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Easing Back to Work: Ideas & Options

By SHAWNA GAMACHE

Local PEPS parents are getting creative with work schedules, rethinking child care arrangements and building up to full-time daycare to manage life after maternity leave. They say planning ahead can make the transition easier for the whole family.

Aaron Pease
Aaron Pease with his daughter

On Tuesday, Aaron Pease will return to his job as a civil engineer after three months at home caring for his nine-month-old daughter, Stella.

He says he knows he will miss Stella, but he feels comfortable leaving her—with his father and stepmother. For the next two months, they are here from Iowa, renting a house so they can watch Stella until Aaron’s wife, Diane, a school psychologist, is off for the summer.

“We had it figured out pretty early on,” Aaron said of his family’s unique childcare arrangement, which started with Diane caring full-time for Stella last summer and fall before he took 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.

“It wasn’t really financial, it was more we figured out that it could work, and we thought it would be cool to have her either with parents or grandparents for the first year.” Aaron said. His parents are retired and have already come to visit Stella several times, usually over month-long visits.

Aaron said making a gradual transition with Stella’s care has helped her adjust to different full-time caretakers. Aaron started his leave three or four days before Diane ended hers, allowing him to learn the routine she had established and work through initial challenges with her help.

“The first few days were the biggest transition for Stella, she was looking around and she was looking for her mom I think,” Aaron said. “But she didn’t get really distressed; she quickly figured that I was the one that was there and I would take care of her.”

Aaron plans a similar transition with his stepmother, Joan, who will spend four days shadowing him before he goes back to work. The family plans to enroll Stella in part-time childcare in the fall, reducing Diane’s hours so she can still be home with Stella two days a week.

Local parents like Aaron and Diane are planning ahead to ease the transition to life after maternity leave. The changes don’t need to be drastic. Some parents say small things—like a few extra weeks of maternity leave, shifting their workday start for more time at home with baby or building up to full-time daycare over a few days or weeks—can make a big difference.

Making maternity leave last longer

Abbey Norris
Abbey Norris with her son

Abbey Norris decided that a little extra time off would ease her transition back to work. Saved sick and vacation time added up to almost a month.

She said that extra time allowed her to do a more gradual introduction to daycare for her son, Calvin, “ramping up daycare rather than just ripping it off like a bandaid,” to better prepare for pumping breastmilk, and to enjoy her son during a time when he was getting more fun.

“I realized at that point that this is a one-time shot to take that time off and have my work be understanding about it,” said Abbey, a major gift officer at UW medicine. “It made such a difference—it’s just at that point when they're starting to socialize more so it's enjoyable to spend that time with them.”

The first few weeks of part-time daycare went great, Abbey said. But she said the first full week was still "really a shock to his system.”

“I think for that first few weeks he really had to adjust to being much more independent,” she said. But once he adjusted, Abbey said Calvin came to love daycare.

“He really is a social child so having lots of activities and things to watch have been great for him,” she said. “It's hard to leave and know that your child is crying or crying throughout the day but...he was all the better for it.”

Abbey also planned ahead for an easier transition to breastfeeding. That meant having Calvin’s dad, Bryan Agnetta, start giving him the occasional bottle of pumped breastmilk starting at around 4-6 weeks. Abbey also started pumping every evening after Calvin’s bedtime feeding. That helped her build up a stockpile of milk and prepared her for the transition to more regular pumping.

Calvin took quickly to the bottle, and pumping worked well for her, she said. But she said that was partially luck—other women in her PEPS group struggled with pumping and bottle introduction, she said.

“All the moms I talked to that were back to work, pumping is their least favorite thing,” Abbey said. “But it’s so time-limited and it's such a special thing that you can do for your child, and I really wouldn't do it any other way.”

Caroline Hughes' family
Caroline Hughes with her family

Like Abbey, Caroline Hughes used accumulated sick leave so she could have more time at home with her daughter, Elsie, before returning to her job as a King County health educator.

Working at the county for nine years meant Caroline was able to bank quite a bit of sick time. Her employer also has a program that lets co-workers donate sick time to each other. She was able to take off a total of six months.

“When you see all your friends go through having kids, there’s a lot you know not to take for granted,” said Caroline, who had Elsie at age 39. “Once I got to the point when I knew I was having this kid, I just wanted to spend as much time with her as I possibly could.”

Caroline said she was also lucky to have a supportive boss who had taken more than three months off with each of her babies and encouraged Caroline to do the same.

When Caroline went back to work, her husband Jason Hough took over full-time care of Elsie.

“It was kind of an opportune moment because I’m in construction, and it really slowed down for a couple of years,” Jason said. “There weren’t a whole lot of options; there weren’t a whole lot of jobs out there for me.”

Planning ahead helped the family make it work. Jason said spending a few days observing Caroline as she cared for Elsie helped him transition into the role.

Caroline also filled the freezer with meals to make dinnertime less stressful and so she could just play with Elsie when she got home.

After more than four months at home with Elsie, Jason said he has loved watching her development first-hand.

Kelly Cushman
Kelly Cushman with her kids

Making schedule adjustments

Though she hasn’t reduced her working hours, Caroline said she now goes to work earlier so she can miss peak rush hour traffic and spend more time at home.

She remembers one day about a month after she had gone back when she sat in standstill traffic knowing Elsie’s bedtime was only 30 minutes away.

“I’m sitting in my car with tears streaming down my face because I know I can’t see my baby today and there is nothing I can do,” she said. “Figuring out my day so I could get the most time with her has been the hardest part” of going back.

When Kelly Cushman’s maternity leave ended, she and her husband, Kevin, also shifted their schedules to maximize their time with their baby and reduce the number of days they would have to pay for childcare.

Kelly went back to work as an executive assistant at Talyst on a slightly reduced schedule. She worked shorter days, on a 9 to 3 schedule, allowing her to spend more time in the mornings and evening with Kimberley. And she worked four days a week, taking Wednesdays off. Kevin didn’t reduce his hours, but shifted to working four 10-hour days, allowing him to spend his Fridays with Kimberley.

“It was good for me because I felt like I was still part of the working world and I was getting stuff done,” Kelly said. “But there was also the balance of getting lots of time with her, and the times I spent with her were good, happy times and I felt refreshed.”

The shorter days also allowed Kelly to pump only once daily at work, because she could nurse in the morning and the late afternoon. Kelly also pumped twice at home.

Kimberley was a great sleeper, but Kelly was still up with her at least once a night, and sometimes more. She was glad for her mid-week day at home.

“That was my theory behind not working Wednesdays,” she said. “If I needed to catch up on sleep, I could do so on that day she and I had together.”

Transitioning to daycare

Samantha Levine
Samantha Levine with her family

When Samantha Levine’s maternity leave ended and she returned to work full-time, she didn’t send her daughter, Lilly, straight to daycare. Lilly spent the first six weeks with Samantha’s sister-in-law, before transitioning to full-time daycare. Samantha said that made going back to work, as the associate director for donor relations at UW medicine advancement, much easier.

“It was just nice to know she was going to be getting the one-on-one time,” Samantha said. “I wasn’t making the daycare transition while I was also making the back-to-work transition.”

Samantha said going through a mock “back-to-work” routine before her actual return date also helped her prepare. Spending a few days getting up early and getting herself and her daughter dressed and out the door with a packed diaper bag and work bag helped her to figure out how much time she was actually going to need.

She also had her sister-in-law come over one day and feed Lilly exclusively with bottles so she could see how much and when she would need to pump.

“It relieved the stress of not knowing how it was going to go,” Samantha said.

Even with all of her advance preparation, Samantha said she still faced challenges when she went back. About a month after she returned to work, her breastmilk supply started dwindling, despite an employer who was very supportive, providing a dedicated nursing room with a built-in hospital grade pump.

“It’s kind of the bane of my existence,” Samantha said. “My supply seems to wax and wane, and I can’t quite get a handle on why I’m not pumping enough.”

Samantha also struggled with post-partum anxiety that seemed to increase once she returned to work.

“My life became that much busier and it was that much more apparent,” Samantha said. “It felt like everything was awful and it was never going to get better.”

Samantha’s doctor eventually diagnosed her with Postpartum Anxiety Disorder. She said the medication helped her immensely.

“I wish I had just trusted my instincts that I wasn’t feeling right and checked it out sooner because it was so easy to fix,” she said.

Samantha said the transition to daycare was a smooth one for Lilly.

“I was so nervous about that and feeling a little bit guilty,” Samantha said. But “she loved it from the very start; it was just so easy.”

These days, Samantha said the hardest times are when she struggles with sleep deprivation. Right now, she said Lilly has started crawling and is going through a sleep regression, waking every hour, with Samantha lying on a comforter on her floor so she doesn’t have to walk back and forth all night.

“It’s hard to work when I’m this tired,” Samantha said. But she knows it’s temporary. On a few occasions she has dropped Lilly off at her usual morning daycare time and then taken the morning off work to catch up on a few hours of sleep.

Lilly, Samantha and her husband, Josh, all commute together in the mornings and evenings, allowing the family more time together.

Evaluating childcare options

Beth Anderson
Beth Anderson with her family

Beth’s girls at the office
Beth’s girls visiting her at work

When Beth Anderson looked into childcare options for her first daughter, Catelyn, she realized a nanny share would be more affordable than daycare.

Unfortunately, the family ended up having to scramble several times in that first year to find new nanny shares—once after a nanny gave less than a week’s notice before quitting, once when another family had a job loss, and once when their own family moved across town.

Beth said rearranging childcare was stressful for her during an already overloaded time: in addition to being back at work full-time as a web editor at the University of Washington, she became pregnant with the family’s second child when Catelyn was six months old. But she said she still was glad they chose a nanny rather than a daycare.

“I think I was pretty glad to stick with the nannies,” Beth said. “I would have preferred to have a single caregiver through that timeframe ... but we’ve done both nannies and daycare and our daycare experiences have been much more mixed.”

After Beth’s second daughter Julia was born, she ended up leaving her job to care for both children for 10 months.

“We couldn’t afford childcare with two kids under two,” Beth said. “A nanny or daycare was just too expensive.”

When Beth resumed full time work 10-month-old Julia did not adjust well to daycare and the family again found a nanny—this time just paying for one nanny to care for both of their children.

“We were much more comfortable with that,” Beth said. “It was easier for Julia to manage a change in caregiver if she wasn’t also managing a new care environment.

Kelly Cushman also stopped working for the year after her second child, Karl, was born, a choice she describes as “mainly financial.”

“By the time we added the two together it just made sense for me to stay home with Karl and it was great,” Kelly said.

The children are now both in full-time daycare and Kelly works as an executive assistant at Clarisonic. Kelly said their daycare is rare in that it’s only closed six days a year, meaning their family doesn’t regularly have to scramble to cover holidays or teacher-in-service days.

Caroline and Jason have also been looking for full-time daycare for Elsie. Caroline said their biggest struggle has been finding a school that allows for some flexibility in arrival and pick-up times, as well as the lack of flexibility in having to sign up and be wait listed well in advance of when you want your child to begin.

Beth’s children are now 3 and 4 and in full-time daycare as well, and she said she’s learned to embrace the chaos of raising kids while working full-time as web marketing coordinator at Sound Transit.

“Working while having kids is tough to manage, and going back to work for the first time can be really anxiety-inducing,” she said. “At some point, I just had to give up and trust that I would be ok, the girls would be ok, and my career would be ok—and it has been.”


About the Author

ShawnaGamache2kidsesizedShawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter and co-founder of the local blog Moms Alive. She is mama to Ruby (2.5) and Quinn (4.5) and is expecting her third daughter in August. Her PEPS group still meets every other week.

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