Going Back to Work

Adoptive Families readers share their tips for balancing work and family life after bringing their new child home.

Balancing work and family can be tough, but these adoptive families make it work

“Do you work?” It’s a loaded question, whether asked by another mom at the playground or a business-suit-clad professional.

For some parents, working for pay is a subject for debate. But for most adoptive families, whether they are adopting as singles or have added infertility treatments and adoption expenses to an already tight budget, the income is often a necessity rather than a luxury.

Adoptive Families polled its reader panel about balancing work and family life (when to go back, child care options, and so on). If the outpouring of responses is any indication, few decisions are as emotional.

The good news? Although it may take time to find a new equilibrium, almost all the respondents are happy with the balance in their lives. (Mothers made up the vast majority of respondents, but what’s written here applies to dads, as well.)

Patricia O’Connor, mother of two sons adopted last year from Russia, wrote, “Just know that it will work out. In fact, the back-to-work transition was harder for me than it was for the children. Once you find a routine that works for everyone, and you see your child thriving, the worry and anxiety go away.”

Going Back to Work

After bringing home their long-awaited child, adoptive parents want to spend as much uninterrupted time as possible with them. The moms we polled reported patching together a variety of paid and unpaid leave, vacation time, and FMLA family leave, resulting in anywhere from four to 12 weeks of leave. Donna Kirkwood, a working mom in Wheaton, Illinois, successfully negotiated a paid adoption leave in lieu of an annual raise.

Another factor to keep in mind is travel time. Dawn Traub returned to work two days after bringing her daughter home from Kazakhstan — the Riviera, Florida, mom had had to use her five available weeks off on her two adoption trips. “If I’d had the opportunity (meaning, the luxury) to stay home, I might have been tempted. But I’m glad we got into a regular routine right away.”

Nancy Aliff, a mother in Tallahassee, Florida, agrees that settling into the family’s routine as quickly as possible may be best: “I think it might be harder on a child to have a stay-at-home mom for a year and then have her go back to work. Our kids are comfortable with two working parents.”

Many moms, however, try to make a gradual transition back to the workplace. Susan Ryan, a mother of two in McCall, Idaho, sent her daughter to day-care for an hour a day while she was still on leave “so she could get used to the caregivers.” She also adoptive-breastfed her daughter, so she “visited every day to nurse her even after returning to work.”

Depending on your family’s situation, you may be able to devise a unique solution for those first few months. Melanie Springer Mock and her husband work for the same Oregon university, and were both able to take modified maternity leaves. “We rarely saw each other, but one of us was always home with the kids,” recalls Mock. Their co-parenting life-style had an unforeseen benefit: “Our sons bonded well to both of us as primary caregivers.”

Above all, remember that kids are resilient. In fact, most readers who took time off echoed Kyla Lee’s comments: “My son, a newborn, didn’t seem to have trouble adjusting when my three months of maternity leave were up — it was more of an adjustment for me!”

Shifting Your Schedule

Going back to work doesn’t necessarily mean working 9 to 5, five days a week. As Marjorie Cooperman, a reader in Burlington, Massachusetts, put it, “Being a mother provides the motivation and urgency to approach your employer and ask for changes.” Switching to a four-day work week, negotiating early departures in lieu of lunch hour, or working from home one day a week, as Dawn Traub does, are common arrangements for working parents.

Bernice Bethards, of Newark, Ohio, has a more unusual arrangement. She reported that her employer “mommy-tracked her,” switching her to an 8 p.m.-to-4 a.m. workday. The schedule sounds forbidding, but she likes being able to spend her days with her daughter.

Other readers find ways to work around their job requirements. Jo Laws, whose job entails considerable travel, takes her daughter (and a babysitter) along on business trips. “In four years, my daughter and I have spent only two nights apart. I’m negotiating a different schedule right now, though, since I won’t be able to travel once my daughter starts kindergarten next year.”

In many cases, both spouses adjust their schedules. “My husband ultimately changed his work hours the most,” says Kyla Lee. “He came home earlier than he did ‘pre-baby’ and did more than his share of day-care pick-up.”

The Child-Care Question

For most families, going back to work means finding someone to care for their new child during the day. Some families feel the convenience of a nanny or an au pair makes it worth the cost. Most families, however, choose between in-home day-care or a day-care center.

Becky Miklos, a mother in Jupiter, Florida, chose a family day-care center for her oldest child. “It was a calm, friendly environment, where she got the right amount of stimulation. And with just five girls there, my daughter could adapt to the situation slowly, under the care of one loving caregiver.” Bethards tapped her parents for child care: “It works because they are flexible and free!”

Trust your instincts when making your decision. The Coopermans felt at ease the first time they walked into the day-care center they ultimately chose. “That’s how you know you’re dealing with a group of people who will always treat you right.” It also didn’t hurt that the non-profit facility offered a flexible schedule, adding days here and there if needed, and remaining open year-round, “unlike home-based day care, where the providers will close for their own vacation.”

However many options you are considering, readers unanimously advise against making a decision until you know what’s best for your child. “I enrolled my daughter in day-care because I felt it would allow her to acquire English language skills and speed up her motor development,” says a West Springfield, Massachusetts, mom, Catherine Doyle. Diane Slone based her decision on her child’s personality. “My daughter is an extreme extrovert,” observes the Cleveland, Ohio, mother, “so having a group of peers was important.”

As for that potentially stressful moment of separation, seasoned moms offer this advice: “Spend a little time at the day-care center before leaving, and keep the departure ritual the same each day,” says Linda Forde, from Ironton, Minnesota. Don’t try to sneak out or downplay your departure. “I stay upbeat and positive,” says Jo Laws. “I tell her I’ll see her this evening, and I never leave without a hug and a kiss.”

Cementing Your Family

To build bonds with their new children, most working parents devote their at-home hours to them, developing affectionate family rituals and routines.

Angela Ferensic’s son came home from the hospital a few days after his birth. “My husband and I spend every waking moment, outside of work, with our son. And I don’t think this has anything to do with adoption — we’re just working parents trying to maximize our time with our child.”

Sometimes, parents must accept some changes in their routine or their expectations. “My favorite times with my daughter are in the mornings, before we head out for our days,” says Stephanie Gregory, a mother in Sullivan, Ohio. “I get up early enough to get ready before she wakes. Then I feed her and we have some cuddle time.” Single mother Becky Miklos advises, “Keep it simple: Avoid separations (other than day-care), co-sleep, limit outings, purchase convenient meals, and use paper plates. Accept your messy house!”

Parents also learn to make the most of the time they have together. Jo Laws doesn’t resent the 40-minute commute to preschool — in fact, she looks forward to “talking, singing, and playing” with her daughter during the drive.

If you have more than one child, build in some one-on-one time. Linda Forde reads to her children at night. “Each child gets a story (or a chapter or two from a chapter book) and a time for quiet talk. Yes, bedtime can last an hour or longer, but it’s about the only time my fourth grader will tell me about what’s bothering him. We all love story time!”

The Upside of Working

Aside from the obvious financial benefits, working provides a sense of adult identity that can fall away in the first hectic flush of parenting. “When we become mothers, we don’t have to stop being ourselves,” wrote Samantha Teter, a working mom in Huntertown, Indiana. “I enjoy work, and my career is a big part of my identity.” Perhaps that’s why studies indicate that working parents face lower risk of depression than non-working parents.

Marjorie Cooperman found that the intensity of motherhood changed her work days for the better. “I shooed people out of my office, worked hard at combining similar tasks, and so forth.” The best thing about this newfound efficiency? “When I was home, I did not think about work at all.”

Other parents see their work community as a resource for solutions to their parenting problems — and a loving place for children. “My kids feel comfortable at my office,” says Linda Miller, single mother of two. “They get lots of candy, hugs, and other warm acknowledgements whenever they visit.”

In the end, being satisfied with your own choices is the most important thing. Studies suggest that, as long as mothers are happy with their decisions, their children benefit. It’s those who are unhappy — either because they’re working or because they’re not — who suffer the most and risk passing that unhappiness along to their children. So, whatever your needs and options, cultivate a can-do attitude that sees the good side of your own situation.

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