By Sarah Callahan, MA, OTR/L
This summer, my husband and I happily welcomed our first child into the world – a little girl who couldn’t have captured my heart more. I’d always suspected that I’d enjoy being a mom and would want to work part-time once I had kids. I didn’t anticipate not wanting to go back to work at all.
Three months of FMLA came and went and it was time to head back two days a week to my role as a research occupational therapist at a wonderful inpatient rehabilitation hospital. I loved my job and the people I worked with – patients and staff alike. But I loved my little girl ridiculously more. After three months together, how could I spend two long days each week apart from her?
Still in a fog from middle of the night wakings, lots of time spent thinking about babies, and almost no time spent thinking about work, I re-entered the working world this fall. For weeks, I struggled with the same questions: Did I really want to do this? What could be more important than raising our daughter? Couldn’t all the professional development, all the projects, all the patients to treat wait until she was older?
It wasn’t until I’d been back at work for about two months that something shifted for me. A middle-aged man with a spinal cord injury agreed to participate in our study of a new measurement tool for upper extremity spasticity. As I spoke with him about the worsening tightness and other muscle tone issues he was experiencing, memories of dozens of patients dealing with the same issue came flooding in. Compassion and concern welled up, and then the clincher – his wife was expecting their first baby, a little girl, the next month.
As much as I wanted (and still want) to just enjoy my sweet girl every day, to ignore for a period of time all the issues, problems, and work to be done outside our home, I was struck by the thought that by forfeiting some of my time at home, I might be able to help him enjoy his own little one. Realistically, it won’t be him. But it might be someone else in a similar situation.
I’ve long recognized that work-life balance is important. I’ve known that time spent resting and enjoying relationships and hobbies is good for my work and life as a whole. What I’m learning now is that my time at home with our daughter can enrich my time at work, and vice versa.
Being a mom is helping me develop skills and traits that lend value to my professional role. It’s a trade-off. On the one hand, sometimes the baby didn’t sleep well the night before and I’m not quite as sharp the next day as I was pre-baby. On the other hand, my empathy for others (i.e. most of our patients) who also aren’t sleeping well or aren’t currently at the top of their game has increased dramatically. My patience and persistence is greater than ever and I can bring that to any tedious project that needs to be done. I can connect with patients and study participants as a parent now – a role that many of them have – and there’s camaraderie in that. The flexibility that being a parent requires is also at my disposal at work.
The benefits of continuing to work part-time for our family are still coming into focus. I’m trusting the older professionals who ensure me that this is a perfect set-up, as it allows me to spend plenty of time with the baby while keeping up my skills and maintaining adult interaction. The financial benefits are modest, after accounting for childcare costs. Perhaps the biggest enrichment to my family and me comes from the way working challenges me to look outside myself, invest in something bigger than “us” – as important as that is – and keep things in perspective. It helps me not to get too bent out of shape when the baby doesn’t nap, I can’t get dinner ready on time, or my neighbor’s leaf blower wakes up the finally-napping baby. Working helps me remember what’s most important at home and let go of what’s not. By the same token, time at home with our daughter helps me to clarify what’s truly important at work.
Work-life balance challenges us to keep perspective and give everything its proper place – relationships, work, rest, hobbies, and service. I’m finding that being a mom is basically a crash-course in work-life balance…and I’m only 7 months in.