Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Returning to Work

One of my coworkers is back to work today after 12 weeks of maternity leave with her beautiful baby girl. Seeing her has me thinking about that day looong ago, over 2 years now, when Hubs and I dropped Munch off at daycare for the first time.

Confession: Though I like my work, I wish I could do it part-time and be with Munch for 20 more hours each week. I dreaded going back to work. For me, maternity leave was a magical, blissful 4 months of moments in time, moments I would never get back. I would never, even if I had another baby, experience their like again.

It was Munch and me. We fell into a happy routine, most days. Once he was about 6 weeks old and I felt brave enough to take him outside, he and I went and met Daddy for lunch almost every day. We still look back longingly on those early days at Panera, with Munch sleeping in his bucket seat.

Then, I'd take Munch to our favorite outdoor shopping center and we'd take a walk around the lake, which would put him to sleep again, and then I'd sit with a Starbucks and still-sleeping baby for an hour or so at Barnes and Noble.

And that's pretty much all we did, for 4 solid months. I loved it, I loved him, and I loathed the idea of leaving him with ANYONE every day, except me.

But, bills come calling and leaves come to an end. Returning to work was one of the hardest experiences of my life, and I still feel sad thinking of those first devastating weeks.

I did several things wrong, going back to work. The biggest one is I went back on a Monday. Mondays are torturous days under the best of circumstances, but they are the worst for maternity leave endings--the long week stretches out ahead and the thought wouldn't go away: How am I going to do this for 4 more mornings?

Hubs and I went to daycare together, that first morning. It's likely I wouldn't have been able to leave my still smush-faced baby if we didn't go together. We dropped him off, and I did that part "right" at least. I kissed his little head and handed him over to the teacher. We'd picked this place months ago, and I was confident in them. But I was also ragingly jealous of them--they got to see my baby ALL DAY.

I got out of the room without crying, I think made it to the car. Hubs and I went to Starbucks and sat quietly for a few minutes, just feeling the oddness of knowing he was out there, a mile away, with virtual strangers, and we were here. I felt like my arm had been cut off--or, really, my heart severed out.

Those first weeks, I would shut my office door and cry. A lot. More than I think a lot of mothers do. I just couldn't stop thinking about Munch and how I so badly wanted to be with him. Looking at pictures made it worse, so I didn't have many on my desk. I don't know if I was maybe mourning maternity leave, but at first, being back at work felt like being squarely in the middle of grief.

Once, I ran into a coworker whose baby was then 18 months old. We stood in the copy room while she told me that sometimes she would go into her baby's room just so she could smell her. And she started crying right there. The anxiety released in me a bit--it was normal, maybe, to miss someone this profoundly.

Well-intentioned people said, "You'll get used to it." I wanted to SCREAM, That is worse. I didn't want to get USED to missing Munch, and, worst of all, being away from him.

I had to accept that this was life. I couldn't change it, not with our financial situation. I had to stop thinking about alternatives because they drove me crazy. There was no alternative.

Honestly, I entered counseling. Once I found the right doctor, it was the absolute best thing I ever, ever did. I wish I'd gone years ago, or at least when I got pregnant.

Because, duh, becoming a mother changes you. Fundamentally. And yet, after the beautiful bubble of maternity leave, there was my life. Right where I left it. My same office. Same coworkers. Same commute. Same parking lot. Same responsibilities.

And yet, who was I? Who was this mother-me who had reveled in weekdays spent at the bookstore, gazing more at her sleeping boy than the page of her book? How could I be all the "mes"--Mother-Me, Worker-Me, Wife-Me, Weight-Watcher-Me, Sister-Me, Daughter-Me, ME-Me?

Going back to work felt like the world crashing in around me--HERE ARE ALL THE THINGS YOU MUST DO AND BE. So I needed help adjusting, integrating all the Mes into one healthy person.

And, just as everyone said, I have "gotten used to it." It just took me a while, a LOOONG time. It helps that Munch is happy at daycare, and he's learned so much. He loves it, really, and I do feel that I'm doing something positive for him, putting him in the world and showing him that mommy works, just like daddy.

Just as giving birth is a rite of passage, so is returning to work. Maternity leave, which is far too short in this country, is a sort of bridge between the life-changing, world-shifting event that is becoming a mother. Returning to work felt like learning to stand on my own again, entering the world anew.

I still miss him. I still feel guilt. But I'm better at telling myself it's okay. He's okay. I'm okay.

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