Jenny Novak Publications

Emergency Manager | Speaker | Writer

Tag: maternity leave

An Ode to Maternity Leave

In the beginning of your life there were three: your father, you and me. We thrived for six wonderful weeks free from the hassle of commutes and the distractions of office work.

When dad returned to work, it was just you and me, I wasn’t quite sure how it would be. It hasn’t always been easy but it has always been marvelous. Although it surpasses the depth of words, I will try to paint for you a picture of the most special time in my life and the most precious memories that you have given me.

Early afternoon weekday walks through our neighborhood, you watch the seasons change slowly for the first time from your seat, catching glimpses of falling leaves, jack o’ lanterns, wreaths, then trees banished to the curbside.

As a sleepy newborn with closed eyes you raise your eyebrows and jut out your lower chin, seeking out my nipple.

When you awake from night’s slumber we partake in our morning routine, opening blinds and bidding good morning to each room and your reflection in the mirror.

I watch the wonder in your eyes when you feel your first rain and we hunker down, not leaving the warm walls of the house as the rain patters softly around us.

Your eyes droop closed while nursing, your cherub cheeks so still and perfect as your rhythmic suckling slows gently to a mere instinctual reflex and I let you sleep on my breast in the house’s midday silence while I read a mystery novel.

The smiles you elicit from strangers midweek at the grocery store while I show you where we find our food and fill the cart’s cupholder with a Starbucks treat.

I chart the shadows of the house at the tail end of summer, learning when they allow for blanket time in the backyard as you learn to lift your head steadily.

Unaware of the hour, we accidently mix with the backpack clad children walking to school while we are enroute to the local coffee shop, I daydream about how you’ll look at that age.

Errands that I used to drive to become excuses for exercise, another opportunity to show you the world through the vantage point of your stroller.

We watch the cars clear one side of the street for the weekly sweeping, and push past the sweeper driver and parking enforcement officer casually chatting on a crisp morning.

Unexpected cuddles transform my afternoon and I forgo my loosely made plans in favor of the soft warmth of your skin on mine as we lazily watch a Lifetime movie.

I retrieve my mixer and show you how to bake holiday goodies that we take to the neighbors who smile sweetly at you and your wild hair, strapped snuggly to my chest.

We hear tales of traffic on the morning news and I imagine its snarling storm around us while we are nestled comfortably in our little neighborhood bubble.

I let you carve the path of my agenda-free days: feed you on demand, snuggle you when you’re tired, and move through each room in the house to entertain you.

From the library’s alphabet carpet you smile shyly at the other babies with their nannies and look anxiously for me while perched on your tummy.

Monday morning at 9am we join the other littles for a swimming lesson in place of the staff meetings I once endured.

Always vigilant of your safety, I dial deeply into the neighborhood routines and anticipate each jogger and dog walker’s passage on our street.

The coming of the garbage truck is a weekly milestone, and we take note of when it comes and goes.

We follow the Amazon delivery van from house to house, you in your stroller—blissfully unaware of how many of your accessories came into our home that way.

We burrow so deeply into the house that we become familiar with microclimate that shifts diurnally and I adjust the layers of your clothes to your comfort.

You watch in fascination as the patterns of sunlight dance across the living room in late afternoon, I marvel at how they differ from season to season.

I bring you to the studio for your first yoga class and you roll across the shining wooden floors while I attempt my first sun salutation as a mother.

Your little hand grabs at my favorite ceramic mug as I sit leisurely sipping my morning coffee, smugly pleased at the retirement of the travel mug.

We indulge in the independence to feed on demand: you free from the confines of a clocked bottle and me liberated from the mediocrity of a boxed lunch.

I tell my friends they can come over anytime to meet you and I mean it, our schedule can be molded around theirs.

When you struggle with sleep overnight I am up to comfort without hesitation or complaint since the next day presents no hurried obligations or mental challenges.

We shoo away the neighborhood cats that come to play with a mouse in our backyard because they assume we are all away for the day.

You teach me a whole new meaning of prioritization, your beautiful smile is my day’s only true goal.

I make time for weekday phone conversations with friends who are all so excited to meet you.

The intimacy between us knows no bounds as I have been with you every day of your life, cherishing the nuances of your bowel movements, your naps and your meals.

We bask in the apricity of our little corner of the world and I wonder if you remember the sunflowers of summer that used to line these streets.

When we get a late start to our walk, we are joined by the cars returning one by one from the outside world as the empty driveways begin to fill.

Untethered from time’s obligations, I rock you to sleep in your clockless room, cherishing the soft stillness of your skin on mine, not knowing or caring how long it takes.

Our walking route shifts and meanders as the days grow shorter and I grow stronger, we add a jog up the hill to the river vista.

I read your favorite books so often that I have committed them to memory, adding new inflections to the stories as I please.

We attend your first music class, you make friends and learn Christmas music rhymes while mom and dad smile and sing to you proudly.

Laying on the couch, we FaceTime with grandma filling the hour between your afternoon nap and dinner preparations.

Our relationship is priceless, so deeply intimate that our bodies still merge as one for your feeding several times a day.

When strangers join us, you look around anxiously for me and give them a big sad lip, crying until you are in my arms again.

We take a field trip to Garden Grove to enjoy a picnic lunch in the park with Aunt Ellen.

I lounge in moments of calm and silence gazing at you lovingly through your baby monitor while you snooze peacefully in your crib—happy to rest but excited to see your smile again.

I am deeply familiar with the daily pattern of your eyes, from their wide early morning excitement to the drowsy fluttering droop after your evening bedtime story.

We walk to the wetlands daily where we monitor the water level and marvel at the colony of ducks that shifts through the seasons.

You gave me this new and wonderous life as mama and transformed my perception of the life of a stay-at-home mom from skeptical to envious.

I will forever be thankful for the luxury of reflecting on this time in months and seasons rather than days and weeks.

I will never forget the beauty and bliss of these minute moments and the intimacy we’ve shared during your beautiful first six months of life.

Advancing Your Career While on Maternity Leave

As 2019 ends, my six month maternity leave from my full-time job is drawing to a close. Before deciding to take such a long leave of absence, I was aware of some of the drawbacks that parents (women in particular) face when taking time off from a career to care for children. A 2018 study by the National Women’s Law Center revealed that mothers earn only 71 cents for every dollar that men earn—meaning that having Scarlett G theoretically decreased my earning potential from the 81 cents on that dollar that females without children earn. This so-called ‘motherhood penalty’ results in mothers earning an average of $16,000 less annually than men. The same study shows that employers view mothers as less devoted to their jobs. Another study shows that women’s income drops 30% and never catches up!

As I begin to think about the impending sad day where I will leave my girl at day care all day of course I feel tempted to just prolong my leave and stay home with her, especially given the price tag of the day care. But I also remember that taking additional unpaid time off or quitting my job to become a stay at home mom comes with an even steeper motherhood penalty. According to the Center for American Progress, a young woman who takes 5 years off to care for children can expect her lifetime earnings to be reduced by a whopping 20%. While this may seemingly make immediate financial sense due to the rising costs of childcare (particularly for infants), there are hidden factors that must be accounted for such as the opportunity cost (the impact of the break on her potential raises and promotions) and the reduction in wages saved for her retirement. These hidden lifetime costs could actually amount to 3 times the wages lost alone. Additional studies have shown the longer the maternity leave, the heavier the burden upon return.

Knowing all of this (and being the ambitious, career-oriented type that I am) I wanted to make sure that my maternity leave was productive. I wanted to stay in the game and view it as a sort of sabbatical rather than a break in my career. As glorious as it has been to stay home with Scarlett and play with her, I do my best to stay engaged in my field of work and use the time wisely to hopefully continue advancing my career trajectory and offset those pesky motherhood penalties and opportunity costs. For mothers-to-be who are considering these factors as well, here are some ideas to help keep your career growth pointed upward even when you aren’t working your full-time job.

Writing in a coffee shop just before Scarlett arrived.

Writing

If you’re reading this it’s probably no secret to you that I’ve been pretty busy with writing while I’ve been off work. I have been writing articles for my website regularly—every other week has been a feasible frequency for me. I have also been writing for a book project that I’m working on. While I’m not yet paid to be a writer, I have been writing best practices and reflections on my emergency management career that I hope will continue to elevate my profile as an SME in this profession. The great thing about writing and putting your work out there is that people will continue to read it long after you first shared it, and it’s something productive that you can do in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep after a nighttime feed. All fields cherish written communication skills and with the rise of LinkedIn and other social platforms you can easily share your written professional thoughts with potential future employers, headhunters or clients. If straight up writing articles isn’t your thing then work on a portfolio website–it’s so easy to build your on site these days with Wix and other similar sites and a great way to ensure your work pops up first when someone Googles you.

Reading on the Kindle with a sleeping baby.

Reading

My wonderful husband gifted me a Kindle for our one year anniversary in September. At first I was very surprised and not sure I’d like it—I’ve always been a physical book person and one year is supposed to be the paper anniversary and this was the true opposite of a paper gift! But I came to find that reading digitally on my super lightweight, palm sized Kindle was extremely easy to do while breastfeeding Scarlett—so much better than using an app on my massive ipad or straining to flipping the page constantly on my phone. I have been able to read several professional books on Kindle in the past few months, which help me keep up to date with ideas in both EM and general leadership / management. For me, reading stimulates continued thought growth on the professional world even when I am physically outside of it and feeling like my sole purpose is as a milk factory.

Scarlett during one of our lunch dates.

Coffee / Lunch Dates

Relationships are at the core of my realm as an emergency manager, but I’m a firm believer that they are pretty dang important in every field. The best way to grow your career potential is through your network—where you’re likely to learn about optimal opportunities. This is not something you can do immediately—certainly not within the first 4 weeks, wait until baby gets a little bit bigger and slightly more predictable. I reached out to a couple of previous managers and just asked to grab lunch, as well as met up for coffee (and happy hour) with a couple past colleagues. Staying in touch with colleagues and leaders in your field is always great and since you’ve got some time on your hands and an adorable little baby to introduce this can be an ideal time to deepen the connections in your network.

Professional Associations

I’m already pretty heavily involved in my professional associations, so I didn’t really amp up my participation much during this time, but I did continue it. Join a committee, listen in on a webinar, or just use it as a chance to really read the organization’s newsletters and better understand what they’ve been up to and how you can become a more engaged (or at least informed) member! If your organization offers a credential or certificate for certain professional contributions (like the CEM in our field) now is a great time to strategize how you can achieve this and start chipping away at the requirements or documentation involved.

Education

I’m not currently in a place in my life where I’m looking to continue formal education since I already have a Master’s degree and am a Ph.D. dropout with no plans to return. But if I didn’t have my master’s or if there was a certificate program I had my eyes on I would most certainly have looked into taking a class online or worked on an application. While being a mom to a newborn is extremely taxing, the reading and writing required of online class participants is something you can fit in during the downtime and in your PJs!

At an all staff meeting in our EOC 8 weeks postpartum.

In Conclusion

Obviously your priority during this time should be snuggling and spending quality time with your new mini human, and many people wouldn’t trade any of their brain power for career stuff during this sleep deprived time. But the motherhood penalty is sadly very real, and you will have the benefit of weeks with no meetings scheduled to pursue some of these activities if you want to take a break from baby brain. I would love to hear what other types of professionalization career-oriented parents have pursued during their time off work!