Over the weekend, I read an article shared by friends and friends of friends on Facebook. I read about a woman who left her son at daycare and returned to find him dead just two hours later. As I read through the comments on Facebook, Twitter, and on the article itself, I was reminded of how men and women feel about the maternity and paternity leave policies in the United States. I read multiple reinforced opinions about how of course mothers (not fathers?) are burdened by the decision to put their infants into daycare, even though they certainly would rather be home with them given the choice. I, like so many other women and men, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers — humans, in general — was filled with sorrow and sympathy for the baby's parents. I can't quite wrap my head around what they might be going through and how overwhelming the entire situation must be. And while I was filled with mourning for that family, I was reminded of how commonly people get working moms wrong. We are, in fact, like every other human being on the planet. We don't all fit into one perfect box.
Some women with children choose to work because they have to pay bills and cannot afford to stay home with their children. Others never question the fact that they'd continue to work, regardless of financial needs. Why? Because their work is important. Their work is part of who they are. No one asks working fathers if they'll "go back to work" after the baby is born. Instead, we just assume mothers will give it up, like it never mattered. And if they don't, we wonder why. Why is she going back to work? Where will they send the baby? Won't she feel guilty? It's too simple, though I don't understand why, to assume that working mothers want to sacrifice the very people they are — as if baby is born and the person who existed pre-baby is no more. We forget — ignore? overlook? — that working women with children are still people. With hopes. Dreams. Goals. Careers. Desires. Perfectly tailored blazers they actually do want to slip into again.
And I am one of those women.
When my daughter was 3 months old, we put her into daycare, albeit reluctantly. I cried for days leading up to her first day. All her life so far I'd been home with my tiny, perfect baby. I was her primary caregiver and caretaker, both willingly and by design. My leave, however, was up, and there were bills to be paid, groceries to be bought, vacations to be planned, futures to plan for, and colleges to be saved up for. Beyond that, I wanted to go back to work. As much as I loved my girl, I loved my job. After 12 weeks together I was once again in search of some semblance of a work-life balance.
Admitting that out loud somehow made me feel as though maybe I didn't love my daughter quite as much as other mothers do. Maybe I didn't love her enough to give up my career. Maybe I didn't love her enough because I wanted to continue earning for our family. Maybe I didn't love her enough because I wanted to plan for her future. Maybe I didn't love her enough because I wanted that raise (eventually). Maybe I didn't love her enough because I missed my desk and my coworkers and the coffee shop around the corner. Maybe I didn't love her enough — and what kind of mother doesn't love their child enough?
Not only was I leaving my daughter every day to go to work — much like her father had been doing for the last three months, I'll remind you — but I wasn't leaving her in the loving care of a family member or personal nanny, I was leaving her with strangers. Sure, they were strangers who'd been certified by the state of New Jersey, trained to work specifically with children my daughter's age, and, by all accounts, were (and are) loving and nurturing individuals who care for each child as if they were their own. But they were strangers. In a facility. Didn't I feel bad?
Yes, yes, I did. Of course I did.
Until I started to see the look of glee on my daughter's face when I'd pick her up a few minutes early and watch as she happily played puppets with her favorite teacher, laughing, kicking, having the time of her little life. Until I saw they'd be giving her loving kisses all over her toes and feet as they zipped up her coat, handing her back to me clean, fed, happy, and cooing goodbye as I buckled her into the stroller. The guilt I'd felt at the beginning evaporated in those moments, replaced with gratitude and relief. Not a day goes by that I don't thank her loving teachers for everything they've done to help our family. To help me.
We should discuss our family leave policies in this country, and we should talk about the fact we need better, more regulated daycare options for working parents of all income levels. It's appalling that thousands of families must leave their children with sometimes unregulated, under-qualified daycare workers because no other viable options exist. And it's equally disheartening that some parents are tricked into thinking that their daycare is safe when it's anything but. But it doesn't negate the fact that working women want the daycare option. We want to know we have a choice, a say.
There are hundreds of thousands of children in the care of compassionate, well-trained individuals who devote their lives to helping families like mine run smoothly and happily. At the end of the day, isn't that what our goal should be?
Our reasons for going back to work may differ, but for working mothers, we share a common denominator: We want what's best for our families — especially our children.
What's best doesn't come in one perfect box, either, but for us our best means that my partner and I both go to work knowing our daughter is safe and loved in the care of people other than us. She'll grow up knowing that I choose to work for her and for me. And I'm grateful everyday for that choice.
Images Courtesy of Rebekah Collins (3)