As of today, I am a working mom to two children.
For the first time in fourteen weeks, I was not awakened by the soft, sweet whimper of my son subtly telling me he needs to be fed. Rather, my morning started with the sharp tone of my alarm that echoed the harsh reality that today is the first day of my real life. As of today, I am a working mom to two children. How will I do this? How will I balance it all? I lay in bed staring at the ceiling feeling the weight of my future heavy on my chest. My alarm rings again reminding me that you can’t stop time. If the last fourteen weeks taught me anything, it’s just that. I can lie here and wallow in my anxieties and fear and self-judgment, or I can get up and embrace the day ahead of me.
After feeding Charles a bottle, which he struggled with due to his upper respiratory virus (why did that have to come just as I was going back to work?), I quickly shower and throw on some eye liner and mascara. I realize as I pull on my pants for the first time in a year that I am wearing something with a waistband. And it’s too tight. And I hate it. I make a mental note that I should talk to someone about creating a line of clothing where spanks are built in. Like maternity clothing for muffin tops. I also make a note that I need to stop eating ice cream.
The part of the day I have been dreading for weeks is here. I have to tell the children goodbye. At three, Jane is unphased by this news. But Charles. Sweet Charles. How do I tell him that I won’t be with him all day? How do I let him go? I want to hold on to this moment forever as I smell his baby scent and feel his soft skin on my cheek. A few tears escape even though I told myself I wouldn’t cry, and Mark assures me that things will be fine.
I don’t think I have actually gotten anything accomplished aside from sorting through emails and voice messages. One of my colleagues, who also just returned from maternity leave, pops her in to check on me. I explain that I have been at the office for an hour and a half and still don’t quite know where to begin. She said that someone told her to think of your first day back like syllabus day in college. You’re there to get organized and prepared for what’s ahead but not expected to have anything completed by the end of the day. Great advice! I will pass that along to my mom friends.
While not having logged a billable hour yet, the morning still manages to zip by. I realized as I drove into the garage that that was the longest I had spent in the car without a child riding along with me in quite some time. It is a strange feeling when I find myself alone now that I have two children. Initially, I enjoy the silence and feel like I can finally catch my breath, but the quiet that surrounds me soon makes me miss Jane’s sweet voice and Charles’ baby coos. Thinking about the kids makes me miss them, so I call my parents to check in on them. Things seem to be going well. I can hear Jane playing in the background and Charles is sleeping. I want to be there.
For the first time all day, I realized that this feels like my real life.
I grab a salad from the blue plate special joint in my building. I gave up Coke Zero for Lent, so I am drinking water instead, but I feel like giving up my time with the kids should suffice and I almost break my Lenten promise before noon on Ash Wednesday. Sitting with my colleagues in the kitchen feels good. It feels normal. I was talking to adults in the middle of the day for the first time in fourteen weeks. I missed the kids, but for the first time all day, I realized that this feels like my real life.
I am meeting with my boss at two to discuss my goals for the year. This is the part of the day I am most worried about. As much as I want to tell myself to take on only what I can handle, I know myself better than that. I will take on what we call at our firm “stretch goals.” These are goals that are slightly out of reach and that, if you are a task oriented, list checker offer like myself, keep you awake at night because you know there is not enough time in the day to take them on without giving up something else. But what goes? Exercise? Home cooked meals? Volunteering?
Goal meeting complete. It was great! While I don’t know that I will successfully tackle each goal in one year, I am excited about what lies ahead for my career. I feel like I have the beginnings of a road map that will lead me to success. And I feel valued. And that motivates me. It makes me excited that Jane and Charles will get to see me achieve some very important things. They will also get the opportunity to see me fail along the way, because there is no doubt that I will. I think that is equally as crucial. If I let the fear of failing to accomplish what is ahead of me paralyze me into inaction, then I may never taste success. I want them to learn that.
This will likely be my shortest work day until the end of tax season, but I just can’t stay any longer. I am so ready to see the sweet faces of my kiddos that I can hardly stand it. I pull into my parents’ driveway and say a little prayer of thanks that my dad decided to retire three years ago to keep Jane while I returned to work. As I walk in, she runs to greet me as she shouts “Mommy!!!!” And I’m weak in the knees. I’d buy her a pony in that moment if she asked for one. Charles is sleeping which, selfishly, makes me sad. I had envisioned his chubby cheeks turning pink and his smile widening as he laid his eyes on me after a long day of separation. It wasn’t to be today, but now I get to hold onto that moment for tomorrow.
Mark comes home with fried catfish from New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood, and I realize that we will eventually have to go to the grocery. If you peaked into our fridge, you’d think we were in college. Beer, water, left over Popeyes. I suppose that’s what happens when you start back at work the day after Fat Tuesday. The food is delicious and as an added bonus to a pretty good first day back, Jane ate a bite of catfish. The working mom gods have smiled down upon me and told me things will be alright because this child hasn’t tried something new for two years!
Jane is in bed. I am holding Charles. We watch an episode of Girls, but I can’t stay awake and neither can Charles. I think we were both pooped from our new routine.
I give Charles his last bottle of the day. He looks at me and holds my hand as he eats. He doesn’t seem to love me less for having gone back to work. And I think I love him more because of it. And for the first time since leaving that morning, I shed a tear. The love I have for these children is what defines me now. I am their mother first.
My head hits my pillow. I close my eyes and begin my prayers. I say thanks for my loving husband who is truly my partner in parenting. I say thanks for my parents and Jane’s teachers who will spend their time loving our children when we are not there to. I say thanks for the relationships that blossoms between them as a result. I say thanks for my friends who sent messages of encouragement throughout the day. It is amazing how much easier it is to do this knowing I am not alone. I say thanks for the wisdom that I have received from so many people throughout these last three years. Finally, I ask God to give me grace. I ask so that I can give it to myself when my days don’t go as smoothly as this one, and I find myself failing. Failing as a spouse or a colleague or a friend, but mostly as a mother. And just before I drift off to sleep, I say a prayer for all of those mothers who will find themselves waking up in a few short hours, and for the first time in twelve weeks, to the harsh tone of an alarm rather than the soft, sweet whimper of their child. May they rest peacefully and give themselves grace.
Thank you for this Jennifer! I know that I am right behind you with returning to work. As I think about that day I am both excited to get back to my career and dreading leaving my babies.
I have just finished week 3 of only 6 weeks maternity leave. I cry about once a day remembering what is was like going back after child #1 and 2 and how the next three weeks will fly by before I leave #3. I know eventually it gets easier, and it is fulfilling to accomplish things at work, but this country is so terrible to it’s mothers and families about leave time that I think I will be angry forever about what I’m missing at home because I can’t afford unpaid leave. I think I need the time with baby more than baby needs me. I hope one day we women and families are loud enough that the laws change. I would gladly return to work if supported by my workplace and country that my time as a mother to a newborn benefits us all; instead i will return after just 6 exhausting weeks bitter and resentful that a stranger holds my precious baby for 14 hours a day instead of me. We’ve got it all wrong USA.
As a mother of 3, I loved this. I have had the privilege of staying home with my children, but now in the fall will return to work. My youngest will only be 8 months and I never had to leave a baby before. I found your words so encouraging and spoke to my heart. I’m going back to work to help our family financially and I know my kids will reap the benefits in the long run. Thank you for your openness and giving me the courage to know that it will be ok.