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​Maternity Leave, Adoption, Foster Care: A Reflection

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What began as a typical blog post about Maternity Leave Myths has evolved into something much broader to capture the import of my gained knowledge as a once-working, now stay-at-home parent. When I googled maternity leave + adoption last year, to learn about the experiences of other adoptive parents, I didn't find much that felt relevant. Hopefully, folks will find some insight here.

A reflection in 4 parts:

  1. Maternity Leave Myths
  2. The one thing I'd change
  3. Thoughts for when you're back at work if you choose to go back to work or are like me and did not have a choice, really
  4. Was I fired because I took maternity leave?

Context: Mid 2014 to current

We began fostering full time in mid 2014. In that time, we've volleyed the role of primary parent in our home. When the boys first moved in, I was 3 years into a career shift from social work to web and working a part-time internship. I was primary parent in those early days when Tiny was a newborn and Sweet was barely toddling. We had biweekly visits with the boys' mom, then monthly. We knew permanency would be sought for them as their mom simply could not care for her 4 kiddos. It's a life-changing thing to go into foster parenting to help families reunify, then turn a corner toward open adoption.

I took on my first corporate job in the fall of 2015 - the same one that, after a year of employment, offered several benefits, including maternity leave. This is significant because we chose our adoption date based on this timeline so that I would qualify for maternity leave. I accepted the job knowing this would be something I worked toward.

I have not been the primary parent in our home for the last year and a half. My partner and I both worked full time, but her schedule varied and she was able to be home and available more often than myself. I commuted to work full time and was out of the house from 5a - 5p on weekdays. We also had in-home childcare about 22 hours a week. In foster care and fosteradopt years, this 3 year span feels like a decade. At least, that's how my body feels.

When your kids are so little, and you foster concurrently, there are many dynamics to consider when tackling the roles of a non-heteronormative household and this fluidity between both of us sharing the role of primary parent at various points is relevant to our/my maternity leave experience, which I anticipated to be a lot like winning the SAHM lottery. There's much I've learned since then.

I'm writing this now, a half year after 12 full weeks of paid maternity leave began, 2 full weeks back at work, and 6 weeks of unemployment.

9 months before Maternity Leave - March 2015

I'm promoted at work from pion to manager. It happens fast but not surprisingly. I had been working my ass off. I'm tasked with building a fine-tuned digital content team that was under water at the time. I'm committed to making this happen before starting maternity leave. Our 2nd winter as a young family, we were so close to spring and at the devastating conclusion of 8 months of trial which ended with the boys' birth mom terminating her own rights to parent and agreeing to an open adoption agreement with us. It was a sobering period of time.

I funneled my grief for the boys' mom and my own anxieties around become a legalized family into my work. We agreed this was a commitment we would both endure as I established myself in a new career, beefed up my team and improved overall operations before peacin out for 3 months.

I could not wait. What could possibly be better than the gift of being paid full for 3 months while settling into our life as a legal family? Particularly given our foster care journey to that juncture, which eventually included fostering the boys' older brother and sister, a period we chronicle throughout our blog.

On the day of the adoption, November 18, 2016, everything changed and nothing changed. It was the biggest proudest day of my adult life. Maternity leave began the moment I dropped off a copy of the adoption certificates to human resources - that same day.

There is no fairytale ending here. The 9 months leading up to maternity leave were absolute hell at work. It certainly didn't help that I chose to commit to a company that included a culture where Everything had an acronym, the top 10% stepped on the bottom 90, people came and went and those who stuck it out either used it as a stepping stone or milked the benefits or both; I fell into the latter 2 categories. It was toxic. The CEO publicly accosted employees and job security was anything but secure. I did not know a person there who identified as happy or content with their professional experience. With a longer background in social work and art, I found this environment to be equal parts social-experiment-fascinating and is-this-really-a-thing-traumatizing. I was learning a lot, expanding my skillset, and providing for my growing family, all while holding it down in a new field. I put in an extra 8 to 12 hours on the job each week on top of my required 40. My cortisol levels were off the charts but I was in that top 10% categorically, not philosophically. I lasted a painful year and a half.

My vision

3 long months during the coziest of holiday seasons catching up on all the things that I had been putting off for so long: return emails to the thousands who had written us over the years, doing Super Cool Meaningful Very Important activities with my kids, taking classes with my kids, cleaning the house, implementing a better system for laundry, boosting my professional skills with online courses & freelance work, creating a workout routine, eating clean, losing weight, being stress-free, healthy mental health, happy and in love with my partner like when we first met.

None of those things happened. But that was the origin plan. Adopt. Disappear together. Do all the lovely things. Really get to know my kids, BE in my home, and reconnect with my partner.

#1: 8 maternity leave myths when you adopt from foster care

1. You will do all the lovely things, really get to know your kids, BE in your home, and reconnect with your partner.

Let's begin by keeping it real. If you are suddenly home full time after working full time, everyone will need to adjust. Everyone. Even the dogs aren't used to your presence. There will need to be a transitional period of time. Say, a month. That leaves 2.

2. You’ll have more energy.

The cortisol you've built up from the stress of your job doesn't just go away. It'll drop, your body will think you’re ready to hibernate and then you'll usher in a different kind of stress and exhaustion called full-time parenting. You will remain fatigued. Unless you exercise and eat right. That always does the trick. You’ll likely have more time for that now, but are you the type? I wish I had been!

3. You’ll have all the time in the world to clean your house.

LoLz. The house you intended to spruce up will remain tossed. The years of floorboard buildup while your life was a foster home hurricane cannot be tackled in 3 months if you also intend to spend time with your family or do things for yourself for a change. Let it go or find ways to tackle that stuff incrementally. Or just start getting rid of things.

4. Your life will slow down.

If your life was a hurricane before, it will be a hurricane while you are on Maternity leave. ML legally guarantees you’ll have a job to return to, but it does not guarantee you'll keep that job for long, nor does it offer any guidance on how to unhurricane your life in lieu of spending your waking hours at work. Like parenting, there is no guide here. Your schedule will be crazy different, but these behaviors and habits were learned and will require commitment to unlearn. Working full time and being home full time are 2 very different lifestyles. It may take 21 days to create a new habit (or 30 or who actually knows) but when you've got a house full of kids & 3 semi-structured/mostly unstructured months...stop playin.

5. Things will be fine with your nanny.

We chose in-home childcare after several early unsuccessful attempts at daycare & Headstart. Our nanny had her own vibe with our kids & it was mostly good until it wasn't. Unless your house is so big you have separate wings, managing this relationship takes time, patience, sacrifice & a lot of effort. At least it did for me. All I wanted was to be home with my kiddos and engulfed in my family, but we also didn't want our kids to lose their connection to our Nanny and we didn't want our Nanny to take a financial hit for 3 months, nor did we want to risk losing her because of a potential gap in employment. In the end, things did not work out for unforeseen reasons & it was a big loss for all. Especially our kids.

6. You and your partner/co-parent will "figure it out."

Let’s be honest. We have different parenting styles. Different attachment styles. Different ways of running a routine & varying needs & wants. She was primary parent while I worked endlessly and all of the sudden, when I was home 24/7, we were all up in each others' space and style. These dynamics take time to hash out. Much patience and flexibility will be important in this department. And intimacy. Find ways to be a couple coupling.

7. The kids are alright.

If you are on maternity leave because you adopted young kiddos from foster care (congratulations!) and/or you are still actively fostering, you have much to think about & organize yourself around because your kids will not understand this change & when you go back to work they will still not understand & it will be lots of adjusting & framing & winning & losing for all of you. Our kiddos have known lots of loss, lots of transition, people coming & going, instability & uncertainty. They will be pumped to have more of you & the more of each other you all have the more you will have to work through and understand. Routine, flexibility, patience & predictability are key. If you have vacation mentality while on maternity leave, so will your littles. Vacation with littles ain't exactly vacation. And when you have conflict (see #6) your kiddos will be paying attention. Also. There's a correlation between parental depression & kids with challenging behaviors. Maybe that's obvious to you. It wasn't obvious to me.

8. All that money you spent commuting and parking in the city while you were working can go into savings.

Not if your maternity leave includes Tiny's birthday, Sweet's birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Trump's inauguration & your own birthday. Consider your lack of saving as an investment in your sanity.

#2: The one thing I'd change

It wasn't all struggle. We had an incredible December full of Christmas Magic, sure to be recalled forever as one of our happiest times together. Celebrating the 2nd and 4th birthdays of our growing boys was so much fun. Witnessing ALL FOUR kids develop relationships with each other during such an exciting time of year was really special. And. If I could do it all over, I'd change one thing.

This may be obvious to many but I was so desperate for time with my family and a break from work it did not occur to me, in a rational way, that this chunk of time wasn't going to be a separate life altogether. If I could have changed anything about maternity leave it would be my approach to it. I would've framed those 3 months differently in my mind. I'm a visual learner with a sweet tooth, so imagining a pie works. Try it.

Envision a big, beautiful, warm, crusty whatever pie. Whatever is your fave. Something delicious that you want to devour but not in one sitting - you want that pie to last! Now cut the pie into equal quarters. Each of those 4 quarters represents 3 months out of a year and collectively that beautiful pie is one full year. Now. Crush (eat) ONE of those quarters. You just devoured your maternity leave.

If you imagine that piece of the pie as something part of a larger whole and not its own little island, you will set yourself up for more success than I did while on mat leave.

If you looked at that piece and thought, "here's all the glorious things I'll do during that chunk of pie time" divorced from the reality that there remains 3 other pieces comprising your life as a whole over the course of a full trip around the sun your maternity leave might not be what you need it to be. Likewise, if you thought, "I AM GOING TO KICK ASS FOR 3 WHOLE MONTHS LIKE YOU'VE NEVER SEEN" you're cooked.

If you think about your maternity leave as an opportunity to slowly integrate some changes you've been wanting to make for awhile, but haven't had the headspace to bring to fruition, pick a couple things and do them. Just a couple. Be sure that part of your action plan includes a transition plan to keep it going once your maternity leave ends. Because, it will end. Eventually. And you will go back to work. Maybe for only 2 weeks. But you will go back.

#3: Real talk for when you're back on the grind

If you were not happy at your job before you left you will not be happy when you return. Feel free to pin that. I was miserable by the time I left and returned feeling more convicted in finding a work environment that was a better match for my leadership style, my work ethic, my personality, my career goals, my family. You deserve to be happy (another example of that correlation between unhappy parents and unhappy kids). Your kids deserve the best version of yourself that you can give them. As does your partner. As do you. AS DOES THE WORLD. Being a parent now informs everything I do in a way it did not previous to taking leave. It is my greatest secret power.

Furthermore, there were other things my newly sharpened senses observed upon returning to work. For example, people who were now pregnant but were not pregnant before you left. If you work in a shitty environment like I did, know that people might celebrate their pregnancy in a different way than they celebrated your adoption and it might make you feel invisible. Or, at least make you feel super sad. Foster parent, adoptive parent, guardian or otherwise, remember that you're just as much a mom or a dad or a parent - an individual in this world who is raising a baby, a toddler, a child, a tween, a teenager, a group of siblings, a young adult who is aging out, a grown-up, long-term or short-term. You are just as important. In many ways, I would argue that adopting children from foster care, or foster parenting makes you different and unique in an even more important way. Misunderstood, probably. But special nonetheless. Find your tribe and celebrate. Becoming a parent or growing your family is a beautiful thing which deserves celebration.

The mothering rooms are for you as well. They are not just for pumping or storing. I used to go in there to grieve. It was the space I occupied when I was having big feelings about all of it. I'd go in there for breaks when I needed to talk myself through the transition between having just been a mom full-time to three kids for three months to now being a mom with three kids who is back at work full-time. The mothering room is for you. You may have to explain this to people who don't understand. But you don't have to explain it to everyone.

You may find that you need to change your hours. I would challenge you to have a hard conversation with your supervisor, boss or powers that be. I really wanted to work from 6 AM to 3 PM. I was already on the books from 7 - 4. If it were possible, I didn't want to be the type of parent who was only around on the weekends and evenings. If you work in an environment that values a healthy work life balance this likely won't be a big issue. I didn't work in an environment that supports a healthy work life balance. That's why I lost my job.

#4: Did I lose my job because I took maternity leave?

I chose to have that hard conversation with my boss about changing my hours. I was surprised to find him overly flexible and happy to accommodate me. It was odd. When we lost our childcare (again) a few days thereafter, I had to ask for additional temporary flexibility in my schedule and again, was met with absolute accommodation. Also odd. My job was the type that could easily be managed from home with an internet connection and a couple monitors, but my boss was previously not keen on extending this option to myself or my team. Despite being a company that employed over 600 people and accomodated a lot of folks in this way.

I don't have answers, only conclusions after much reflection. What I do know is that before I left I was a top employee and that I trained my team to run itself. When I returned, I found myself an outsider on that team I'd built and given so much of myself to. Whatever value was seen in me had changed and before I could get my bearings, I was terminated and back home with my family, this time without a salary. So did I lose my job because I took maternity leave? As Sweet would say, "maybe yes, maybe no...we dunno."

In sum

I'm home now and back to being primary parent. My kids are getting a better version of me. My kids deserve the best me. Losing my job wasn't timely - is it ever? And we're getting a little nervous. But as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens/blessings in disguise and alladat.

My three months of maternity leave wasn't anything like I expected it to be and neither is being home now. I'm the type of person who needs routine, structure, predictability, accountability, and a professional identity. Being at home for three months did not work for me then and it won't work for long right now. But I learned a lot of things about myself, as an individual, a parent, a person. And I'm growing in ways this surprising place forces a person to grow. My partner and I struggled a lot because we just couldn't find a rhythm. We continue to struggle to find that rhythm. But we've also begun to find our way back to each other.

It's this last piece I want to leave you with. If there is only one thing you take away from my lengthy ramblings, it's this: however things unfold for you while on maternity leave, after leave or if you find yourself unexpectedly unemployed, find ways to be with your partner. Snuggle and watch those movies. Lay in the dark, exhausted and tore up from the day and listen to a podcast together. Cook something big or small. Write a love note. Wipe down the sink. Fill her tank with gas. Get lost in being together and being affectionate. Your connection to each other and love for one another will be the single most important thing you can do for your family during what is surely going to be an adjustment for all however you slice that pie.

-Artist Mom

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