Why Going Back to Work is Hard

So, the last few weeks in our lives have been kind of crazy. We bought a new home and moved a week and a half ago, on May 3rd. Also, my maternity leave was officially done May 1st. The fact that upon returning back to “work” I started a class that runs twice a week between 6 and 9pm – which is crunch time, as every parent knows – doesn’t help much. We are also still waiting for our daycare spot for Naomi; she’s starting June 11. So, basically, right now I’m trying to be a full-time graduate student in half days, because we are fortunate enough to have a great babysitter-turned-part-time-nanny. And of course I’d like to keep up with the Internet sphere, meaning blogging and tweeting and reading all of those lovely articles I come across. It has been interesting.

As I go back to work after being on maternity leave for two of the last three years, I wondered, is it always this hard? I get a feeling that it’s exponentially harder to be a graduate student when you have small kids. This is true especially for classes – there is this assumption that students would do all their assignments and readings on weekends. Only, when my weekend is done I need a day or two to recuperate. Is there anything that can be done to make this transition from maternity leave back to work easier? To answer this question I did what I do best: I consulted Google Scholars.

This led me to a study done in Zurich by Bettina Wiese and Johannes Ritter. They found a few interesting things. First of all, a higher level of family related stress predicted more regrets about returning to work (more regrets mean less productivity and a higher probability of quitting work). I would say not having full childcare and moving to a new house qualifies as stress (of course, we are fortunately spared the real stresses of financial problems, health issues, etc.). But what they found was that the length of the maternity leave made a big difference: women who had longer leaves came back more resilient. These women didn’t face less stress, but they coped with it better. The authors hypothesize that women who take longer leaves are more confident in their childcare skills than the women who returned to work early (ha! As if). The authors also argue that from a medical point of view, a longer leave allows the mother to heal from the pregnancy and birth. So to summarize, I should suck it up and do my job.

What the research didn’t address was the women’s reasons for returning to work. I would assume that a woman who chose to go back to work because she feels ready and because she likes her work would have less regrets (and is thus more likely to be more productive and to stay working) than a woman who is forced to go back to work too early because of the family’s financial needs. Another thing I’d like to know is whether the job that the woman goes back to matters: is there a difference between going back to being a firefighter and being a CEO? I would assume there would be at least some difference.

This may be old news, but to me this study supports a longer subsidized maternity leave. Even from the perspective of the employer, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to give women more time to heal and to get their house in order if it means that the employee you have trained is now more committed to her work and is more productive and can do her job well? And if everyone benefits from longer parental leaves, why isn’t that the norm?

What do you think? As an employer, an employee, a working mom, a stay at home dad, a graduate student?

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