An alley at night, in Brooklyn, New York.

What I've Learned From Returning to Work During a Pandemic

Amanda Slavin shares some thoughts on her experiences as a new mother, returning to work amidst a global pandemic, and how this has changed her outlook on remote work and engagement.
Amanda Slavin

Before giving birth, a lot of my friends recommended I put together a birth plan—something to lay out how I hoped labor would go. As it turned out, “hope” wound up being the key word. After 24 hours of labor and a C-section, I realized that despite how well thought-out your plans might be, they don’t always work out perfectly. 

Speaking of plans, I planned for a full year ahead of my maternity leave. The company that I co-founded almost eight years ago with my best friend Robert was my first baby. I wanted to make sure it was set up for success in my absence. Robert and I worked together tirelessly with our director of operations, Abbie, to develop a strategy that would facilitate CatalystCreativ’s continued success, and allow for me to take the time I needed to be with my newborn. 

This would be the first time I took off more than two months from work in the past 12 years. As we developed a plan for Catalyst, in the back of my mind I was planning what I’d do with all my spare time. I thought that I was going to learn new languages on Duolingo and read a ton of books. 

I was wrong. 

Logan arrived, and so did maternity leave, but French fluency and my reading list were quickly pushed aside. I was recovering from my C-section. I was exhausted from labor. I was completely consumed with this tiny baby as he learned how to sleep and eat and function, and my husband, Jonathan, and I learned how to function ourselves while barely sleeping. 

I’d planned to take three full months of maternity leave and I realized I physically and mentally needed it, but after Logan turned just eight weeks old, Covid-19 happened, and a key component of our DNA and major source of business was suddenly non-viable. 

CatalystCreativ got its start as a community design agency with physical experiences; ordinarily, half of our yearly revenue comes from in-person events. I was thrust back into the workplace in order to help the company that I care so much about continue to thrive. I needed to be able to support Robert as he quickly pivoted the direction of the company. But at the same time, my husband and I made the decision to leave New York when there were only nine cases, to ensure that I remain healthy as a type 1 diabetic. So much for our business plans and apartment lease!

When Robert and I founded CatalystCreativ, we chose to operate as a remote workplace. Home and office have been one and the same for me for nearly eight years. Over that time, I found it very easy to be productive and focused while also creating a space for myself that felt loving and welcoming. Part of it must be how I’m wired, but I also have made striking that balance a priority. Whenever Jonathan and I looked for houses and apartments, we always made sure they felt like a great place to live and a great place to work.

As I mentioned before, sometimes plans don’t work out. I never planned for my return to full-time work to take place from an Airbnb, with no family or friend support nearby, while my husband also works full-time at the company that I co-founded. While it was always so easy for me to work from home, things feel different now. This Airbnb has to be a home, an office, and a nest for my child too. Throughout the day the living room transitions from play room to office and back again, as my husband and I take turns getting on phone calls and watching and playing with our son and dog. 

With all that said, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two about remote work since returning from maternity leave in the midst of a global pandemic. 

1. Do not push yourself to the limit.

For years I have worked myself to the bone and never rested. This is impossible now not only because I need to stay healthy but also because I have a child that is depending on that health. I’m working as hard as I can while also ensuring that I’m working on my own emotional, mental, and physical well-being. 

2. Use your time wisely

I’ve learned that my time is my most precious resource. When you have a child and you go back to work early you, this is a powerful lesson. I have to think about every single “yes” that I give out throughout the day. I used to say yes to everything. Now I’m learning to say no, in order to make my yeses more meaningful and valuable. 

3. Change your space up or give it multiple purposes

As I mentioned, our living room is not just a playroom but also an office, so we have to put everything baby-related away before we get to work. Logan’s books, toys, and play mat all get put out of sight when we’re on calls or he is taking a nap, and then come out again when he’s awake and ready to play. This gives me and my husband a space that feels like just our own when working, but that still feels like a place for play when that’s what it’s being used for.

4. Lean on others for support

All my life, I have very rarely been one to ask for help. I feel more comfortable being the one to offer help. But I literally can’t do what I’m doing right now alone. This pandemic plus motherhood gave me an opportunity to reach out to others for support and guidance. It really does take a village to raise a baby and a guide company—and I’m glad I’ve realized it. 

I never thought I was going to be able to go without working for two entire months, but the time that I had to exclusively spend with my son was invaluable. My body still doesn’t feel fully healed after the C-section and I’m still taking it day by day but I feel so grateful to be surrounded by people (even if it’s mostly virtually) that are always urging me forward, one step at a time. I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned. 

When coming back to work and raising a baby, all you can do is to try your best every day, even if your best varies from one day to the next, or what you can give of yourself is different than what you could before. 

I’m excited to be back. I’m excited to continue to learn and grow. I’m excited to take things one day at a time. And I’m excited to reconnect with so many of you when the pandemic is all over

But until then, I recorded a webinar to share some more of my thoughts and insights on remote work, engagement, and how my own experiences have changed the way I view them both. 

I still define engagement as authentic, meaningful human connection that leads to the granting of time and attention. But my belief that engagement is vital for maintaining an impactful and intentional remote work culture has only been strengthened. Hear more about the book I wrote while pregnant (I even recorded the audio book as my son sat on my diaphragm!), as well as how to design a workplace that is engaging and inspiring, using a step by step engagement process I call the Seventh Level Framework. 

You can watch it here.

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