The most difficult part of motherhood for me was never a crying baby, middle-of-the-night nursing, diaper changes, toddler temper tantrums, or even potty training (though I admit, getting a three-year-old to use the toilet isn’t a task I’m completing successfully). I can manage a child who demands juice and crackers and only wants to watch Dora and Diego on television. As a working mother, the one task I struggle with is leaving my child at daycare.
From the moment my son was born I knew my six weeks of maternity leave would be too short. I spent most of my time between feedings and changings worrying about the day I would have to return to work. Due to circumstances out of my control I didn’t qualify (according to my former employer) for the full twelve weeks FMLA guaranteed most parents, and I was made to feel as though my job would not be waiting for me if I decided to take three additional weeks of unpaid time off.
The first day back on the job was the most trying day of my life thus far. I remember waking up at 5:30 in the morning, nursing my precious baby while sobbing, and cursing the Gods that I hadn’t married a millionaire or saved enough money to afford to quit my job and become a stay-at-home mother.
As though it were yesterday, I remember sitting in the rocking chair, Dawson at my breast, and analyzing every one of my shortcomings. Things I should have done differently, things I could have done better, anything that would have resulted in a different outcome than where I was that day. I even muttered the words, "This is so not fair."
My husband wasn’t as supportive as I’d hoped he would be during my time of unease. He tried to comfort me by telling me our son was in good hands, I’d only be away from him for nine hours, and I should look forward to the break I was getting from the frustrations of an infant who wouldn’t sleep when I wanted him to.
"Are you trying to tell me this is a good thing?" I asked. "How can you imply that? Someone else is caring for, raising, my child! Our child!"
I was indignant, inconsolable and more so, I was resentful that my husband, the man who helped me create this tiny human, wasn’t feeling the anxiety that I was. He wasn’t sobbing. He wasn’t surfing the massive wave of guilt that pounded the shores of parenthood. To me, he seemed happy that I was going back to work and contributing to the family income once again. I believed in his mind he was calculating how long it would take to pay off the large sum of medical bills we racked up when the little one was born.
I gave my husband an exasperated look as I dressed our baby and strapped him into his car seat. My son fussed and my husband tried to occupy him until I was finished gathering everything I needed for work.
"Your mommy is going to miss you, Doodlebug. She’s so worried about leaving you at daycare. Tell her it’s going to be okay." My husband’s voice was soft and gentle and I saw the look of love on his face as he spoke to his "little man". Maybe he really was feeling some fear like I was. He kissed him on the forehead then carried the car seat to the car while I toted the diaper bag and breast pump.
The ten minute drive to daycare felt like an eternity. Every stop light was a moment to reflect on every milestone of my son’s life at that point; his first coo, his first non-gassy grin, the first time he held his head up for a few moments. I am going to miss so many of the firsts of his life, I thought.
I began to cry and as I carried my son up the steps to daycare. I was the one suffering from separation anxiety. I couldn’t stand to part with my baby. Karen, our caregiver, saw my face and reached out to hug me.
"It’s going to be difficult," she said. "I won’t lie to you. No one tells you how hard it will be."
It took several months before I was comfortable with my job again. Every decision I made about my career revolved around my baby. I no longer volunteered to work overtime. I always said no to Friday happy hour with the girls in my office.
Many times I felt as though I lost myself after I gave birth, but as I continued to work it allowed me the opportunity to interact with adults other than my husband (our conversations were usually about poop and spit-up anyway).
No matter how strong my desire was to pack up my desk for good, I realized that I liked working. Even when I felt guilty each morning at daycare drop off, I looked forward to trading in the mother hat for the business suit if only to feel like my "old self" again.
The truth is, we never go back to who we were B.C. (before children). We evolve. We adapt. We become stronger and wiser versions of ourselves.
My son will be three years old on Sunday and Karen’s words still linger with me. It’s going to be difficult. And it is, but I’ve learned to accept the challenges tossed in my lap.
Like any working parent, I strive to find balance between work and life at home. I tow the line between success and failure — both on the job and as a mother.
I still worry about the dishes in the sink, the toys scattered across the living room and the vacuuming that has yet to be done. Not a day goes by that I don’t have 500 post-it notes on my desk at the office, reminding me of tasks that need to be completed. I battle my fear of imperfection. I curse my inadequacies. I still fight to separate being a mother and working outside the home. It’s a parent’s version of separation anxiety.
But maybe I don’t have to separate my identities to be good at what I do. I’m a woman, wife, mother and employee. I can make 50 sales calls in a day at work and plan dinner each night. So maybe it is take-out once in awhile.
Winning the battle for balance takes a combination of choosing the right priorities, adjusting expectations, and just plain doing the best I can do. Parenting and working force me to make a lot of compromises. I have discovered I can love my job and still hate leaving my child at daycare.
In all fairness, I was forewarned. Someone did tell me it wasn’t going to be easy, but I’m learning to work with what I’ve got.