It was never a question for me whether I would return to work after having my first baby. Not only was it financially necessary, but my personal work goals still excited me. Being a parent did not eclipse my career ambitions. So I never struggled with the decision to return to my job after maternity leave, but I did have a tough time navigating the postpartum emotions I experienced my first day back. I may have looked the part on the outside: business casual outfit, clean hair, some makeup and my breast pump ready to go. On the inside, however, I was cycling through a roller coaster of feelings.
In the last weeks of my maternity leave, I was extremely focused on preparing my baby for my return to work. The nanny search was intense. I pumped my boobs off to load up my freezer with a hearty supply of breast milk. I worked with my husband to construct a schedule among us, our sitter, and my parents that was the patchwork of childcare we needed to cover both of us working full-time.
What I failed to do, though, was prepare myself. Maybe I took one day to figure out what work clothes I could fit back into, and get a haircut. But I didn’t check in with how I was feeling. I thought, “Well, working moms have been doing this for years. They have a baby and then six, or eight, or twelve weeks later they go to work. And that’s that.” I hadn’t done my homework, though. I didn’t ask around to other working moms about what it meant for them, emotionally, to go back to work. I literally had no clue.
So off I went, on that first day back to work, cycling through this tumultuous set of postpartum emotions that definitely included the following:
The memory of my daughter in her crib, cooing up at me as I held back tears saying goodbye to her my first morning back to work, remains a vivid scene in my mind. I had to convince myself it was going to be OK, and I was never really able to. The guilt I felt at that moment, leaving her with a sitter in our apartment for the next 10 hours, was crippling. Once the door closed behind me, I cried. I was a terrible mother, leaving her baby to fulfill some career goals.
Yes, I also had to work because my family lives in New York City and it’s freakin’ expensive and we have no choice but to be two-income household if want to take the occasional trip, or put our kids in a few extra-curricular activities. That argument didn’t assuage my guilt, though.
I was worried at what I’d find at the office when I returned. A lot can change, and not all of it for the better, in the span of three months. Would I have some of my responsibilities shifted? Having been away for a while, I didn’t feel entitled to speaking up about what kind of projects I’d be assigned. I was nervous that while I was away, others had a chance to grow their roles and push past me on the corporate ladder. Though the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protected my job, or an equivalent position, until I came back, were there going to be changes in place that would affect my role in the organization? It’s scary to be have been absent for three months and then be expected to pick up, not where I left off, but where the company might have shifted to.
Though I was told by my boss that it was great to have me back, and that they were so relieved that I was returning, there is always that worry about performance. In my case, it took a few days to get the lay of the land, but once I was back I worked myself into a groove again (albeit with a thought in the back of my head that I had to prove myself more than ever, since they seemed to have gotten along without me for the past 12 weeks). I think that feeling of needing to prove yourself is unique to parents who are out of the workforce for a while.
My daughter still wasn’t taking a bottle by the time I had to return to work. We had tried everything to get her to drink my expressed breastmilk: having other people feed her, having me leave the apartment while they attempted to give her a bottle, having the TV on to distract her from the synthetic nipple poking at her mouth. She would have none of it. So I was a wreck leaving that first day, pleading with my sitter to try anything to get her to take that bottle. “Don’t worry,” my sitter assured me. “She’ll take it.” Like it was no big deal, but it was such a big deal. I had no evidence that my kid would eat without my breasts around.
I was afraid I couldn’t be a parent with a full-time job. My generation of moms is still figuring out how to fit all the pieces of our lives together: motherhood, career, personal goals, relationships. Society champions the notion of “having it all,” but I have found you can’t have it all, all at once. My fear stemmed from the unknown: I had no idea how to do this working mom thing. My mother had worked, but as a teacher, so her hours aligned with our school hours. This was uncharted territory and there were very few women who spoke openly around me about how they navigated the intersection of career and parenthood.
The first day back at work meant the first day pumping at work. That thought elicited zero excitement in me. When my first kid was born, New York State hadn’t yet passed the law that ensures working mothers private areas provided by their employers for the sole purpose of pumping. I had to scope out a space to hook up to the pump, and that took a while. There was no process at my company for onboarding new moms returning from maternity leave, and that lack of support was terribly frustrating. Not only was I trying to navigate the actual work I was coming back to, but I also had to allocate brain space and time to pump at least twice a day. I worked for a large, publicly traded cable network at the time, and the irony was that its programming targeted female audiences.
While I had lost pretty much all the weight I had gained during pregnancy, my body was not the same. My boobs were still bigger than they had been before conceiving, and my work shirts stretched across my chest in ways that prompted me to walk around with my arms folded all day. I must have come across as having a real attitude, when, in fact, I was terribly self-conscious about how I looked and wondered if I could keep up the facade of not looking completely exhausted all day for the rest of, well, forever?
At about hour three into the workday, regret kicked in. Was having a career worth missing this fleeting time in my new baby’s life? I wondered if I had my priorities straight. I called my sitter and she told me about their morning: a walk outside, nap, some tummy time. Typing it now, it seems kind of boring, actually. However, as a new mother, having never witnessed an infant develop into a human being before my very eyes, missing all these tiny details of my daughter’s life made me instantly regret my decision to return to work full-time.
Luckily, that emotion would not take a stronghold in me. It has bubbled up often, especially when the work I would do at various jobs held little meaning to me, and I questioned the value of having it take me away from my kids all day when it didn’t feel satisfying (not to discount the paycheck, though, because that is a very good reason to work). I’ve learned to accept regret when it rolls up at times, and to send it on its way after a frank discussion with myself that I’m making the best choices possible for my family and no decision is ever final when it comes to what job I have.
Affirmation (If You’re Lucky)
I consider this the opposite of regret. It’s the feeling I get when I’m in a “flow” at work, where the words are coming easily as I write, or I get an enthusiastic email from my boss, approving a cut of a commercial I sent for review. Aside from the pay, this is why I have a career; it validates my creative efforts, and fills me in ways that being a mother, or a partner, can’t.
Oh man. Adults. It felt so good to be around grown-ups again. I could use the bathroom whenever I needed to, not just in the five minutes my otherwise screaming infant would let me put her down. Work: go for the money, stay for the adult companionship (unless you’re a teacher, in which case, I salute your will to be around children who aren’t even yours all day.)
The moment I got home from my first day back at work after three months of maternity leave was one of the purest experiences of relief I’ve ever had (aside from a few trips to the bathroom after a couple of concert beers). My veteran sitter had my daughter fed, cleaned up, with all her toys put away, and no unwashed bottles in the sink. Better than all of that, was that my child seemed calm and content, and so happy to see me. I scooped her, buried my face in her neck, and breathed her baby scent in. I missed her so much, but in this moment, relief washing over me, I knew I could do this. She could do this. My anxiety about her taking a bottle evaporated, as my sitter showed me the emptied breast milk bags. My daughter hadn’t starved, and would continue to thrive in the nine years I have been a working mother.