Straight Talk: Returning to Work after Maternity Leave

Well, here’s another post that was tough for me to write. But I felt compelled to do it, like writers often do. Especially because since I went through the experience myself, I have heard so many mothers lament that they had no idea it would be so hard, or so wrenching, or so complex. Returning to work, for me, was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. It’s not on par with lots of life’s tragedies, even some losses I’ve experienced in my own, but when it happens to you, it is hard on a deep, biological, emotional level. A month into my leave, it started to dawn on me that this new normal—one that I truly was blissed out on—would morph into yet another new normal. That first month passed so quickly that it occurred to me as I healed that time would continue in its unfair way, speeding toward a destination I could not control. From the outside, to some, I sounded at best melodramatic and maybe at worst, just plain crazy. I felt crazy, no doubt. I had a decidedly cool job as a style editor for a magazine. Before I went on leave, I could say honestly that I loved many, many aspects of what I did. Probably the most you can love a job while still having a job. Because, let’s be honest here, no matter how much we like or love our jobs, most of us wouldn’t continue working if we hit the Powerball jackpot. Am I right? OK, then. We understand what I’m saying here. We’re not denigrating any employers. Everyone kept telling me to focus on the here and now. Stay in the moment. Worry about that later. It fell on wooden ears, as my grandpa would have said. How could it not? All I could think about was being separated for my new number-one favorite thing. There was no way that this was enough time for me, for her. No way. I’m not alone here. Most of the rest of the world agrees with me. I have no problem saying that our leave policies in the U.S. are barbaric. Whether you’re ready to go back to work or not (and some are, and man, I envied that terribly) I don’t personally know one parent who thinks the current situation is even close to ideal. Anytime I would start to think about it—going back to work like nothing had ever happened when my innermost tectonic plates had shifted so dramatically—I felt desperate. It would surely be impossible. How would I walk out that door? Leave her in the arms of someone that, no matter how wonderful, was not me? Who would watch out for tiny, vulnerable her exactly the way I wanted? Who would watch over the tiny-feeling, very vulnerable me? I would miss the best hours of the day, the happy ones, the wakeful ones, the ones where she might perform her firsts. I had to share. I did not feel like sharing. At all. I’m going to be completely honest. I think I cried every day the last month of my leave. Not all day. Just when it would hit me: 29 days left, 14 days left, nine days left, five days left. I should start pumping for a stash. I should try on my work clothes to see what still fits. My husband would sometimes find me clutching Ruby to my chest, tears running down my face as I thought about someone else being her stand-in mom for the day. I would fill with panic at night after she fell asleep, because I was unsure I could actually make my legs walk her into her daycare for the first or millionth time, and then drive myself to work. I felt like a trapped animal. Friends assured me it got easier. They told me to come back to work and give it a try; that I might find I loved the interaction and the help from daycare in imposing nap schedules, for example. I’d fall back into it. I always nodded my head or said OK because it made them feel better. I just felt all the worse that I would have to lie to myself about how I really felt to get by. Because the truth was, the longer I stayed on leave and settled into becoming a mother, the more I felt a widening gulf between my old profession and my new one. And then there was the other reality: Two incomes is just a financial necessity for my family, like many others. I wasn’t prepared to make the sacrifices we would have to make to stay home, to make Ruby and potentially future other children sacrifice because of what I wanted—especially when maybe I didn’t know if I might actually, in some teeny part of me, enjoy returning. In the end, on tax day, I returned to work. Tearfully and full of panic and reserve and dread. Just like a warm beach vacation feels over and distant in the rear view when you land back into reality, things just snapped back when I arrived at my desk. Everyone else had carried on in my absence, of course. I don’t mean it snapped back easily, but just…. Well, like it had always been waiting there. I did it because you have to do things that you don’t want to do sometimes, and kicking and screaming is not becoming of a lady, right? I kept the bravest face on that I could. But oh man, internally, I struggled. My milk supply kept dropping as time went on. I out-and-out sobbed on my midwife’s desk as she thoughtfully patted my arm when I went to her for help. I would break out in a cold sweat driving home as traffic crawled along during rush hour, counting the minutes that I was missing out on with my baby because people didn’t know how to merge. There was a lot of barely suppressed anger and bitterness. I didn’t know where to put or how to process those feelings—they’re not ones I’m used to having. I know it changed me. I can still get teary thinking about that time and how unkind I was to myself and how I wished so much that things were different. But I will say a couple of things. One, the anticipation was worse than the reality. The reality was hard, but the anxiety I put on myself about the unknown was far, far, far more torturous. I knew it was good to learn how to be without her as much as she needed other loving adults in her life to be mentors. And as Ruby grew, I did grow to see the benefits of daycare, much to my surprise and my friends’ knowing smiles when I admitted it. For one, she slept better at daycare than at home. As she grew, I could see how much she liked being with the other kids. Would I still like to be with her all the time, even at 22 months? Yep, absolutely. But my friends were right. Eventually it got easier. Mostly. For me, that’s about as happy as that ending gets. It’s a mixed bag. There are tantrum-y mornings that I am happy for a little break for both of us. There are mornings where I wish we could stay snuggled together, especially as she tearfully tells me as I put on her coat, “want play mama.” That part never gets easier for me. But, in talking to every kind of mom—stay at home, work from home, work full time, work part time—there’s always a rub. Always. It’s just one of the hard parts of parenthood in the system we’ve got. As for me—I just try to be as present as possible for all the moments when we are together. And I try to be there for other moms who are facing the inevitable with dread in their hearts. I hope I am doing a good job on both counts.

Tags: , ,

Straight Talk: Returning to Work after Maternity Leave

Well, here’s another post that was tough for me to write. But I felt compelled to do it, like writers often do. Especially because since I went through the experience myself, I have heard so many mothers lament that they had no idea it would be so hard, or so wrenching, or so complex. Returning to work, for me, was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. It’s not on par with lots of life’s tragedies, even some losses I’ve experienced in my own, but when it happens to you, it is hard on a deep, biological, emotional level. A month into my leave, it started to dawn on me that this new normal—one that I truly was blissed out on—would morph into yet another new normal. That first month passed so quickly that it occurred to me as I healed that time would continue in its unfair way, speeding toward a destination I could not control. From the outside, to some, I sounded at best melodramatic and maybe at worst, just plain crazy. I felt crazy, no doubt. I had a decidedly cool job as a style editor for a magazine. Before I went on leave, I could say honestly that I loved many, many aspects of what I did. Probably the most you can love a job while still having a job. Because, let’s be honest here, no matter how much we like or love our jobs, most of us wouldn’t continue working if we hit the Powerball jackpot. Am I right? OK, then. We understand what I’m saying here. We’re not denigrating any employers. Everyone kept telling me to focus on the here and now. Stay in the moment. Worry about that later. It fell on wooden ears, as my grandpa would have said. How could it not? All I could think about was being separated for my new number-one favorite thing. There was no way that this was enough time for me, for her. No way. I’m not alone here. Most of the rest of the world agrees with me. I have no problem saying that our leave policies in the U.S. are barbaric. Whether you’re ready to go back to work or not (and some are, and man, I envied that terribly) I don’t personally know one parent who thinks the current situation is even close to ideal. Anytime I would start to think about it—going back to work like nothing had ever happened when my innermost tectonic plates had shifted so dramatically—I felt desperate. It would surely be impossible. How would I walk out that door? Leave her in the arms of someone that, no matter how wonderful, was not me? Who would watch out for tiny, vulnerable her exactly the way I wanted? Who would watch over the tiny-feeling, very vulnerable me? I would miss the best hours of the day, the happy ones, the wakeful ones, the ones where she might perform her firsts. I had to share. I did not feel like sharing. At all. I’m going to be completely honest. I think I cried every day the last month of my leave. Not all day. Just when it would hit me: 29 days left, 14 days left, nine days left, five days left. I should start pumping for a stash. I should try on my work clothes to see what still fits. My husband would sometimes find me clutching Ruby to my chest, tears running down my face as I thought about someone else being her stand-in mom for the day. I would fill with panic at night after she fell asleep, because I was unsure I could actually make my legs walk her into her daycare for the first or millionth time, and then drive myself to work. I felt like a trapped animal. Friends assured me it got easier. They told me to come back to work and give it a try; that I might find I loved the interaction and the help from daycare in imposing nap schedules, for example. I’d fall back into it. I always nodded my head or said OK because it made them feel better. I just felt all the worse that I would have to lie to myself about how I really felt to get by. Because the truth was, the longer I stayed on leave and settled into becoming a mother, the more I felt a widening gulf between my old profession and my new one. And then there was the other reality: Two incomes is just a financial necessity for my family, like many others. I wasn’t prepared to make the sacrifices we would have to make to stay home, to make Ruby and potentially future other children sacrifice because of what I wanted—especially when maybe I didn’t know if I might actually, in some teeny part of me, enjoy returning. In the end, on tax day, I returned to work. Tearfully and full of panic and reserve and dread. Just like a warm beach vacation feels over and distant in the rear view when you land back into reality, things just snapped back when I arrived at my desk. Everyone else had carried on in my absence, of course. I don’t mean it snapped back easily, but just…. Well, like it had always been waiting there. I did it because you have to do things that you don’t want to do sometimes, and kicking and screaming is not becoming of a lady, right? I kept the bravest face on that I could. But oh man, internally, I struggled. My milk supply kept dropping as time went on. I out-and-out sobbed on my midwife’s desk as she thoughtfully patted my arm when I went to her for help. I would break out in a cold sweat driving home as traffic crawled along during rush hour, counting the minutes that I was missing out on with my baby because people didn’t know how to merge. There was a lot of barely suppressed anger and bitterness. I didn’t know where to put or how to process those feelings—they’re not ones I’m used to having. I know it changed me. I can still get teary thinking about that time and how unkind I was to myself and how I wished so much that things were different. But I will say a couple of things. One, the anticipation was worse than the reality. The reality was hard, but the anxiety I put on myself about the unknown was far, far, far more torturous. I knew it was good to learn how to be without her as much as she needed other loving adults in her life to be mentors. And as Ruby grew, I did grow to see the benefits of daycare, much to my surprise and my friends’ knowing smiles when I admitted it. For one, she slept better at daycare than at home. As she grew, I could see how much she liked being with the other kids. Would I still like to be with her all the time, even at 22 months? Yep, absolutely. But my friends were right. Eventually it got easier. Mostly. For me, that’s about as happy as that ending gets. It’s a mixed bag. There are tantrum-y mornings that I am happy for a little break for both of us. There are mornings where I wish we could stay snuggled together, especially as she tearfully tells me as I put on her coat, “want play mama.” That part never gets easier for me. But, in talking to every kind of mom—stay at home, work from home, work full time, work part time—there’s always a rub. Always. It’s just one of the hard parts of parenthood in the system we’ve got. As for me—I just try to be as present as possible for all the moments when we are together. And I try to be there for other moms who are facing the inevitable with dread in their hearts. I hope I am doing a good job on both counts.

Tags: , ,

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