This mom shows us what early return to work and lactation arrangements should be available for all women, complete with partner parental leave and a focus on prioritizing sleep for your own sanity.
Name: Tara Thomas
Children: Son, age 3 + daughter, age 4 months
Occupation: Senior Managing Director – Strategy and Risk at Teach for America
What you do for work and what does it mean to you?
I have been working at Teach for America, leading our risk efforts, for the last seven years, which I’ve loved for a myriad of reasons, one being that I’m deeply committed to the mission of the organization. Teach For America is focused on how we systematically address education and equity in this country, and achieve clear outcomes for students, which is personally very compelling to me. I come from a family of educators and knowing what an incredible opportunity a strong education can provide continues to bring me back to this work and my desire to make my own contributions to it. I also really appreciate the organization as a whole and the culture. It’s been very rewarding and has allowed me to do great work and do it with people I respect.
Tell us about your kids. How old are your children and what sort of leave were you able to take when they were born?
Our son just turned three a couple weeks ago, and our daughter is just over four months. For both kids I was lucky enough to take about four months off, and I’m just now back to work after our second. My husband also was and will be able to take four months with each child so we’re really lucky to have collectively about 8 months at home with one of us on kid duty. With our son I pumped until about the one-year mark, and I’m hoping to do the same with our daughter, but I’m still in-process so we’ll see where we get. Our second also isn’t as fond of the bottle, so we’re fighting that battle at the moment.
You have the unique situation of exclusively working from home. How does that work logistically with pumping?
With both kids I did a mixture of pumping and nursing during my leaves from work, and I’m continuing that even now as I’m returning to work, especially this time around because our daughter isn’t taking the bottle as regularly as our older one did. That usually means stepping away from my computer for a little bit to either get to my pump or to get to her to do a feeding. I’ve found I’m living in my nursing clothes to make that as easy as possible. I have a set of dresses and shirts that are my go-to everyday items that I need to make these mid-day feedings as efficient as possible.
Have you done anything to set expectations with your colleagues in terms of how feedings affect your schedule and your availability, or does it not affect you as much because you work remotely?
I generally mention that this will be something will impact my day, and I’m trying to block it where I can. My daughter isn’t on a very regular schedule at the moment, so right now I’m able to pump/nurse when needed, but I think as she gets older we’ll be more disciplined about when it happens. My work schedule hasn’t been too intense in terms of my meeting schedule as I’ve transitioned back, and so I’ve had more flexibility to do what I need to do. I’ve been able to talk to my manager and my direct reports about the fact that my day is going to be a little bit different and they’ve all been very accommodating.
What was it like for you to transition back to work, and what did you do to prepare for the transition?
With my first return to work after my son’s birth, I think I was so sleep deprived and that made it really hard. Our daughter is a slightly better sleeper, probably in part because we know a little more about what we’re doing this time around, or at least we think we do. As a result, I think the second transition has been easier, though we are still figuring out transitioning the care between my husband and me. I returned to work last Thursday, and it was a less productive day since I spent most of my time figuring out the new rhythm for being back at work and my husband taking over the care, and navigating the new reality of trying to get our daughter to take a bottle. The transition this time has been easier emotionally, and a little more challenging logistically to get into a rhythm. We’re a few days in now and it’s already feeling better. There’s more tweaking to do, but it's easier overall so far.
What will happen with your childcare situation four months from now when your husband returns to work?
With our son we had a nanny, so I would just pump and leave the milk in the fridge and it was a pretty easy set up. With our daughter, we’re planning to put her in a daycare at about 9 months, so I’ll be building a supply and then sending a day’s worth of milk with her each day when we reach that point.
Which transition was harder for you: the transition between you and your husband or from your husband to the nanny?
I did find the nanny transition to be a bit tricky. My son was fine transitioning to my husband, but then with the nanny he seemed to question “who is this person?” and it took him a while to get acclimated to being cared for by someone else on a daily basis. That was probably the harder transition out of the two for me because it was harder for my son.
Was there any stuff that you found to be particularly helpful for pumping?
I have my pump set up here in my home office the way I like it. I have the luxury of not having to deal with a pumping room as a shared space and being able to easily pump whenever I need to. The other thing is easy access clothes. I was just talking to a friend about this recently, saying that I wish someone had told me to buy a fewer maternity clothes but rather buy more nursing wear. I didn’t realize how useful and how much more I would wear the nursing clothes, and for how long in comparison to the maternity clothes, so for this time around I bought a bunch of breastfeeding clothes. I have some maternity clothes that I wore only a few times, but the nursing stuff I wear on a daily basis. Just having the easy access with shirts and dresses that I can wear on conference calls but also be able to transition to pumping or nursing when I need to has been a total lifesaver. I’ve never found the hands-free nursing bras to be particularly useful for me. I’m just not talented enough to figure out exactly how to get those to work for me, so that’s the one bit of nursing paraphernalia that I haven’t used much.
I didn’t realize how useful and how much more I would wear the nursing clothes, and for how long in comparison to the maternity clothes, so for this time around I bought a bunch of breastfeeding clothes.
Do you do a lot of video calls?
Yes, I do a lot of video calls, and that’s probably the biggest difference between my first and second pregnancies. During my first pregnancy I’d say that 50% of my calls were video calls, so I could more easily pump or nurse during a meeting if it was just a regular call, but this time around we’ve changed our technology and our video call system is so much stronger that probably 90% of my calls are video calls. I can no longer multitask by pumping on a call as I did the first time around. I’m curious to see how that will continue to play out, especially as my meeting schedule picks up.
Do you do any travel for your work?
I travel about once a quarter, so my next trip won’t be for another few months, and I’m pretty lucky on that front that I don’t have to deal with travel and pumping very often.
When my son was nursing, I took a couple of work trips and was able to get a small refrigerator brought into my hotel room so I could freeze the milk and just carry it back home with me. Luckily, it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience for me, or particularly challenging in terms of working out the logistics, though I appreciate that often times it’s not that easy to coordinate for many working moms. I also mostly traveled to conferences hosted at hotels, so I could easily sneak up to my room between sessions and pump.
What have you done to keep yourself sane and take care of yourself as a working mom, particularly in the early stages of returning to work and nursing?
I don’t think I did a good job of this with our first child, so this time around it was really important to me to focus on sleep, from the time my daughter was about 4 weeks old. I felt like a zombie when I returned to work after having my son. He wasn’t a good sleeper, and we had less knowledge about what to do as first time parents, so each day was really hard, and I was exhausted for most of those first couple months back. With our daughter, she’s already sleeping much better, which makes all of it feel much more sustainable.
I felt like a zombie when I returned to work after having my son. He wasn’t a good sleeper, and we had less knowledge about what to do as first time parents, so each day was really hard, and I was exhausted for most of those first couple months back.
Is your daughter just naturally a better sleeper, or do you think you did you do something to help her become a better sleeper?
Well one thing is that she gained weight faster than her brother, so we didn’t have to wake her for night feedings for as long. The other thing that I found really useful is that we found a sleep coach with a company called Taking Cara Babies. She has an online course that you can take for better sleep for around $75. It comes with video content and a reference guide. I took that before our daughter was born, and then we followed a lot of those principles once she was old enough - around 4 or 5 weeks - and it made a world of difference. She’s now sleeping nine hours at night, so being able to get a big chunk of sleep ourselves before she needs to be fed has been awesome, and I think she can actually go longer now. It’s made a world of difference in our lives. I think it just made it a little more sustainable coming back this time when I feel like a functional human in a way I did not feel when I came back the first time.
I think it just made it a little more sustainable coming back this time when I feel like a functional human in a way I did not feel when I came back the first time.
Have you been able to ask for help and get the support you need with each child? Has requesting help felt any easier the second time around?
It has been easier, in part because we both know what to expect this time, and then there’s the reality of divide and conquer. My husband really made it a priority, which I so deeply appreciate, to be home by 6:00 every night for the first couple of months after our daughter was born. It was less about being home for the baby and more about being home for the toddler, and about having two sets of hands to manage everything – dinner, bath time, bedtime – so the divide and conquer method has made it much easier overall. When our son was born and I was on leave, my husband had to do a lot of travel for work, so I was doing it all solo, which was doable, but this time around it feels a lot more sustainable because even though there’s two kids we’ve been able to manage it together in a rhythm that we never achieved with the first baby.
It was less about being home for the baby and more about being home for the toddler, and about having two sets of hands to manage everything – dinner, bath time, bedtime – so the divide and conquer method has made it much easier overall.
How does your work make you a better mom?
I think it gives you perspective. For me personally I’ve always prided myself on wanting to be a working mom. Candidly, I don’t think I have the patience to be a stay at home mom, not because I don’t love my children but because I feel like there is a benefit from having a range of experiences, and I don’t think I would be as thoughtful as most stay at home parents are when it comes to being able to create that truly comprehensive early childhood experience. That’s why I so appreciate having the resources to be able to continue working and to provide care outside the home for my kids so they do get those specialists who are creating that environment for them. It’s so fun to see my son when he comes home talking about the new things he is learning, and to see him growing. For me it’s deeply satisfying to have a professional persona in addition to being a parent, and I get a lot of energy from that way of engaging. I also get satisfaction because my kids are getting a richer experience from me when I’m engaging with them, and they’re getting a socialization and other experiences I want them to have from other people who really know what they’re doing with early childhood education.
I don’t think I have the patience to be a stay at home mom, not because I don’t love my children but because I feel like there is a benefit from having a range of experiences, and I don’t think I would be as thoughtful as most stay at home parents are when it comes to being able to create that truly comprehensive early childhood experience.