Guest Blogger, Sam Johnson
We work really hard to become child life specialists. We complete our prerequisites, apply to schools, take out loans, go to class, study, write theses, complete practicums and internships, sit for our certification exams, and then apply for jobs. Eventually, we become working child life specialists and the world keeps spinning and our lives carry on.
Finding a work-life balance can be difficult, particularly in a job that can be emotional, heavy, and requires us to give so much of ourselves.
I reflected on my recent return to work following maternity leave and my new identity as a working child life specialist and mother below.
To all the working mothers, soon-to-be working mothers, and future working mothers — I see you and you’re doing great.
I am a mom AND a child life specialist
Beginning in the second grade, I wanted to be a mom. Most students’ ‘Star of the Week’ posters featured aspirations to be firemen, veterinarians, or ballerinas. When I grew up, though, I wanted to be a mom.
In my 20s, I discovered child life while volunteering at the local hospital and was excited to learn about a field of work that combined my love for kids and desire to work in a hospital.
I worked as a child life specialist for 4 years before becoming pregnant. My pregnant (and overconfident) self figured my expertise in child life development would make it easy to be a mom. And, because I love my job, it would be easy for me to return to work after having the baby.
I took every day of maternity leave the state and the hospital allowed, and then some (albeit, unpaid).
Having a baby is the most difficult job I have had and no amount of wanting, textbook reading, graduate coursework, certification, or hospital work experience could have ever prepared me for being a mom. I was introduced to a level of exhaustion I couldn’t before fathom existed, I was feeding a baby with reflux and obsessing over the ounces of milk I could express, and I was choosing between eating, cleaning, or showering because I knew I did not have time for it all.
Despite my bleeding nipples, sweat, and sandpaper-like eyeballs, I marveled at my son’s every noise, smile, and movement and I feared the end of my maternity leave. I missed my coworkers and I missed being a child life specialist, but I already missed my baby more. I missed moments with him I hadn’t yet had; I feared I would not be home when he first crawled, that he would choke during a meal, that he would be sick with a fever and I would not be able to hold him, or that he would not be able to fall asleep without me rocking him first. I was jealous of the nanny or daycare we would use for being able to take care of him each day.
On my first day back to work, I cried my entire drive to the hospital. I showed up to the office, grateful for masks, and glued to my phone for updates on my son. No one on the unit could believe I was still working full-time. Everyone asked me how I was able to leave my baby, how often I was pumping at work, and who my son was with during the day because he wasn’t with me.
Returning to work was hard. I felt guilty, sad, and alone. I had a difficult time, too, making sense of the fact that I was spending time with everyone else’s child except my own.
Eventually (thank you to therapy, family, and friends) I was able to recognize that by going to work I am giving my son the opportunity to leave the home each day and build social and emotional bonds with other people that love him. I am also fulfilling a separate (but not unrelated) purpose and supporting children and families in the hospital. In time, I regained my identity as a mom AND a child life specialist.
It’s been 9 months since I returned from maternity leave. Today, work feels like a natural part of my day. In the mornings, I exercise, shower, and get dressed while everyone else is sleeping. It’s time I spend taking care of myself before I take care of everyone else. I then get to drive alone in my car to work and think about how much I love my hot coffee.
At the hospital, I get to see the magic of medicine, connect with my coworkers-turned-dear-friends, work alongside brilliant, compassionate people, and go to the bathroom alone. I am proud to still be able to exercise the skills I spent so many years studying (and continue paying) for.
I leave work on time each day (hi, priorities!) and when I pull into the driveway, I cannot wait to watch my son turbo-speed to the door for hugs. My time with him is prized and intentional, and I am proud of our bond. I hope my son grows up seeing that women are extremely capable — we are moms, we hold careers, we are, in effect, superheroes.
Sam is a mom to Max (14 months) and works as a child life specialist in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and Acute Care floor at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. She is also the handler of a facility dog, Margene. On the weekends, you can find Sam on the beach with her family.