More mothers are returning to work faster after giving birth

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Monday marked the end of a nearly two-month vacation from work for Dawn Schaaf. But this vacation wasn't a time for relaxing -- it was a time of stress, worry, lack of sleep and also great joy.

Her vacation was maternity leave, and after experiencing the ups and downs of being a new mother, Schaaf was eager to resume her life -- a life that has been changed forever.

The 31-year-old new mother bundled up her baby boy Christian against December's morning chill, left her Perryville home and dropped him off with a trusted baby sitter and headed back to work at Saint Francis Medical Center.

Schaaf said the sitter treats her baby like a grandchild. That, coupled with an extensive family network, has eased the new mother's trepidation about leaving her baby for work.

Schaaf's experience is in many ways typical of the way modern mothers juggle their careers and their newborns. More mothers are having babies later in life, like Schaaf, and going back to work sooner.

The percentage of first births to mothers over 30, like Schaaf, tripled between 1960 and 2000. In 2000, the average age of the mother at first birth shot to 24.9 years, 3.5 years above the 1970 average.

At the same time, the number of mothers returning to work within four months after having their first child more than quadrupled since the early 1960s.

"A couple of years ago we agreed that neither of us could handle it. You can't just wake up and say 'We're going to have a baby,'" Schaaf said of her and her husband's decision to start a family so late. Dawn's husband Carl is 38.

By the time Christian was conceived, they were ready. But Schaaf isn't going to be the old stereotypical stay-at-home mom. The role of a mother has changed.

More new mothers are returning to the workforce faster, either to pay the bills or to keep their careers on track.

For Schaaf it's the latter.

"I don't know that I could be a stay-at-home mom," Schaaf said. "I want both. I want to be a mother and have a career."

Schaaf is thankful that money isn't as big a concern for her as it might be.

Carl has a good job as an aircraft mechanic, so the family isn't really hurting for cash. But money does play a factor in the decision to return to work. Having extra money for bills around the holidays helps, said Dawn Schaaf, and having two incomes increases financial stability for the family.

The last time she went to work, Oct. 19, Christian was just about to come into the world. The career was temporarily put on hold.

"He came with a thunder," said Schaaf.

Lucky for her, Schaaf works at a hospital. When she showed up for work, her body screaming to release her child, she was literally seconds away from medical attention.

After a Caesarian section, Christian was born, and his mother was faced with recovery from the physical stresses of childbirth.

Her time out of the workforce has allowed her to get ready physically for her return. Dr. Deanna Siemer, a family practice physician in Jackson who offers obstetrics and gynecological services, said a good time away from work is six weeks.

But not all mothers will take that much time. Siemer, a mother herself, has gone back to work after as little as two weeks.

Her patients always have questions about the right time to go back to work. Each case is different, said Siemer, and the needs of the child and mother must always be taken into consideration. About 90 percent of her patients, said Siemer, take six weeks away from work.

New mothers could take more time off without worrying about whether they would have a job when they return. The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires all employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave for employees that have worked in the company for a year. During that 12 weeks, most offer their employees the chance to use up paid time off or sick leave.

Many local employers say they don't mind granting the time off for pregnant women. Unlike sudden medical emergency, pregnancy gives employers plenty of time to plan, shift schedules and duties and bring in temporary employment if needed, said Erin Pfeifer, human resources manager with Rhodes 101.

Giving paid leave is another story, in both the public and private sector. Very few employers offer special maternity leave with pay, so new moms who depend on their own income will likely be forced into returning to work faster.

Many local employers say they offer unpaid leave, but not paid, except for accumulated time off and sick days.Of course, women returning to work earlier also means they spend less time with their newborns in those early months, when bonding is important, especially for breast feeding mothers like Schaaf. But Siemer said that for the purposes of the child's welfare, it's mostly the quality of time that's important, not the quantity, that counts.

Schaaf is approaching motherhood with the same attitude. She hopes that working now may put her in a position where she can have free time later.

"If I miss out on a first step, I won't have to miss out on a first ball game," Schaaf said.

And with his mother working, Christian will get to spend a little more quality time alone with dad in the afternoon before mom gets home. Carl looks forward to the prospect, and knows it will keep Dawn happy.

"I'm glad that she's going back to work," Carl said. "She enjoys her job, and I wanted her to go back whenever she was ready."

335-6611, extension 182

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