Working Moms Can’t Do It Alone: Teamwork Is Everything
Here’s how to build your own personal support team for yourself and your child.
Part four in a six-part series, Creative Parenting for the Working Mom, from Reinventing the Working Mom®
Teamwork. That’s the key to being a working mom. Most of the world still depends on an extended family to raise children; in fact, some areas still turn out in droves to raise a barn. Without communities, world history would look a lot different. Now, bring that concept into your own home; to balance working life and motherhood, you need your own community, your own team. No one — absolutely no one — does this alone.
When I left — or actually fled — my first marriage, I had to pick up the pieces. I had no home, and under $700 (thanks to my ex) in my bank account. I remember having a panic attack in the airport and thinking that I must be in worse shape than I thought, because my mother went and bought me a bottle of water at Starbucks. (She was opposed on principle because of what she saw as an outrageous expense.)
That time it was my mother that helped me heal. Healing gave me the headspace for what I now call a stop-think-reflect moment. Stop. I took a long pause from what I was doing — running around and making money, assuming that was how I would make sense of the world. Think. I decided there has to be more than this. I read a big book on Buddhism and learned to observe the world around me and see what seemed to fit. I learned to let things go, and start building the life I wanted by making conscious decisions and taking calculated risks.
Most of all, I had to figure out why I had married an emotionally abusive man. Reflect. I laughed and cried at the fact I had married the kind of Chinese man my mother would approve of. Where had that gotten me? What did I really want out of my life?
My answer? A child.
My husband was mercifully out of the picture, but when I did start dating someone, I told him I wanted a baby and he could be as involved as he wanted to be. Either way, I was preparing to be a single mother, and I started formulating my plans and building my teams. I was already eating well and exercising and, amazingly, got pregnant in three months. I reactivated my eight-eight-eight plan that got me through law school, as well as the New York and New Jersey bar exams: eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of fun. This kept my stress levels manageable and almost certainly made my pregnancy easier.
Most important, I shared my wonderful news. As I’ve said in previous installments, intent is a powerful thing. Announcing your intent makes things come true. Maybe it’s because saying it out loud solidifies your hopes and dreams, or maybe it’s because by telling your friends and family, it sharpens your focus and clarifies your goals. It’s like having an accountability partner for the gym. Whatever the case, I had announced my intention to get pregnant; now I was intending to have a healthy baby.
But facing the prospect of being a single working mother taught me the value of having a true team. I had grown up in a Chinese immigrant family made even closer by the fact we were illegals and kept our heads down; my father used to tell us to speak quietly and not to flush the toilet too often so we didn’t attract attention. But now, when I needed my family most, they were states away. Lucky for me, I had friends. And of course, I had a plan.
Here are the steps I took to get ready; yours may be different, but these are some broad strokes you can follow.
Prepare Your Support
It was Sarah, a high-powered DC lawyer, who somehow found the time to be in the delivery room with me and to cook me dinner every night for the next two weeks. When I relocated to New York soon after giving birth, it was Monica who packed up my apartment for me and dealt with the movers. When I settled into my new home but got hit with post-partum depression, it was Lisa, a young mother of two, who forced me to get out of my sweatpants and back to the gym, and later watched Matthew when I went on dates.
Even before I got pregnant, they were there for me. I told Eva once I didn’t know if I could ever be a loving mother; my family’s stoicism was a source of pride. We didn’t even cry at my father’s funeral. She scoffed at this. “I will teach you to be a loving mother,” she said. She kept having me over to play with her girls, and I learned so much by watching them interact with each other. Eva showed me the kind of mother I wanted to be. And when the time came, she was in the delivery room too.
Family, friends, and neighbors: Maybe it’s bringing you a casserole in the evening. Maybe it’s stopping in for a half hour to watch the baby so you can go for a run. Whatever it is, this is your community, and you can’t do without them. Don’t feel bad about asking for help — you’d do the same for them! Helping others is — or should be — human nature.
Childcare: it might be a full-time, live-in nanny. It might be daily daycare. It might be the trustworthy teenager down the street. Whatever kind of childcare you need, start looking early. Do whatever research, financial negotiation, and background checks you need to do before the baby is born, while your head is still clear and you’re getting regular sleep. You’ll have more options if you’re not looking out of desperation.
Co-workers: As we covered in Part Two, no one at work knows what you’re going through unless they’ve been through it themselves — or unless you tell them. Take a few trusted colleagues aside for a heart-to-heart and explain the situation: how long you’ll be out, what you hope to keep doing at home, and what kind of help you might need. Ask them if you can reach out periodically and touch base about a project, or about the office in general. You’ll feel more connected to your pre-baby adult life, and your co-workers will see you’re still dedicated to the job.
Your employer: Here’s where communication is most important. Again, we touched on this in Part Two, but it bears repeating: be open with your employer about your plans. Discuss how much you can do at home and how soon you can return to the office, even part-time. Discuss working remotely, keeping flexible hours, and traveling for business. Let them know what kind of changes you’ll most likely need to make. Your candid assessment will go a long way to preserving open communication down the road.
Prepare Your Physical Health
Although I was in the best shape of my life, I knew my divorce hadn’t done wonders for my immune system. I got my vitals and bloodwork checked, started on prenatal vitamins, and took an already healthy diet (brown rice, kale salad, salmon, walnuts, butternut squash) and improved it (chia seeds, bananas, coconut water — and I discovered I can eat a watermelon a day). I kept reading about the best foods to prepare my forty-year-old body for carrying a baby.
Regular exercise will keep blood flowing, reduce stress, improve sleep, and most likely boost your positive attitude, all of which aids in conception. Every little bit helps. And while there are some targeted exercises you can do, it’s about more than hitting the gym; it’s about keeping your body moving and getting outside your head. During my pregnancy, I walked a lot and had quiet moments with myself — this is crucial, or the worrying will drive you insane. And sometimes there’s actually something to worry about. With Matthew, I was diagnosed with cholestasis of pregnancy, which heightened the risk of his being stillborn.
While you should never try to mask your feelings under a smile, try to keep your stress to a minimum. When I got pregnant with Chloe at 44, I knew my age would present complications. But Wilson and I had already decided to have her no matter what. We told the doctor to limit the prenatal tests, which I felt might cause me even more stress. We were thrilled when we saw she was born with all her fingers and toes, and she’s been perfect ever since. Chloe is a gift because at age 52, Wilson became a biological dad for the first time. To him, Chloe was seven-and-a-half pounds of pure joy.
OB-GYN: Find an OB-GYN you really trust and can communicate with — this is different than when you’re coming in once a year for a breast exam and a pap smear. Your body will be changing in myriad ways, and you don’t want to dget all your advice from the internet.
Yoga therapist: Working with a yoga practitioner or therapist who specializes in pregnancy yoga can ease stress, improve sleep, strengthen muscles needed for labor, and even reduce some nausea or back pain some pregnant women endure. Even better, yoga can inform your decisions to come. “Yoga is a mindful practice with benefits that carry over into relationships we have with ourselves and others, like the food we choose and how we respond to the world around us,” says yoga therapist and working mom Yonnie Fung. “Choosing to approach life more kindly equips pregnant mothers with a healthy mindset for facing the drastic changes ahead — from her body, to the family dynamic, to the rhythm of her life after the baby is born.” Plus, you can meet other pregnant women who can become valuable members of your support group. It’s never too early to set up play dates.
Massage therapist: With your changing body comes a whole host of new aches and pains, but getting a massage is more than just relaxing tired muscles or easing stress. Starting a routine — now — where you look after yourself, is crucial for the kind of self-care habits you’ll need to develop as a working mom. These routines can save your life, or at least your sanity — which sometimes feels like your life!
Nutritionist: It took a while, but medical doctors have finally recognized that medicine is only enhanced by good nutrition. Still, they’re not experts. A nutritionist can help you plan a diet that is best for your body, and the benefits are endless.
Prepare Your Financial Health
Kids are expensive. And not only had I lost my life savings, I also now had only one income. I went into planning mode. After my divorce, I had moved to Chicago and found a good job, then moved to Washington DC for a better one. I’ve always been a saver and good at living within a budget, so as soon as I had saved enough, I started trying to get pregnant. I also met with my financial advisor who told me I could sell my stocks from my previous employer. This windfall allowed me to be a stay-at-home mom for Matthew’s first year on this earth, something I’ll always be grateful for.
Financial advisor: Even if you are light on assets and income, having an advisor could not only stabilize your future, it could also save time and stress in your present. Check for recommendations with friends or family members in similar life situations. In addition, be sure to go with a CFP (certified financial planner) that is also a fiduciary; this way they are licensed and have pledged to act in your interests, not theirs.
Prepare Your Mental Health
I had planned for everything…I thought. But after Matthew was born, I couldn’t get out of bed. I kept crying and didn’t know why. I couldn’t remember the simplest things and couldn’t concentrate on anything.
Post-partum depression (PPD) affects 60 percent of American women; still, I couldn’t believe it would ever apply to me. Ever. After all, I negotiated multimillion-dollar deals every day. Mental illness did not happen in my family (at least no one ever talked about it). Worse, when my mother agreed that I might have PPD, she said I was strong enough to get though it myself. “Look at how cute your son is,” she said. “You should be the happiest person on earth.”
But I wasn’t. I knew I needed help when Matthew was not gaining enough weight. I can still remember looking at my five-month-old in his crib and not believing how small he was. I was so focused on making him nutritious food, I was too stressed to make sure he really ate or to make mealtimes fun. After calling a PPD hotline for help, the counselor asked me if I enjoyed being with my baby. I had to tell her the truth. “I don’t know.” Not being able to enjoy, or even feed my own child was humiliating, and I felt like an unfit mother. Isn’t that the maternal instinct? Why can everyone do it but me? The counselor made me realize I needed professional help. I learned how to recognize and manage my emotions and stop judging myself. Most importantly, I could enjoy Matthew again.
Counselor: Having post-partum depression isn’t something to prepare for, but do a little research anyway so you can recognize the signs and get help if you need it. Most importantly, understand that if it happens, it is not your fault. This is common, and there is plenty of help available.
Personal trainer: Why isn’t this listed in the physical health section? Because this is about more than losing that baby weight or slipping back into a size two. Recovering from childbirth comes in many forms; for me, forcing myself to get out of the house and back to my gym gave me that sense of control I had been missing and the endorphin rush I needed. (My personal trainer asked me to take three spinning classes a week and eat an organic egg a day to keep my heart fit. And I felt great.)
In Anne Davis Baskin’s excellent book on working with seniors, Creative Care: A Revolutionary Approach to Dementia and Elder Care, there’s a quote that stood out to me: “This was the most challenging, difficult, and beautiful experience I have gone through. I would do it again in the blink of an eye.” I could say the same thing about having children. Having Matthew required lots of planning and conquering my own fears. It wasn’t easy — it never, ever is. But with careful planning, listening to my body, and understanding my fears, my experience having Matthew was so wonderful I went and did it again.
Of course, by that time I had found the world’s most wonderful partner — something I highly recommend. And that brings us to Part 5: The Power of Two — A Working Mom’s Partner, coming soon.
Can’t wait for the next installment? Get the Creative Parenting for the Working Mom e-book today, complete with worksheets, checklists, and practical tips, from Reinventing the Working Mom.® Email email@example.com for information.