When Are You Going Back? (Or: Maternity Leave is Complicated.)

mollie chen
5 min readNov 3, 2017

I had a baby in early June. Her name is Lilly and my husband and I agree she’s the coolest person we’ve ever met.

When people ask me how I’m doing, I say that I’ve had a pretty soft landing into parenthood. And it’s true — the stars couldn’t have been more aligned. Lilly was born in early June, sparing me the discomfort of being pregnant during a heatwave, a handful of close friends had babies within weeks of me, my husband took off a generous chunk of time, and summer is an ideal time to be unemployed.

Now Lilly is four months and change, the age at which they “get fun.” To be honest, I’ve thought she was fun since she was just a strange lump that pooped loudly and made strange gestures, but now she makes me laugh more than I thought possible.

I had been freelance consulting after leaving Birchbox, the company I co-founded, and if I’d followed through on my original plan — take three months off, then enlist part-time care so I could start talking to companies — I’d be deep into my job search now.

Instead, I realized that three months felt too short, as did four months. Five is just around the corner and the truth is, I’m not in any hurry for a full-time job. And because of the way I’m built, and the reality of being an ambitious woman in our culture, I feel guilty about it. My instinct is to say, “I’m not ready,” but that feels like I’m admitting some fault or weakness that is preventing me from going back to work. It’s not that I’m not ready; it’s that I’m enjoying myself and I am all too aware how quickly this time will pass.

If this feels like a non-problem and you’re wondering why I can’t just chill out, welcome to my Type A brain. (I had the same problem with over-engineering my time off.) I know I’m lucky in so many ways, starting with fact that I am in control of my own maternity leave, and have the financial security to take my time finding a job. It’s a privilege to even be wrestling with these questions when so many — the majority of people — have no choice, and far fewer resources than I do.

Still, I can’t avoid the existential crises: Am I still myself? Is it ok to feel fulfilled — even in the short term — without a job? And what kind of working mom do I want to be?

When I sheepishly told a few friends — successful, ambitious women with babies or young kids — that I was extending my self-imposed maternity leave, every single one of them told me to take as much time as I could. ‘It goes so fast.’ ‘Your older self would tell you not to worry.’ ‘You’ve worked your butt off, work will be there when you get back.’

What was striking to me wasn’t just that they were all in agreement—it was that I hadn’t even considered the possibility of taking more than three months before I had Lilly. I was conditioned to carve out three months of maternity bubble time and then expected to shift right into gear. Anything less would risk falling behind and losing the career momentum I’d worked so hard to build.

And here’s the thing: Every woman is different, and experiences the first chapter of parenthood differently. For some women, three (or fewer) months might be the right amount of time. In my case, I’ve been surprised at how much I like being a mom, and I’m still getting used to this part of my identity. While it hasn’t erased my former ambitious, work-energized self, that version of me has taken a backseat while my mom-self comes into focus. (Admittedly, I bring the same obsessive planning and optimization to parenthood as I did to work—some things never change.)

I told a friend— also a new mom — about how I was conflicted about the idea of “going back.” She immediately understood. “It’s not ‘going back,’” she said, “it’s moving forward.” Meaning you’re not reverting to your former self; you’re growing into your new reality.

Because I don’t have a full-time job to go back to, I have the luxury (and the terrifying wide-open space) of defining my next chapter from scratch. I’m not only looking for a company whose mission I feel passionately about; I want a role that has enough space for me to be a parent— since, as many friends have reminded me, you never get this time back. I’m also excited and intimidated to be a role model for a little girl, and I want her look at me and feel empowered to do and be anything she wants.

As I ease back into things—picking up conversations with the companies I advise, taking on small consulting projects—I am giving myself permission to figure things out as I go and not have all the answers. But I have learned a few things that may ring true for other future or new moms out there.

Having a baby has a way of widening your perspective and changing how you think about timelines — where three, or six, or eight months once felt like an impossibly long time, they’re now a blink of an eye. The amount of time you are able to take off for maternity leave may not match up with what you are going through as a new mom. It’s not a failure if it feels like a too short, or too long, amount of time.

There is nothing like taking care of a baby to take you an entire emotional rollercoaster. It’s ok to have fun on maternity. It’s also ok to feel resentful and bored. Or sad or confused or lost. In fact, you can feel all those things in a single morning—I know I have.

More than anything, I’ve realized that there is no “right” way to experience motherhood. That seems obvious, but when you’re doing something for the first time, the instinct is to compare yourself to others and try to strong arm your experience into what you *think* it should be. It’s a great way to drive yourself absolutely crazy. The best, simplest, and hardest thing you can do is to listen to your gut.

That’s what I’m trying to do, at least. I’ll let you know how it goes.



mollie chen

vp of brand and customer experience at hungryroot. birchbox cofounder.