Monday, September 26, 2011

Working Girl

Last Monday I set my alarm for 6:30 a.m., got up, showered, dressed, hastily ate breakfast, and took a bus, a train, another train, and another bus. My badge still opened the front door. My computer password, however, had long disappeared from my memory. It turns out that changing it via the VPN in a postpartum haze a month after you've given birth is a good way to ensure you'll forget it. The african violet on my desk was still holding on, barely, a near victim of my colleagues' collective well-intentioned but overzealous watering. People seemed happy to see me.

For my part, I was happy to be back. I don't know yet if I'll ever love my job, and there are days I certainly don't like it very much, but last week I absolutely loved being back. I had more energy than I've had in years, and even tales of system bugs and incomplete functional requirements couldn't dampen my uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Irrational exuberance, perhaps? Still, I can't wait to dive back into the project head first. I'll find out soon enough if I'm standing at the shallow end of the pool. I'm just ready, I guess, to turn my thoughts to something other than my children, adorable as they are. To work on a project with other adults. To leave the apartment without pushing a stroller in front of me.

Everyone's been asking me if it is hard to be back. I don't know if this is a cultural thing, and I'm curious, do people in the US ask this as well? Or is it just blindly obvious that after the short maternity leave most US mothers have, going back is quite likely to be a challenge? Honestly, I don't know what to think. No, I tell them with a genuine smile, it isn't hard. Nine months at home was just right for me, personally, and I'm happy to be doing something else now. It helps that le Petit is happy to be at school and Mademoiselle seems content with the nanny. She cries a bit when my husband leaves in the morning, but she's far from the wailing wreck her brother was at first when I went back to work when he was the same age. When I pick her up in the afternoon, she's busily, happily playing. (This is usually when my questioner starts to tune out. Yes, I am one of those mothers, who goes on and on about their kids long after everyone's stopped listening.) In my self-analysis, I end up feeling a bit guilty for not feeling guilty, if you know what I mean. But I fundamentally feel that every mother has a different amount of time at home with a baby that feels right to her and it can be long or short. The baby is happiest, the entire family is happiest, when Mom gets to choose; I'm exceptionally lucky to have a country, a culture, a career, and a personal economic situation that allows me this choice.

I wonder, why does no one ask a dad -- a dad who, even in France, has to go back to work after only two weeks of leave -- if it is hard to go back to work after the birth of a child? How different is it for men, really? I'm not sure how much of the biological programming argument I'm ready to buy. If you're an involved parent, working and parenting at the same time is hard. It is most often a necessity, too, of course. For many of us, it is also somewhat liberating.

I prudishly left one detail of my transition back to work until the very end of the week: mentioning to my boss that I was pumping breast milk so he wouldn't be surprised when I disappeared briefly from my desk twice a day. I told him as matter-of-factly as I could, but I was embarrassed, even though I remembered vaguely that it wasn't so hard last time around. I must have been channeling my inner lactivist back then or something, for I clearly remember proudly explaining that I was pumping to any colleague who happened to ask about the mysterious soft-sided cooler I toted around with me. I also wrote a long blog post detailing how I'd worked out the logistics.

My boss' response: "Yeah, of course, I figured you would." And he went on to tell me that another woman in the office did the same for her baby, after first asking him how I'd organized things, so my inadvertent, indiscreet publicity had paid off. This may sound not like much, but I assure you that in France you have to be both exceptionally motivated and impervious to raised eyebrows to dare pump breast milk at work. At the same time attitudes will only change as more women just go ahead and dare, and anyway, as a foreigner, people expect me to be eccentric. I don't know whether it was my daring or my eccentricity or the mere fact that I figured out that the shower/dressing room near the exercise area could serve as a discreet pumping location, but my lactivism helped gain one to the cause.

My boss and I went on to talk about how in general it is easier for women in France to combine motherhood and career than it is in many other countries. I expressed for the umpteenth time that week how thankful I was for the time I got to take off, and how happy I was to be back.

"Attitudes have changed. Now long maternity leaves are accepted, are even the norm," my boss observed, "But... it isn't easy to have to make due without [Parisienne] for a year. Not easy at all."

French bosses are notoriously parsimonious with praise, so that statement totally made my Friday afternoon. Then I had to run. My family was waiting for me. I skipped off to the bus, took a train and then another train, then another bus, picked up Mademoiselle and took her home -- le Petit was later delivered by conspiratorial grandparents -- and met my husband, who poured me a celebratory glass of wine.

It's not bad being a working girl again.


the milliner said...

Everyone here (Canada) asks if it's hard to be back at work after maternity leave. But, we have 12 month leave (extendable to 18 mos at your own cost, but without a threat to job security).

I always used to say (half jokingly...but not) that 'No, not hard at all. I'm just happy I get a whole hour to myself to eat lunch.'

And Yay! for a boss that appreciates you. Such a great thing to have.

Cloud said...

Happy back to work week! I'm glad it is going so well.

Everyone asks here, too, if it is hard to be back, and they look at you funny if you say that you're actually ready to be back.

And everyone asks before you go out if you're coming back- even the second time around. I finally shut them up by saying that unless I wanted to default on my mortgage, I'd be back to work.

My own personal perfect maternity leave would be about 4 months long, followed by another 3-4 months of half-time work to ease back in. What I actually got was 3 months, followed by one month part time. And that was better for me than the alternative of staying home!

Claudia said...

Brava! Wonderful return to work.
I do, frankly, believe the biology difference. I think mothers are programmed to want to be with their children to physically care for and protect them, and I think men are biologically programmed to be motivated to provide for their food and shelter and defense from the outside world. *shrug*

Mom in France said...

I'm glad you're happy to be back to work and bravo for continuing to breastfeed through it.

I did the same and definitely felt a little bit of a freak but was proud, too. I was able to show others that it could work, and now my company has initiated a dedicated program to support returning mothers. yay!

Oh: My favorite thing about returning to work: grown-up lunch. ;-)

Jac said...

Congrats on going back to work! I could have taken my one year mat leave here in Canada, but went back at nine months voluntarily. So I guess it's safe to say for me that nine months is the perfect length of mat leave. And yes, the constant asking if it is hard to be back. I find it a little grating to be asked that - the answer is no, not at all, it's a very welcome change and I love my work - but I feel kind of judged if I don't preface that with some sort of justification about how much I love my kids. I try very hard not to do that because it should be obvious.

I guess people ask because there are lots of women who return to work unhappily - my best friend had weeks of weepiness when she went back to work (after a 14 month mat leave) and she finally quit her job about a year later. I do think it's hard to leave your kids all day to do something that you don't really enjoy.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@the milliner - Amen to kid-free lunch time, I say! I mean, I do love eating with my little ones, but having four meals a week when I don't have to clean up the floor afterward is priceless...

@Cloud - Luckily, no one here has asked me if I was planning to come back. I think that in France, or at least in the particular Parisian professional bubble I live in, it is almost universal that women keep working... and I am grateful that government policy makes it relatively easy to do so.

@Claudia - I dunno, I tend to discount the biology theory, but in reality, it's impossible to tease apart biology and culture. I do know that both pregnancy and breastfeeding have personally affected my emotions and reactions to a bunch of things... situational or hormonal, I dunno.

@Mom in France - yay for you, and yay for your company!

@Jac - I know what you mean; "grating" is just the word. Then again, I figure it's out of concern/empathy for me that they ask, often...

oilandgarlic said...

I'm new to your blog but enjoying reading back posts esp related to an American living in another country. I was asked that question a lot after my very short maternity leave (U.S.) and no one asks dads. I think it is much harder to return when your baby is so helpless and you're not getting much sleep. What I wouldn't have done for a longer maternity leave!