First kid or third, six-week leave or seven-year stay-at-home mom gig, there's no simple answer. The question? "When is it right to return to the workforce?"
"You'd always planned to return to work, but with your restart date only weeks away, you're dreading leaving your baby," noted American Baby's Marguerite Lamb in Parents. "Should you stay home? Or maybe you've been home for six months and are desperately missing the camaraderie and challenge of your job. Should you go back to work? It's among the toughest decisions we mothers make."
And the fact that there's not a single correct answer is both good and bad.
"It means you won't be wrong no matter what you decide, but you likely won't be absolutely certain either," Lamb noted.
To take some of the guesswork out of the equation, follow these tips from medical and career experts and "been there, done that" mom bloggers about when it might be time to return to work after being a stay-at-home mom:
Don't try to make all your career decisions at once. Fortunately, no decision is irreversible. "Think in terms of the next 12 months rather than your entire career path, which can be overwhelming," Paige Hobey, author of "The Working Gal's Guide to Babyville: Your Must-Have Manual for Life with Baby," told Parents.
Don't give in to doubt. "Every woman I've talked to who has come back to work from maternity leave thinks they aren't doing enough, aren't good enough, and have lost their mojo," Keri Gohman, president of Xero Americas, wrote in Fortune. "I felt that way after having all of my three kids. But this is entirely in your head. As long as you're producing and doing great work, chastising yourself does more harm than good."
Set your own terms. "Despite what all your well-intentioned working-mom and stay-at-home-mom buddies will say (plus your own mom and sister, who will also throw in their two cents), you'll need to assess your own situation — on your own terms," the What to Expect blog explained.
Consider reduced expectations for a bit. You'll be happier juggling your two worlds if you can learn to give yourself a break, Hobey added.
"We have to adjust our expectations and sometimes be satisfied with 'good enough,' whether that means not being a heavy hitter at work for a while or letting the beds go unmade at home."
Crunch the numbers. "It'll be really, really hard to manage a full-time career and a house, a partner and a baby. So accept the fact that you won't be able to do it all (perfectly, at least) and think about what's most important to you," WTE advised. "If you suspect being a mom will be your number-one priority and your financial situation makes it feasible, you might consider stepping off the fast track and considering a part-time gig or an early retirement. If your career (or your income) is very important to you, you'll have to figure out how to stay on track without compromising your new job as mommy (the most likely solution will be securing plenty of help)."
Make a list of all the things in your life that cost money and consider how important each is to you. "Will you be happy with fewer luxuries or vacations if you decide to downscale? (Don't feel guilty if the answer is no.)," WTE added. "Will you be able to get your career (and your income) back on track if you drop out or scale back for a while? If you think the answer is no, consider whether you're willing to make that sacrifice. Just remember to be realistic about what you think you'll be able to handle, both financially and in terms of keeping your sanity. And keep in mind that a happy mommy will mean a happier baby."
Focus on your own definition of success. This advice may be more important than any specific decisions you make about returning to work after you've been a stay-at-home mom, according to Gohman.
"I can't worry about how anyone else is doing," she said. "I have to set my own terms of success. Yes, I'm not the best school volunteer; I don't always bring in homemade goodies when it's my turn to bring in a snack, and my Facebook page does not rock. But I'm okay with that. As my career and family have grown, I've learned to forgive myself more. By striving for perfection, I set the bar impossibly high and stop having fun. Instead, I'd rather enjoy a happy and balanced life."
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