How do you decide between going back to work and staying at home after the baby is born? Jamie Principe, a 38-year-old mother of two who lives in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., has done both. When her girls, now 4 and 5, were younger, she worked outside the home as an architect. Then, she made the surprisingly smooth and easy transition of becoming a stay-at-home mom.
"I left my job not with the commitment to be a stay-at-home mom," Principe says. "I left because the nature of my job had changed and was no longer beneficial to me professionally. At the same time, my long-time nanny's breast cancer had come back. The thought of searching for new childcare and hunting for a job both while still working and trying to be a mother to my kids was more than I could handle. So since my family could manage financially with one income, I decided to make the break."
And she loved it. "I was surprised at how much I loved being home," Principe says. "Having more time to myself. Enjoying mundane tasks. Catching up with friends. But most of all, being there for my kids." She had found it nice in some ways to "outsource" the laborious and often dull routine of caring for small children. "But now that the kids are older," she says, "I feel my presence at home when their school or camp day is over is much more meaningful and important to both me and them."
Still, Principe misses the professional interaction and stimulation she once knew.
The New-Mom Dilemma
To work or not to work outside the home is a dilemma many new moms face. And like Principe, many are surprised at how they feel.
Family psychoanalyst Jenny Stuart says, "You have to leave as many options open as possible through pregnancy and the first year of a first child's life." Stuart says it's difficult to know how you will feel when you become a mother. "Some women who expect to love it are bored and angry and want to work," she says. "Others are utterly taken by surprise by how much they want to stay home."
Stuart advises moms-to-be to not make any major decisions while they are expecting. She also says it's important to remember there is no right answer. "The decision depends very much on the psychology of the woman making it," she says, "and on what types of support networks she has."
Young children do need steady contact with predictable caregivers. "I think they need as much contact as possible with their own parents," Stuart says. "But a very good day care can be a good complement to what a mother or pair of parents can do on their own. So it's not the case that mothers of young children must not work. But they do have to keep in mind the child's actual needs."
She says the decision about going back to work after having a baby depends on several factors, including the availability and quality of external support, financial constraints, and emotional readiness to either stay at home or work outside the house.
"It doesn't do children much good if you stay home and are angry and feel guiltily," she says. "It also doesn't do much good if you go to work thinking you are supposed to be home full time."
It's OK to stay at home, Stuart says, even if it is at odds with your professional training. It's also OK even though you feel an obligation to the women of your generation and the next. And, "If you go to work and are unhappy there," she says, "that's not great for kids either."
"Women focus on 'Should I work or shouldn't I work,'" Stuart says. "At the same time, they are less aware of their own anxieties about becoming mothers in first the place." She says the conflict over going to work has a lot to do with a fundamental anxiety: "Will I be a good mother?"
A lot of this anxiety may stem from a new mom's relationship with her own mother. "If your relationship with your own mother is troubled," Stuart says, "you will feel quite anxious as a mother. And you will focus that anxiety on the question of working or staying at home."
Another issue facing both moms who go back to work and moms who choose to stay at home is how other moms perceive them.
"It's important to keep in mind that the people making judgments are conflicted," Stuart says. "This is such a polarizing issue because everybody feels conflicted." For example, she says, "If you decide to stay home full time and not work, you take great pains to defend that position. One way to do this is to demonize someone who has made another decision. Women who do work and pass judgment on women who don't are trying as best they can to manage their own guilt and anxiety about what they are giving up."
Above all, try not to take it personally.
Some women may not have a choice about going back to work after having a baby, Atlanta psychotherapist Joyce Morley-Ball says.
"You have to determine if it is more cost-effective for mom to stay home or go back to work," Morley-Ball says. "A family in a higher socioeconomic class can choose. Those with a lower socioeconomic status may not have a choice."
Another issue is the quality of child care that is available. Morley-Ball says it's important for the mom to consider whether she can accept the type of care that's there. Breastfeeding can also be an issue for a mom who goes back to work.
There is no right or wrong answer, she says. "It depends on the needs of the family."
Making It Work for Your Family
"I try to make sure I block off time to attend school events," Yahr-Rader says, "including things during the daytime whenever possible. I also never speak about work in terms of money around my kids. It's about mental stimulation and something I enjoy doing."
She says that she makes it her business to leave work on time so she can spend the evening with her kids and put them to sleep. "But I am often online after that and my work gets done."
Yahr-Rader says that since she does work, "I try to make the weekends kid-focused -- not run errands and do stuff that's not fun, but do stuff the kids want to do."
The important thing to remember, Morley-Ball says, is that no matter your career and family decision, it's going to be a balancing act.