of the day when I’m at work. If they are in the evening I get no personal time with my daughter. It would be go go go all the time just to keep up with the SAHM Jones’. Not OK. I could pull off some stuff on Saturdays but that’s limited in availability. Plus I’m divorced so every other Saturday belongs to her dad. The SAHM lifestyle isn’t easy, it can’t be. The working mom life isn’t any easier or any harder, we have different challenges to deal with. Both have different perks too. Being a geek, I very much want to be able to explore both sides before picking but I’ve simply been unable to do so. Nor will I have that chance any time in the foreseeable future (unless of course last night’s writing doodle turns out to be a NYT Best Seller. Hey, you never know…)

    1. It’s great to read about your experience, JennT.
      We’ll probably talk about that again in a few years… perhaps we’ll have both becomen full-time writers! 🙂

  10. Dear Delphine and other moms facing the same juggle,

    You’ve elegantly articulated the inner struggle of every career woman who becomes a mom. I was called a “late age” mother on the doctor’s charts. That means after well over a decade of “meaningful” work and a grad school debt I’ll be paying off well into my senior years, motherhood took me by surprise.

    I’ve juggled the new life every way. As an almost full time stay-at-home mom (seems I always taught part time to bring in some income and to keep contact with my other self), as full-time faculty (didn’t last more than 2 years once my second baby was born), and now… as my kids are in their teen years and our family is faced with the reality of college expenses I’m scrambling to market myself at the highest wage possible (and I’m still struggling to get outside a mindset of me as low-paid part timer on the parent track). All of the above while I continue to write spec screenplays and kids novels…

    sigh – I’ve been torn, juggling every strategy, trying to find the perfect balance ever since my pumpkin was born.

    The wisdom is: there is no perfect balance. It’s a juggling act and balls will be dropped.

    Also: You can have it all, but not all at the same time.

    On the good days, I stay in the present moment and embrace what is in front of me: my child who needs full attention, an undergraduate who needs attention, too, or a project team that needs me to facilitate communication among creatives and technical personnel.

    On the good days it’s a full life. Full of abundance and opportunity to connect.

    On the not so good days, I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams.

    Note to self: remember to mother myself — eat right, exercise, meditate, and breathe.

  11. I’m glad to feel that I’m not the only one to experience those emotions.

    I was active duty military when my oldest was born, and the US military can proudly claim one of the shortest/strictest maternity leaves in the Western world: 6 weeks for vaginal births, 8 weeks for C-Sections. Deployment-eligible after baby is 6 months (there are some recent updates to that for breastfeeding mothers, but I don’t have the details at the moment).

    I was dreading the moment I had to leave my new baby with someone else to return to work. I still owed a couple years of service (I could have left the AF right after having the baby, but that didn’t seem right to me, our pregnancy wasn’t an accident).

    Things worked out, and I actually think being in the child care center helped my oldest son socially quite a bit — he’s such a friendly young man, easily adapts to stuff.

    I left active duty with the birth of our second son, and that decision was very difficult for me. Part of it was financial (1/2 of my salary = child care!), most of it was the emotional draw I had to my kids.

    I was VERY hard for me to adjust to the stay-home life (even after knowing how hard going back to work would be)…going days without interacting with other adults until my husband came home from work. I also had to take on my share of the housework that my husband and I used to split down the middle when we were both working all day. I thought my brain was going to rot!

    But I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m grateful my husband’s in a financial position for me to stay home. That was a culture shock, having to severely tighten our belts as our income was cut by about 60% (yes, I made more than he did, only because I had joined the service first).

  12. I guess I’m the odd man out again when it comes to being a mom. I read an article once on “Being a Mom isn’t my best feature,” on Offbeat Mama once, and felt I finally had other women who was on the same page as me. I find it personally insulting when women accuse me of having my priorities out of wack, simply because I have a genuine desire to return to work, and not be a stay-at-home mom. I only went to school for 17 years, and invested thousands of dollars into my education (and not all my own money, my parents suffered to give me a good education too), and worked hard to establish myself in the business community. Now, suddenly, because I want to continue to work, my rights as a Mom is now revoked and shame on me for ever having a child to begin with. Obviously, my priorities are not in order.

    Women don’t seem to understand how much we attack each other when it comes to work and children. Let’s face it: women who are poor are expected to work because, if they don’t, they are on government assistance, and how dare they have a child if they couldn’t support them. However, a middle-class woman whose family is barely squeaking by is praised on her decision to be a stay at home mom. The hypocrisy is staggering, and ultimately boils to what is has always boiled down to, and that’s a class system. Poor women are expected to work, wealthier women are not.

    I know there are women who would not consider themselves to be wealthy but, let’s face, if the mortgage is being paid, you own two working vehicles, you have food on your table three times a day, your gas/electric is still going, water is still coming out of your facet, and you can still afford to indulge in cable, geekery, ballet lessons, sports, etc. then yes, that is wealth.

    Poor is when you have to stand in line at the food bank, or stand on your feet at a grocery check out for 8 hours a day for $8 an hour, and that’s all you have going.

    I think the whole “working mom verses stay at home mom” argument needs to stop, and now. If there is something that is truely holding women back, it’s other women.

    1. I’m probably misexplained myself, then, for I’m completely with you on that point, Heidi.
      That was (one of) the reason(s) why it felt so odd to me to feel what I felt.
      I always thought like you. I still do, in a way. I returned to work. I never thought that would be better for my son if I stayed at home.

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