"Do you have to go back to work?" After declaring my 3-day-old son's weight gain satisfactory and observing that he was latching on well while nursing, the pediatric R.N. was ready to move on to new topics.
I blinked back at her in a sleep-deprived haze. Go back to work? Hell, no. I'm going home. Possibly with a stop at In-and-Out along the way. Why would I be going back to?...
Oh. Okay, I get it. "I'm going to start working again in October," I responded, which triggered a discussion of when to start pumping breast milk and when it would be okay to start offering a bottle. And then I was heading home, and whatever had lodged in my mind about the strangeness of the question was displaced by other things (namely, a double-double and some crispy fries).
And then, a few days later: talking of a family member who'd be having her own first child soon, I was told, "She has to go back to work after 2 or 3 months." And there was that weird discomfort again.
This is a woman who worked very hard to get into and through medical school and, now, is being challenged in her residency. Given all that she's invested in getting as far as she has - and how much she'd lose if she abandoned her path now - I would be much more surprised if I were told she wasn't going back to work. And that's when it dawned on me:
Do you have to go back to work?... She has to go back to work.
I suddenly wanted to bolt back to the hospital and tell that nurse, "No! I don't have to go back to work, I'm choosing
to go back to work! I'm excited to go back to work! I know it's going to be really hard, but I'm excited anyway!"
And let me pause to acknowledge that I am writing from a place of extraordinary privilege: my family would remain financially solvent if I chose not to work. What's more, I work from home, part-time, for an extremely understanding boss who is also a long-time dear friend; and we've been lucky enough to line up a terrific nanny who has been close to our family for years. I understand that many women don't have a choice, and I understand that many women don't have the flexibility and options that I do.
Further, I came at my decision to return to work with the benefit of hindsight. A confluence of circumstances essentially took away my opportunity to choose work when my first child was born - a layoff combined with a weak economy combined with a planned move across the country meant that I was a stay-at-home parent for my son's first fifteen months. And having had that experience, I genuinely believe I will be a better mom if I take the 20 hours per week of work - the intellectual stimulation, the change of scenery (figuratively, if not literally), and, frankly, the break from the incredibly challenging work of parenthood will leave me refreshed and ready to devote my remaining time more fully to my family.
And I'm thrilled that I can choose that path. But I wish that I didn't find myself feeling defensive about it already - that defensiveness arising only because of the phrasing of that eight-word question.
So take a second the next time you're talking to a pregnant woman, a friend with a newborn, a mom whose child will be starting preschool soon. If you must ask the question, try to keep it neutral: "Do you plan to go back to work?"
It may seem like the exact same question, but believe me when I say that, to me, and many women (and, increasingly, some men) like me, there is a world of difference.