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Returning to work on new terms after maternity leave.

Leaving parenting leave behind

Kid on Bed_CMy maternity leave ended four weeks ago, and I am back and busy at work.  One month into my new role as a working parent, I wanted to share my sleep-deprived musings on my leave, as well as my return to the office.

Due to the amazing generosity of my colleagues, I was able to turn away from work almost entirely during my leave. Knowing my tendencies to read emails, my colleagues went so far as to keep me off of work emails, calling only once or twice with questions that I was happy to answer. I had also done my work on the front end — writing extensive maternity leave memos and letting opposing counsels and clients know that I would be off the grid.

As a result, I was able to check out of work for a full 12 weeks. During this time, I thrilled to get to know our new family member. I found parenting leave, however, simultaneously exhausting while mysteriously affording ample downtime. During the downtime, I missed work and wondered about case developments.

While my baby napped, I scanned through my nearly empty inbox, reading and deleting occasional emails from the MSBA and CLE advertisements. On one occasion a colleague called to ask my thoughts on a brief. I was thrilled to be included, waxing on to my husband for hours about how exciting it was to think about work again. I also continued to check court websites for expected opinions and orders. As much as I enjoyed the time off, I found that I couldn’t help myself. My leave forced me to acknowledge how much of my identity is tied up with my work.

So, of course, I assumed that I would be delighted to return to the office. And I am, for the most part. My first few days at work, I felt like I was swimming in newfound freedom. During maternity leave, my baby had become my (adorable) permanent accessory. At work, however, I was my own person again — I could run pick up a cup of coffee or close my door and think about a problem without needing to attend to someone else.

I have also, however, felt sadness. After-work engagements are difficult. Happy hours and dinners with friends leave me counting the minutes until my daughter will be asleep, and I won’t get to see her before bedtime. I worry that I will lose my connections in our legal community as I rush home to see my daughter.  But I can’t help myself.

I recently took a brief work trip. Before I left, I fretted. How would my husband and baby fare for two days solo? Would anyone sleep? My husband pointed out that my worries were overblown and patronizing (matronizing?). Dad and baby were (of course) great. And, our daycare is fabulous. I feel like my daughter is getting more stimulation (playing with other babies and learning from a curriculum) that she was during the end of my leave (where the curriculum consisted of “Friends” reruns).  I have told colleagues that I feel guilty about not feeling guilty returning to work and it’s mostly true. But I also feel a tug at the heartstrings when I leave her every day. And, her giant smile when I walk in the door at night brings tears to my eyes.

In an effort to maximize work and family time, I am attempting to eliminate all other errands from my life. Groceries and diapers can be delivered. We now use a lawn service. And, dry clean only? Not anymore. These of course are luxuries that many working parents don’t have, and I am grateful to be in a position where I can make some of these choices.

With respect to the biggest choice, I firmly believe in respecting each parent’s decision about balance when it comes to work and family. (I should add that I also firmly respect the choice as to whether to have children at all.) What satisfies one friend may not satisfy me. And, I am happiest when I listen to my inner voice that tells me what I want. Ray Bradbury nailed this point when he advised a young reader to “Love what you love.” Society’s expectations about parenting and work-life balance don’t offer me any insights into what balance will work for me or what balance will make me happy.

I confirmed my suspicions about myself during my maternity leave — I would drive myself, my husband, and eventually my daughter mad if I attempted to stay home all day. I need the activity of my job to feel happy. But, adding this new person to my life means that I cannot return to my job as I did pre-baby — the old way of doing things does not exist anymore. I am making compromises and choices about my time. And that’s okay. But if anyone wants to offer any practical advice or tips, I would be grateful for your insights.

Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at sdunlop@greeneespel.com.


  1. I hear you about missing out on happy hours! I don’t have a baby, but I have a very intense need to nap after work. And I miss out on so much good gossip as a result!
    PS. I’m becoming a HUGE fan of Trader Joe’s pre-packaged salads for healthy, easy, portable meals.

  2. Welcome back Sybil, we’ve missed you! Your advice to do what works for you is spot on; despite what you may hear, there’s no “right” way to do work life balance. Don’t feel bad about missing happy hours, you’re in excellent company. And besides, that’s why breakfast and lunch (and weekend get togethers) were invented.

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