Working parents/successful childcare

When my daughter was born, I was ambivalent about returning to work. I’d spent three years as a writer for a big corporation and while I enjoyed my job, I wasn’t so sure about going back. My manager, who I loved, had exited the company shortly before I left on maternity leave, and my future at work seemed dicey. Who would be my new boss? Would he or she “get” the whole parenting thing? How would I manage a stressful job when I was chronically exhausted?

“I think most women are ambivalent about returning to work,” says Marisa Thalberg, founder of Executive Moms, an organization that offers support and networking opportunities for working mothers. “While they may look forward to the validation that their careers provide and may enjoy a break from changing diapers, they are often distressed about leaving their babies for extended periods of time and worry about what life back in the office will bring.”

Changing gears

In my case, I ultimately decided to resign from my position so I could attempt to make a living as a freelance writer. The work was a little slow to come at first, but soon enough I was juggling several projects while simultaneously caring for a baby who was about five months old. I was happy to get the work and excited about completing it from home on my own schedule.

But I quickly discovered that the “flexibility” I’d been idealizing was significantly less often than what I’d expected, primarily because I didn’t initially see the need for childcare. “I’ll just work when she sleeps!” I told myself. Inevitably, I’d accept a rush job assignment on a day when my daughter decided naps were unnecessary, and I’d end up cranking out the work late at night when she was finally asleep.

Other parents have faced similar challenges. “Once I brought my son to work when he was sick because another employee offered to watch him while I saw clients,” says Jenny, a therapist in Minneapolis. “Apparently, that was a novice mistake, and I was scolded by my otherwise extremely supportive—and a mom herself—boss. I feel like what people say is true—that in cases like this you’re doing everything halfway instead of one thing well.”

Tips for working parents

Eventually it became clear to me that while I might be saving money on childcare, I was making myself exhausted and potentially shortchanging my clients by doing my work in fits and starts throughout the day. I started hiring a babysitter for a few hours several times a week and worked like crazy at a local coffee shop. I was amazed to discover how much more productive I could be when I had some uninterrupted time to work, instead of the pockets of quiet time doled out by my unpredictable infant.

“Finding—and keeping—good childcare is one of the hardest, most critical, least understood components to working parenthood. You simply cannot go to work, or do a good job once you’re there—without it,” says Leslie Morgan Steiner, a work-life columnist for the Washington Post.

But how do you find this elusive good childcare? And what can parents do to make the transition back to work easier?

“Start looking for childcare early—ideally, right after you find out you’re pregnant,” says Sarah, a project manager from St. Paul. “I didn’t start looking until after my first child was born, and I was scrambling to find care when it was time to go back to work.”

Many parents I spoke with repeated this advice—start the childcare search early, and check out many options. Consider all the possibilities, like in-home childcare, a daycare center, or a nanny or nanny-share arrangement. And if you settle on an arrangement early on, be sure to revisit that choice later in the pregnancy and after your baby is born.

“I was so proud of myself for reserving our place in daycare during my second trimester,” says Emily, a graphic designer from Minneapolis. “I didn’t go back for another visit until after our daughter was born…then I realized I had misgivings about the place. I couldn’t leave her there! We had to find a nanny at the last minute.”   

Once you’ve settled on a childcare provider and it’s time to make the transition back to work, many parents suggest building some flexibility into a schedule the first few weeks. If possible, ease your child into the new arrangement with shorter days at the beginning. Make sure your employer understands the situation and that you might need leave work early occasionally to pick up your child.

One of the most common themes that came up in my conversations, however, was the importance of letting go of any guilt you might have about using childcare. “Studies show that quality care helps children bond with other caring adults and children in productive, healthy ways that strengthen a child’s self-esteem and self-reliance. Teaching your child to trust others—and himself—is part of good parenting,” says Steiner.

Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband, 
Nick, and daughter, Lydia. Send questions or comments