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The Transition from Working Woman to Working Mom

For some women, childbirth isn't the most painful part of becoming a mother. It's figuring out how much maternity leave you can take, going back to work and getting the groove of balancing kids and career.

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Meg Berger of Huntington Woods planned her first day back to the office after 12 weeks of maternity leave for a Wednesday. This way she would have only a three-day work week ahead of her before the respite of the weekend with her 3-month-old twin boys.

"My mom watched the kids for me that first day back, and she sent me pictures throughout the day," recalls Berger, a secretary for a union. "I'd cry every time I opened a new one."

While Berger proudly wears the badge of working mom, she also wears its common accompaniment – guilt.

"The hardest for me is Monday mornings after we've had the whole weekend together," says Berger whose now-7-month-old boys are starting to experience separation anxiety. "They're beginning to realize when I'm not there, and they get upset when I leave."

To combat the guilt and sadness she feels leaving her boys, Berger keeps herself focused on what working provides her family, including important medical benefits.

"I know that they won't be scarred by my time away from them," she notes. "They'll just know that I was working for them."

And research is on her side. A recent study by the Academy of Social Sciences in the U.K. shows that children's literacy, math ability and behavior are not, on average, affected by whether their mother works outside of the home. These findings are the result of six studies that followed 40,000 kids over four decades.

"The research evidence reflects many changes over the last 40 years," said professor Heather Joshi of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London, in a university report. "There has traditionally been a concern that the employment of mothers comes at the expense of child development. But as the percentage of mothers in work has gone up, any impact on children has diminished."

These findings and the fact that it's become so common – and commonly accepted – for mothers to work outside the home should make it easier for working women to start families and continue their careers. And yet it's not that simple. Work-leave policies and financial realities don't always afford new moms as much time as they need to bond with their babies before heading back to work. In short, Monday mornings aren't just hard for Meg Berger. They can be bittersweet for many moms who struggle to find a balance between their responsibilities to their growing families, their employers and even their own ambitions.

Lackluster leave

According to a study from McGill University's Institute for Health and Social Policy, the United States is the only industrialized nation not to mandate paid maternity leave. The U.S. is in the company of countries like Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland in this regard.

Stacey Longo of Macomb Township was thankful to have the 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave afforded her thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when she gave birth to son Gianni two years ago and son Luca 15 months later. While she did receive some paid leave during that time, she is in the minority – as U.S. employers are required only to provide 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave. And that is only if they have 50 or more employees. And if the employee has worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12 months. According to a survey performed by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 16 percent of all American companies offer some form of paid maternity leave.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of FMLA, the first bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993 – and the piece of legislation he says more people have mentioned to him both while in the White House and in the 12 years since than any other piece of legislation.

"People desperately want to have successful families, to be good parents and to have a job and succeed in it," said Clinton at a February event at the U.S. Department of Labor marking the FMLA's two-decade mark. "If you take one away to get the other, the country pays a grievous price, and every life is diminished."

The labor department reports that FMLA has been used more than 100 million times by workers managing personal circumstances since its debut. In the last year alone, 10 million workers took advantage of job-protected leave guaranteed by FMLA. However, a department's survey indicates approximately 40 percent of workers do not meet the criteria necessary for coverage and eligibility.

While Erika Oddo of Clinton Township was eligible for FMLA when she gave birth to her daughter eight years ago, she could afford to take only six weeks off, as none of her leave would be paid.

"I wasn't ready to go back after six weeks," she recalls. "But I had no choice."

At the six-week mark, Oddo's baby girl was still waking up multiple times each night. It was also right around this time that doctors diagnosed her infant with an allergy to cow's milk, and, since that can be passed on through mom, Oddo had to abruptly cease breastfeeding.

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