How much should parents unplug on maternity leave?
New mom Jennifer Carnig found herself reaching for her smartphone during the 3 a.m. lulls.
Waking when her infant stirred during the night, Carnig was awake for long, quiet stretches — and although she was on maternity leave, she sometimes used the time to check work email or catch up on reading that was relevant to her job as a communications director for a nonprofit in New York.
Carnig felt the tug between her baby and her job. Many parents on maternity or paternity leave face a similar quandary: Do they carve time out to stay connected with their job or completely cocoon with their baby?
Deciding how plugged in to be is a personal decision, experts say. Parents weigh factors that range from family priorities to job demands — a nurse can possibly leave tasks at the hospital door, but a lawyer might feel unable to leave her case files untouched.
Letting go of a career, even temporarily, can create anxiety.
“Many new moms feel a little bit lost with sudden displacement of their career,” said Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”
And many parents, even those who are happy to concentrate on baby, report feeling pressure to stay in touch with their jobs — whether it’s because of ever-looming deadlines or just wanting to stay abreast of office happenings.
In a recent Boston College Center for Work & Family study, about half of the fathers surveyed said they worked during paternity leave. Only 18 percent reported that they did not work at all. Nearly half (45 percent) of them checked email at least once a day; nearly a quarter (23 percent) worked from home during leave.
And a Pew Research Center report found that women are returning to work much sooner than in former decades: 73 percent of women who had their first baby between 2005 and 2007 went back to work within six months. In the early 1960s, that number was 21 percent.
When Lindsay Pinchuk was pregnant with her first daughter and working in advertising, her company hired someone to cover her territory. She happily dismantled work email from her phone.
When she was awaiting the arrival of her second child, she knew it would be different — Pinchuk had started her own business, Bump Club and Beyond, which hosts events in 17 cities.
“We were in growth mode, and I couldn’t just stop working,” she said.
Plotting months in advance, she arranged help, making sure someone attended company parties during the later months of her pregnancy and into her first months as a brand-new mom. For example, days after her daughter was born, her mother attended a Halloween event on her behalf.
“Instead of helping with the baby, she helped with this event,” Pinchuk said.
She also declined many meetings for months after her daughter’s birth, giving herself time to get settled.
Pinchuk talks to parents daily through her company, and more than ever, she said, “I’m hearing about women feeling that they have to go back earlier, that they have to check their email.”
She added, “I’ve had multiple conversations with people who were six to eight weeks into maternity leave, and they were like, ‘I might go into the office for a few days.’ My response is always, once you open that can of worms, there’s no going back. That time is legally yours, so you should take it.”
Carnig knew she wouldn’t be able to fully step away. And she didn’t want to. Many of her daily tasks — reading the newspaper, staying current on events — are things she enjoys, she said. Though she lurked on email, she rarely responded.
“I was trying to be really protective of my time with my son,” she said. “I think I did the best I could, but I also respect the people I work with and for, and felt a little bit pulled in both directions.”
Whether you skim email or stay blissfully ignorant, planning ahead is key. Some tips:
The first thing to do: Decide how connected you want to be
“It’s definitely not one-size-fits-all,” said Delaine Barr, part of the Americas Executive Coaching Team at Ernst & Young, which offers pre-paternity-leave advice for employees.
Some employees want to remain completely disconnected, Barr says. Others, however, say that would make them anxious, always wondering what is going on — and what they’re missing. For them, Barr suggests establishing a plan — say, touching base with people every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., or providing a number co-workers can text.
Walfish advises parents that the most important time to be fully present with their children is feeding time.
‘The main psychological objective for the new baby is bonding,” Walfish said — and attachment happens during feedings, while being breast-fed or bottle-fed, by mother or father, she said.
After parents acknowledge that feeding time is important and give it their full attention, they need to give themselves permission to focus elsewhere at other times, Walfish said.
“The mother does not have to be focused on the baby 24/7” for successful bonding, she said.
And parents shouldn’t isolate themselves, she added. It doesn’t matter how they’re seeking connection, be it from work email, time with friends or parenting groups.
“Isolation is the kiss of death for new moms,” she said. “I don’t think mothers need to do work, but I do think it’s a really great idea to check emails, even if they’re not necessarily initially the work emails, but stay connected socially and to friends and friends that work. Don’t lose your contact and your lines to the outside world.”
Before you walk out the door, meet with your boss
Suggest to your boss, “Let’s talk about the plan in place,” said Donna Levin, co-founder and vice president of Care.com Workplace Solutions, which offers a Maternity Leave Toolkit.
“(Companies) try and be really clear with a lot of other rules and boundaries and expectations that we have in the workplace,” she added, saying this should be no different.
Similar conversations helped Jeremy Kuhlmann, a Seattle senior manager in assurance services at Ernst & Young, feel at ease leaving when his son Carter was born in 2012. Discussions with both his boss and team covered who would take which responsibilities. He also set up an out-of-office email directing questions to colleagues.
“The communication aspect of it is so key,” Kuhlmann said. “Helping your employer think through how they might manage through that time is very helpful.”
Pinchuk also suggests getting comfortable with ‘no’
“If you’re always saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ that’s when a new mom is going to run (herself) into the ground,” she said.
Once the baby arrives, follow the priorities you set up — as well as you can after a radical life change.
“I can’t stress the importance of a plan,” Levin said.
“Even if things go wrong or they don’t go according to plan, you’re just slightly off course, as opposed to (being in) the land of the unknown.”
She speaks from experience — she encountered a similar challenge when she faced health problems during her own pregnancy.
Levin’s plan during her maternity leave included engagement time (checking email during the baby’s naps, for example), but that all went out the window with a doctor’s order of bed rest at 30 weeks. Nevertheless, from her bedroom, Levin helped find her replacement, conducted interviews and remotely attended meetings.
Eventually, stepping away from her job was decided by someone else: One day Levin tried to check email — only to find it blocked by the human resources department.
“That was one way of getting me disconnected,” she said, adding that it forced her to step away and fully enjoy time with her family. “I learned my lesson.”
After leaving the office, Kuhlmann said he checked email occasionally, but only out of his own curiosity. The time with his son was so successful, he added, that he and his wife agreed on taking the exact same approach for their second child.
Meeting with a coach at his company, who helped him navigate what paternity leave would look like, helped him feel comfortable disconnecting.
He knew that his team was OK without him, following the plan they had in place divvying up tasks, so he knew he was not needed for tasks while he was away. This helped him relax and soak up time with the newest member of his family.
“I didn’t feel any pull toward work,” he said.
Levin’s final advice for parents? If you can disconnect, pull that plug.
“It’s such a special time in your life,” she said. “It’s so rare that you will ever have that opportunity again.”