Leading up to the birth of my first son in March 2008, I had grand and romantic notions of the maternity leave to come. With a few months off from the daily grind of deadline-filled freelancing, I imagined I would have time to reflect on where my career had been and where it was going – all while snuggling my adorable newborn. I would return to work refreshed and renewed.
The reality was much different.
After weeks that turned into months of around-the-clock nursing and torturous sleep deprivation with an infant who hated to be put down, I was barely functional when I returned to my desk. I was too tired to care about whatever new discoveries were appearing in Science and Nature each week. I had to take frequent breaks to feed the baby, which ruined any momentum I had managed to build in the previous two hours. And because I had been out of the loop for a while, I worried that editors had forgotten about me and that the freelance world had left me behind.
Forget about striking off in inspiring new directions. My goal was simply survival.
The good news is that things eventually settled. Baby started sleeping more or less through the night. My excitement about new ideas and ability to work efficiently returned. The paychecks started coming in again.
As I ramped back up to a full-time schedule, I found a new steady gig and even started traveling again, including a week on a dive boat off the coast of Fiji when my son was a year and a half old.
All was going well until I took another leave of absence after the birth of my second son in January. This time, my expectations were much lower. I didn’t even bother trying to reassess my life during the newborn months and instead prioritized the task of adjusting to life as a parent of two.
Still, reentry to the work world after 13 wonderful but exhausting weeks was bumpy yet again. Four months later, I am just beginning to get enough perspective (and continuous hours of sweet sleep) to share what I (and my SciLance cohorts) have learned about planning for and returning from a leave of absence, whether it be for a baby, an illness, an extended trip or something else:
Give yourself the gift of time
I took between three and four months off after both of my kids were born, but looking back, I wish I had taken longer. That’s what Kendall Powell (bio) did, and advanced planning (i.e. stockpiling money beforehand) helped her take the time she needed.
“With both kids, I planned to take off six months of maternity leave and I saved up enough money in advance to cover my expenses during that time (including daycare costs for the oldest child to continue to go to daycare while I was home with the second one),” Kendall says. “I think in both cases, I took on a few assignments before the official end so that I could ease back into things without an initial gap in income when I was running low on my saved-up stash.”
Cushion the reentry
After time away, it can be a shock to the system to suddenly sit at your desk all day. I came back to work part-time after both of my maternity leaves and Virginia Gewin (bio) was lucky enough to be able to do the same after the birth of her daughter.
“I slowly, and I mean slowly, worked back into a half time schedule over three to six months,” she says. “I first started doing a short, 400-word monthly news story for Frontiers in Ecology, doing interviews during naps. Then I slowly started pitching Q&A’s. I don’t think I started pitching features again until Esme was closing in on 1-year-old.”
Line up work for your return – or don’t
For a few years before my second leave, I had established a regular gig as a contributing writer for Discovery News. When my second baby was born, my editors allowed me to take a few months away and come back whenever I was ready. That was enormously comforting to me to know that there was work – and money – waiting for me on the other end.
Jennifer Cutraro (bio) had a similar experience after a 15-month leave with her first daughter. “I came back to work when I started writing weekly lesson plans for the New York Times Learning Network,” Jennifer says. “It was a reliable, steady gig, and for me coming back to work after such a long break and with a toddler to take care of, I appreciated that I could focus simply on my writing and not on pitching, negotiating contracts, and constantly looking for the next gig.”
Depending on the reason for your leave, though, the opposite can also be true. When Douglas Fox (bio) returned from two months in Antarctica (on a reporting trip), he intentionally left his work calendar relatively empty to give himself time to pursue assignments based on the expedition.
“I kind of knew there would be a lot of stories coming out of the trip and I wanted to leave space to spin out some of them while they were still fresh,” Douglas says. To give himself that space, he planned ahead. “Really, the main planning ahead that I did was just piling up three months worth of income during the year before. One of the bigger things I did was take on higher paying non-journalism work so I could have a cushion.”
Plan for a ramp-up period
One of the most stressful things about coming back from time off is the inevitable lag between pitching and getting paid. To buffer the delay, Virginia suggests keeping lines of communication open with your work life.
“Make sure you keep in contact with editors while you are away–even if it’s a, ‘Hey, I saw this story and it was great,’” she says, “or a ‘I’m gearing up for more pitches–anything in particular you are looking for?’ emails.”
Appreciate being back
Despite the challenges, there is plenty to enjoy about returning to the world of the ideas after time away.
“After having kids, it’s been nice to get back to my ‘old self,’” says Alison Fromme (bio). “My whole life I’ve been an idea person, a writing person, an independent introvert. When I’m with my kids, I’m challenged in other ways.”
“It felt great” to work again after more than a year off with her first daughter, adds Jennifer. “I missed using that part of my brain and I was so happy to be using it again. It also was a welcome change of pace. Simply sitting in a coffeehouse and writing was something I hadn’t carved out the time to do in the entire fifteen months between when I had my daughter and when I started working again. I also found it incredibly energizing to be re-engaging with the worlds of science, writing and teaching.”
“I like my job and I found after the first maternity leave that I missed it,” Kendall says. “I enjoyed having adult conversations and learning about interesting topics and reading things other than Goodnight Moon.”
Image credit: Gabriel Keller