Before I got pregnant, I never gave much thought to what “work-life balance” even meant. During my first trimester, though I wavered between relief (it took months of patience to pee my way to a positive test result), hardcore Googling of phrases such as “how to keep a newborn alive” and uncertainty that I could actually handle a job, baby, commute and leaking boobs. By the time I was six months pregnant, I had made charts and lists of everything to be delegated during my maternity leave from my website editor job. I even mapped out the promotion I wanted upon my return. On the home front, my husband and I upped our savings, moved to a bigger place in the ‘burbs and watched The Happiest Baby on the Block on a loop. Who said being a working mom was tough? Who said I couldn’t have it all? The baby had three more months to arrive, but I was already kicking ass and up for the challenge. I was organized, prepared and focused, ready for anything…
Except losing my job.
I was late to work after a particularly long sonogram appointment. My daughter was moving around so much that I had to stay in the waiting room until she settled down and the technician could get a good look. Perhaps she sensed something was brewing and wanted to delay the inevitable? Because as I waltzed back into work, still on the high of seeing my unborn daughter, something was off. The usually boisterous and vibrant newsroom felt stagnant, only hushed voices fluttered around me. I shrugged and took my seat, wanting to get through my work so I could go home to fawn over sonogram pictures and sort onesies by color and size. That plan was derailed when the head of HR appeared at my desk. I followed him into an empty office where words like, “restructuring” and “eliminated” and “severance” floated over me. I sat in shock, unable to move and definitely unable to process the gravity of what he was saying.
“I need your building pass, and someone can help with your belongings,” he said stiffly. I absently placed my hand over my stomach, realizing that I had an out: “You can’t do this,” I practically yelled. “I’m six months pregnant!”
I remember crying. I remember sending an incredibly nasty and therefore cathartic text to my direct manager (he was conveniently at “lunch” when this all went down). I remember desperately trying to pull every important contact and bit of information off my work email before it shut down. But more than anything, I remember that zen I had finally achieved since getting pregnant fade away—and with it, my maternity leave. My 10-minute cab ride home feeling like 10 hours. I called a lawyer only to find out that while you can’t be terminated because you’re pregnant, pregnancy doesn’t protect you from budget cuts, reorganization and other normal reasons for layoffs. The optimism I felt about my work-life balance was replaced with dread. I should’ve been happy that my maternity leave could begin way ahead of schedule. Instead, I panicked and felt betrayed, and my self-esteem plummeted. Everyone told me it was just a minor setback, but I was convinced my career was over and would never recover—especially once my baby arrived.
So, I put nesting on the backburner. I didn’t want my daughter born into financial strain. I didn’t want the stress and pressure of finding a job weighing on me while adjusting to motherhood. Within roughly 72 hours of my layoff, I nabbed three freelance assignments, four meetings and a job interview. Within a week, I’d doubled that slate. After one month (and two months till my due date), I was on the path to recovering about 60% of my salary.
Yet, the main question my friends and family asked—especially my husband—what was my maternity leave plan?
Actually, it was less of a question and more of a demand to create one for myself. Their argument? I was self-employed so I had to do right by my only employee—myself. In hindsight, there was no reason for such apprehension. We had a cushion of savings and hardly any debt. My husband, a paramedic/firefighter, brought in a steady income (and being in that field, staunch job security). Yet, I put immense pressure on myself. At 38 weeks pregnant, I took a gig running social media for a new men’s lifestyle brand. At 39 weeks, I had an unplanned C-section and my daughter was born.
The very next day, that new gig asked if I could post something on their Twitter feed. My husband, already upset that I was checking email (I swore I was simply putting up an out-of-office message), begged me to ignore it. Instead, I replied, “Great news—my baby is here and I’m recovering from a C-section so I’ll be offline for a bit.” But my client responded, “Please—it’ll just take five minutes.”
So, I complied.
And a vicious cycle began. I was home from the hospital for one day, overwhelmed by the challenges of breastfeeding, swaddling and existing on tiny patches of sleep, when I started “glancing” at my email. Then I “only responded to important ones.” Soon enough, I was glued to my phone/laptop/iPad in between feedings and naps (in fairness, newborns sleep a LOT), pitching and accepting assignments. I estimate my total maternity leave was six days, if that.
That was five years ago, and I still cringe that I didn’t welcome the space, embrace the change and take a much-deserved time-out that only could’ve benefited me, my daughter and even my career after I was laid off. Today, I’d never allow a job loss to define me. I have a much better grasp on doing what matters, only accepting things that are truly worth it and always setting—and sticking to—boundaries. Here’s why:
I Know the Value of My Time
Giving into panic and fear leads to rash decisions. All those assignments I landed within days of being laid off? Half of them were junior-level work, and most took too much time and energy to justify the low rate they paid. Once I settled into motherhood, all I wanted to do was spend time with my baby and be present for every milestone. Yet when my daughter was 3 weeks old, I scheduled a work call while she was sleeping. She woke up, too hungry to wait, so I tried to discreetly nurse her and pay attention to the call, but she was fussy and wouldn’t latch…and I bombed the assignment. I let down my daughter and the editor—over a project I accepted because I thought I needed it, not because I wanted it. Now, before I accept a new job, project or assignment, I always ask myself if I really care about the work at hand. I do? Great. Next I figure out the time commitment, including how much of that time will affect my family time.
I used to accept offers the way they were presented to me and believed that I had no say in anything, especially the pay. But it’s a two-way street and if a company wants to hire you, they’ll hear you out. They might not always come through, but you never know unless you ask. I want my daughter to grow up knowing—and going after—her worth. She can only do that if I set the example. I accepted so much work (work that was way beneath my pay scale) just after my layoff out of fear. I feared by saying “no” that I’d never nab another assignment again and if that happened, I’d surely run out of money. The irony is that whenever I said “yes” to lower-level opportunities, I wasn’t available for the career prospects and milestones I really wanted and paid well.
Boundaries Are My Friend
I don’t like living with regrets, but I’ll never get over agreeing to work not even 12 hours after my C-section. The trigger was that my client said, “It’ll just take five minutes” and I thought, What’s the harm? I need the work. But saying “yes” sent the message that if I was willing to work from my hospital bed then I’d be willing to answer emails at midnight and drop everything on weekends. It sent the message that I was the 7-11 equivalent of a freelance writer and “always open” for business. It set the tone for my non-existent maternity leave which ultimately was overwhelming and counterproductive. Though I justified it by trying to work around my daughter’s erratic newborn schedule, that meant I was pulling double duty as a new mom and freelance writer. Today, I only work from 9:30 a.m.to 4:30 p.m. while my daughter is in school. So far, no employer has complained and that’s because I’ve never been more focused and productive since setting—and sticking to—those hours. My motivation is spending precious quality time with my daughter once my work day wraps up. It’s not just me. My working mom friends kick ass because when you have an exact timeframe to work and make money so quality time with your kids won’t suffer, you hustle to get it done and get it done well.
I’ve Let Go of the “Supposed-tos”
Before getting laid off, it never occurred to me that I’d be anything but a traditional, full-time working mom. I assumed coming back to work would be heartbreaking but productive. I’d catch up on sleep during my morning commute and stay on top of my workload on my way home. When I had to change course, I felt paralyzed. Could I freelance and work from home or even, gasp, take a pause? I could’ve comfortably taken at least a few solid weeks of uninterrupted maternity leave once my baby was born. My career was such a core part of my identity that I couldn’t even separate it from my new identity as a mother. Well, I’m here to tell you that Elsa was right. Motherhood, especially working motherhood, means you must “let go” of old expectations. I’ve always been one to panic and jump into “worst-case scenario” mode but newsflash: being a mom means things rapidly change and will always be out of your control. Once you accept that, it makes things much more bearable. You know what I do today, when I’m in between projects or a job ends abruptly? I go to the spa. Yes, I know that sounds luxurious and frivolous, but my layoff taught me to embrace the gift of time whenever it’s presented to me. So rather than panic and scream, I relax and enjoy the fleeting quiet before going back into “mom mode,” since that’s the only full-time job that’s worth the 24/7 demands.