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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Beyond the Financial Need: Why So Many Parents Return to Work After Having Children

For many people, going back to work after having children isn’t an option; it’s a necessity. In large metropolitan areas, especially, where the cost of living can be astronomical (in spite of higher wages), many couples don’t have the luxury of choosing to have one parent stay at home while the other works to pay the bills. But with that said, there are actually plenty who can’t imagine a life without a career.

Beyond the financial need, I sought to dig into the myriad reasons that parents—yes, both mothers and fathers—happily returned to the office. I set out to understand not only how they did it, but why. How was it going back? Were there things they genuinely missed? What, besides the paycheck and benefits, was keeping them motivated?

This article only scratches the surface, but it’s a start at understanding the thought process and motivation behind returning to the office once your family’s changed so significantly. The more we understand why we remain devoted to our work—or why we don’t—the better we’ll be able to put systems and policies in place that make more people excited to go back to the office for reasons that extend far beyond the paycheck.

To protect the privacy of the individuals interviewed for this piece, all names have been changed.

Jocelyn, a registered nurse working in the Midwest, says that although friends and family—her spouse, included— encouraged her to take time off from work and enjoy every minute with her baby for the first year, she wouldn’t hear of it. She had no desire to take this well-intentioned advice and says that her “primary motivation for returning to work was to continue to learn and grow.” She’s quick to point out that these things can occur at home. But the fact is, she explains,

My career has always been at the top on my priority list and nothing changed post-baby.

If there’s one thing she wants new parents, moms especially, to know is that it’s OK to work—to want to work and not feel guilty.

Freelance writer, Laura, who’s based in Brooklyn, New York, has similar things to say: “Working for me is about the financial need in a small way, but in a bigger sense it’s about exercising the part of my brain that has to do with my creativity, my non-parent-related skill set.” For her and many in her inner circle of working moms, the money isn’t exactly rolling in, but that’s not what it’s about; rather, “it’s about getting to do work you (hopefully) love and maintaining the part of yourself that can write, paint, teach—whatever your vocation is.”

Michelle, a mom of toddler triplets and a four-year-old, is a dentist who says she loves what she does: “I knew that a combination of motherhood and the work force would probably be ideal for me,” Michelle explained, going on to say that she felt that she’d done “just as much schooling as my husband [also a DDS] and owed it to myself to make all of my efforts worthwhile.”

A former practicing lawyer, Raquel, who ventured into career services a few years ago says that finances had nothing to do with her return to work after having her first. “I had all sorts of motivations,” she says and lists off several: “Colleagues, learning, ambition, modeling to my children that women work, an opportunity to use my brain in ways that challenge me differently than parenting challenges me...”

Then, of course, there’s the idea of working at something because you excel at it. One father, Hank, a writer with a day job in advertising, has this to say about it, “I guess I keep doing the advertising thing because I’m actually really, really good at it, and there’s a joy in doing something well.” He and his wife live in New York City, and he says the reality is that they both have to work.

Michelle, the dentist, doesn’t see patients on Fridays and is home with the kids all day while her husband works. While she values this time, she admits that she doesn’t think she could do it—be home with them all day, every day. By Sunday night, she’s spent, and getting to go to work the following morning is a reprieve of sorts. With that said, she also goes on to encourage new parents to take all the leave they can (in her case, she says, “I maxed out at 12 weeks postpartum after both pregnancies”). “The work,” Michelle notes, “will always be there.”

None of the parents claim this balancing act is easy. Being exhausted when you walk in the door after putting in a full day of work makes getting that quality time with your child challenging. Alice, a purchasing manager who lives with her family in Florida, explains that now that her son is almost four years old, “it’s hard when I get home and I’m exhausted from work and he wants all my attention.”

Hank, who waited to take his paternity leave after his wife used her maternity leave, is feeling out this new space. At the end of the day though, he describes it like this:

I guess I miss hanging out at the wine bar in the airport and celebrating a good presentation. But I don’t miss it so much that I wouldn’t rather be dancing around the living room to Prince records with my daughter.

Raquel’s thoughts on missing one thing for another are similar to Hank’s. When she has to choose between two things that she really wants to do—say, attend her child’s school play and be at the deposition—it’s hard! But, she puts a bright spin on the predicament, acknowledging that “it’s a good problem to have. Having multiple things that excite and stimulate you is really great.” Unlike the movies would have you believe in these situations, the choice isn’t necessarily difficult because the parent’s a workaholic with an overbearing boss—but rather cares about both being a parent and excelling at his or her job.

From taking a shower to having a reason to put on makeup to engaging a part of the brain otherwise not in use, everyone I spoke with was quick to offer up reasons why getting back to work was a good thing. Even Alice, who admits that if she and her husband weren’t accustomed to a certain kind of lifestyle, she might not be going into an office every day, had no trouble identifying something she missed about her job: “the order of the day, the structure.”

Susan says, “I missed the work itself, I missed engaging that part of my brain and being called on to problem-solve (apart from my role as a mother), and I missed my co-workers.”

Although another father I spoke to, Ken who works in marketing in New York, maintains that he only returned for financial reasons, he also admits that returning feels like an escape from the kids (in a good way, he’s quick to add). Hank, while not in his dream job, was eager to get back to work for the “adrenaline rushes.”

And for Raquel, it was about “Colleagues, interesting work, feeling productive in a different way, and some alone time.” When asked what she was most eager to return to, she employs a smiley emoji and relays,

I remember feeling like sitting at my desk with a cup of coffee was a luxury, and going to the bathroom alone was thrilling.

Does your job feel different once you’ve become a parent?

Not for Hank, who says, “I don’t view my job or career at all that differently. It’s still work. It’s still not top priority.” Unlike his wife, who Hank says loves her job, his work is “fine.” That said, he admits the gratification that comes with feeling like he knows what he’s doing, “and to know that people who can tell the difference think I know what I’m doing, too.”

Jocelyn, on the other hand, does see things differently now that she’s a mother. She says she knows it sounds cliché, but the little things no longer phase her. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff. “I see some of my colleagues react to really insignificant work woes and while I might have reacted similarly before becoming a parent, I now really just don't give a shit.”

While I didn’t discover (based on the small, unofficial sample size I looked at), any strong connection between a company accommodating working parents and finding fulfillment at work—or the desire to return—most of the parents I reached out to reported flexible, as well as understanding workplaces and bosses.

Even Alice, who really isn’t crazy about her job, couldn’t complain about her day-to-day situation. She may not like the actual work she’s doing, but she remarked on how she can basically “come and go” as she pleases, saying that her “boss is very laid back when it comes to personal needs overall. If I need to come in late or take off early to take my kid to the doctor or school it’s not a problem.  If I need to take off at the last minute for any reason it’s not a problem.” Describing his workplace, Hank says, “It’s been fairly wonderful.”

Michelle agrees that she’s got a good arrangement. If her kids have doctors’ appointments or are sick, she can take time off or rearrange her schedule—but she really tries not to have to, she adds.

Even in stereotypically demanding places, such as a law firm, I encountered unusually flexible situations. Raquel found a way to leave every day at 5 PM, and says it didn’t negatively impact her role at the firm. “The partners supported my schedule, continued to put me on amazing cases, I continued to be praised as a leader, and never did anyone question my commitment to my career or the firm,” Raquel explains.

She also remarks that she’d ‘never seen myself as a stay-at-home parent, and always knew I’d pursue an ambitious career.’

These tales, unfortunately, stands in sharp contrast to Jocelyn’s, the RN, who says without reservation that going back to work has, undoubtedly, been the best thing for her. In spite of that knowledge, she can’t stipulate that has anything whatsoever to do with flexibility. She may have to come in early (up to four hours before a scheduled shift) or stay late (again, four hours later than planned) on little to no notice.

Nonetheless, she says, “I cannot fathom not having a career,” Jocelyn says with clear conviction. “The thought,” she goes on to say, “literally makes me sick.”

If every mom and dad could boast of an accommodating workplace and flexibility, that would be progress—and if these anecdotes could be offered as unofficial evidence, a driving factor in more people looking forward to returning to work.

Because at the end of the day, many of us have—or will have to—go back after starting a family for financial reasons. And if that’s the case, why not be realistic about the situation and strive to make all organizations places that understand what it means to be a working parent in 2016.

Photo of working mom courtesy of Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images.

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