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“Coming back from maternity leave during a pandemic left me shell-shocked”

Elise Masella, executive director of global communications, returned to work after having her first baby in the thick of COVID-19. She shares what she's learned and how she's adjusted.

December 8, 2020

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Elise Masella and with her husband and son

My son, Max, was born on Feb. 5, 2020 as COVID-19 was starting to spread throughout the world. At the time, it felt largely nonthreatening, and in the swirl of postpartum exhaustion, I wasn’t paying as much attention to the news as I normally do as part of the global communications team at Merck. But soon, we began hearing that the virus was spreading across the U.S.

A mere four weeks after my son was born, the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic. Things escalated quickly, and the tri-state area — where I live — became the first epicenter of the virus in the U.S. 

Becoming a mom during a pandemic

As if it isn’t scary enough to bring a fragile newborn into the world, a pandemic as a first-time mom certainly ups the ante. In retrospect, the lockdown provided time for bonding our family wouldn’t have had with the normal swirl of friends and family bringing over meals and offering help. They say it takes a village, but our village was in social isolation.  

After six months of not exactly the maternity leave I’d had in mind, I really couldn’t wait to “feel like myself” again. I thought going back to work was going to be my magic bullet. But it turns out working from home in the middle of a pandemic is also not that easy. The priorities for the company changed, what we needed to communicate to our stakeholders changed, the way we worked changed — quite literally, the entire world had changed while I was on leave.  

A new way of working

I returned to a vastly different workplace than the one I’d departed in February. Instead of being in the office alongside my colleagues, leaders and teammates, I was still stuck in the house I hadn’t left for months. Instead of celebrating my return with hugs and high-fives, I logged onto video meeting after video meeting, call after call.  

Baby Max

Max is ready for his meeting

Elise holding her son Max

My son Max and I wearing homemade matching tie-dyed outfits (a favorite quarantine activity!)

I was shellshocked at how difficult the transition was for me. I had worked from home before! This should be easy for me! Instead, I heard my son going up and down from every nap, crying for every bottle. I found myself caught in a perpetual 24-hour cycle of work, dropping onto my computer anytime there was a free second. Forging a work-life balance while stuck at home was proving much harder than I’d expected.   

Finding the silver lining

I’m adjusting now, and I’m so fortunate to work for a company like Merck, with supportive leaders and colleagues who made returning from leave during such a unique time much easier. I’ve learned to integrate work and life and cope in different ways — I try to get outside whenever I can, purchased some new gym equipment, meditate, and I keep off the computer when it’s family time. 

The silver lining is that I’m able to take back time I’d normally spend in the office eating lunch or commuting and share that with my son instead. It’s a work in progress, but I’m learning to roll with the punches and getting used to a new way of working. Support for parents returning from leave is critical, especially in the middle of a global pandemic!