Today was my first day of paid work in about seven months. My last day was December 19, conveniently just before the holiday break, so I cheated and had five weeks off before the birth rather than come back for two days in January only to leave again. My baby was six months old about two weeks ago. The timing is pretty perfect actually: the final government payment (“baby bonus”, as it’s called) went into our bank account last week. We need something to replace it as my partner is going to be the stay-at-home Dad, and I’m to be the income earner.
In my ideal world, we’d both have part-time jobs, but a variety of factors, not least being the global economic downturn, mean I headed out the door this morning at 8am, headed back in at 6.10pm and I’ll be doing that every weekday for at least the next three months. Luckily, this is a short-term contract, so if it doesn’t work out, I have options.
I have a feeling that I’m going to be fine, though.
I felt a small pang of guilt that I’d failed to adequately farewell my bub when she was asleep as I left. I’d seen her and fed her already, but still… I was more occupied by the idea that despite my best efforts, I had failed to transform my left breast from a lumpy rock into a nice soft pillow again and as a result, last night, my temperature started rising. Mastitis, the night before day one of a new job? I imagined having to call in sick on my first day. And I imagined having the contract terminated, because, honestly, how reliable can a lactating woman be if she’s always at risk of mastitis? (Yeah, my self-talk isn’t great when I’m feverish.)
Once I got to work, I found myself taking about the baby. New boss is lovely, but childless and doesn’t seem to be the clucky type. She was buying tickets to a metal concert as they went on sale at 9am and I couldn’t help but think how concert tickets are not on my horizon right now. I had to find something that wasn’t the baby to talk about, but it wasn’t long before I had to ask about where the fridge was so I could express. I felt guilty about taking 20 minutes in the toilets pumping (and very weird when someone came into the next cubicle).
Back at my desk, I was given online induction modules and clicked on a link to read the HR policies. Baby Care? As an HR policy? Well, of course, I read that one! And discovered that my new employer is committed to supporting women who return to work and follow the International Labor Organization’s guidelines on creating a supportive environment for lactating women to express. As a result, they have a baby care room with an electric pump and a microwave and couches. Nice! I asked my boss where it was. She looked it up on the intranet — not in our building. It’s a three minute walk away. Extra guilt at the thought of having to take 30 minutes to express… two breaks in my work day at least!
My loving partner brought the baby in for lunch, so I fed her and had a quick cuddle — very wary that she might posset on my work clothes — it felt so rushed!
Back at work, and I realised I am nowhere near as challenged by what I’m doing as I am by the juggling act of parenting. Hmmm.
4pm, off to the baby room. Much better than the toilet. Still guilty, though. Try to tell self that this work ethic is not useful, that guilt is not useful, and that smokers take many more breaks over many more years than I will be. And this is with a supportive employer with written policies!!
I don’t think it’s just me. I’m not surprised women find the return to work a challenge and often end up weaning. We need to be hugely supportive of expressing and on-site creches to change this work culture. Our babies need breastmilk, until they’re two, ideally. In order to express successfully, women need a relaxed environment and no guilt. The Australian Breastfeeding Association agrees that two thirty-minute lactation breaks are ideal. How can I change my mindset so that this is okay?
The day ended on a great note though: I rang HR to ask about access to the baby care room, and the woman on the other end offered to come down and give me an access card. She turned out to be six months pregnant with her second and keen to get my feedback on the room: what needed to change? Would a PC in there help? And she reassured me that it would quickly be a thing I’d only need to do once a day as my baby’s needs changed. She also fed her first child until she was almost two, and started work when the baby was seven months old.
Work/life balance is great as a concept, but I now realise I needed a life induction as well as a work induction. I’m so glad it happened, even though it was random. And I’ll make a note of it so I can ease the transition of other women into work in future. Returning to work without support has the potential to overwhelm women, leading to early weaning. Breastfeeding until baby is two has the potential to undermine some of feminism’s gains if we think it means tying women to the home and out of paid work — women in some cultures have been working with babies on their backs, feeding them regularly on the job for years. Let’s see if we can’t combine our achievements in the workplace with our knowledge of what’s best for our babies.