Yesterday, I saw a deer in the road. She was standing still, right in the middle of the road as a queue of cars formed behind her. As I was beginning to worry that she was confused, a young fawn appeared from the brush by the side of the road. His mother held her crossing guard position as he bounded across, but did not follow him. Sure enough, a moment later a second little deer appeared from the woods. And still, the mother deer did not move. Finally, after what seemed like minutes, the smallest deer I have ever seen tentatively made her way across the street. A knot rose in my throat and tears came to my eyes. The doe was risking her own life to protect her children. It was her natural instinct to stay near her young, to ensure they had enough to eat, and to keep them safe.
I went back to work today. I had hoped it might be easier, seeing as this is my third return to work after having a baby. However, it is also the end of my last maternity leave, and that makes it almost unbearable. I do not know if I will ever again have the chance to spend three uninterrupted months with my beautiful children and supportive husband. For the rest of my life, I will have to make do with crumbs of quality time – a long weekend here and there, a glorious two-week vacation once or twice a year, and stolen moments on sick days and holidays. Despite the many challenges of having a newborn and introducing a fifth person into our family, I did my best not to take a single moment of the last 11 weeks for granted. (Don’t get me started on how ridiculously short that is by global standards, or how inhumane it is that as a federal employee I do not get a single day of paid maternity leave, but had to save up my sick and vacation leave over the past two years in order to have a chance to bond with my newborn – I covered that in a previous post.)
As I was leaving this morning, my children smothered me in hugs and kisses and told me how much they’d miss me. Unlike my previous maternity leaves, my 4- and 2-year-olds now understand that I work in an office, that I stayed home for awhile after their baby brother was born, and that I would eventually have to return to my day job. A few days after our baby was born, my eldest asked when I would have to go back to work. I assured him that I would be around for a long time and that we would have lots of fun as a family before then. Even as I put on a brave face for my son’s sake, my heart ached when I contemplated that day. Today.
Newborns develop so rapidly in their first months of life. My husband and I swear we see changes in our son even day to day. He is smiling and just starting to laugh, a chortle that seems appropriate for his balding head and grumpy old man face. I wish I could nestle him inside my suit jacket and keep him close to me as I venture back into the professional world. Even with my children’s initials jangling from a charm bracelet on my wrist, I feel naked without them. They are like phantom limbs that are not a part of me and yet I do not feel like me without them.
I started this blog four years ago after I left my first born to return to a not-my-dream job and was struggling to hold on to the person I was before I’d taken my maternity leave. I sought a balance between “me” and “mom.” For example, if I wanted to go to a friend’s birthday party but it was during my son’s nap time, I’d just put him in the carrier and let him nap there while I caught up with my friends. When my husband and I were invited to visit friends in Vienna, we jumped at the chance and tacked on a week in Budapest as well. Our 18-month-old could not have cared less about the museums, palaces, memorials, and gardens we dragged him to, but we wanted to see it all so brought him along for the ride. In the evenings, I would carve out “me time” for scrapbooking, creative writing, jewelry making, exercising, knitting, reading, etc. I jealously guarded that time, believing it was something I was owed after all the sacrifices I had made for my child. After all, that’s what the articles, blogs, OBs, celebrities, and mamas’ groups say: “You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of your children.” It’s the oxygen mask approach to parenting: you must fit your own mask before assisting others.
Nearly 4 and a half years into my parenting journey, there is no longer much distinction between those parts of myself that I identify as “me” and those parts that are “mom.” I still go to my friends’ birthday parties and travel the world, but now I make sure that I am home by bedtime and that we go to kid friendly places. To
celebrate my birthday this month, I tried to have a full day of me time with an adults-only trip to a waterside park with my husband. We had fun riding the biggest slides together, but I missed our children the whole time and regretted not bringing them along. Their happiness is my greatest joy, their struggles my greatest challenges. Despite the oxygen mask advice, making my family my first priority – above my work and even myself – feels right to me.
We recently visited a dear friend who just had her first child. “Everything feels different,” she told me. “Nothing will ever be the same,” I acknowledged. The birth of a mother is a one-way trip. I could put on a suit, head back to the office, and take up the matters I was working on before my child was born, but something has fundamentally changed. Values, priorities, and perspectives shift. I don’t think my boss would say I am a less effective attorney since becoming a mom, but I don’t take my work as seriously or personally. That is probably a good thing, but even if it was not, I am powerless to change back to the self-sacrificing go-getter I was before parenthood.
After four years, it still feels unnatural for me to leave my small children. Even though I know they are in the very capable hands of my husband, I miss them terribly. All day today, in an effort to comfort me, my colleagues reminded me that I am setting a good example, and they pointed me to studies extolling the many ways children benefit from having a working mother. Others told me they couldn’t wait to go back to work after they had their children. They pointed out that I now get to sit in a quiet office and talk to adults instead of drowning in dirty diapers and spit up all day. That all may be true, but selfishly, I’d rather spend these precious early years with my children. They will be pushing me away soon enough. Over the last 11 weeks, I held them close as much as I could. It was noisy, chaotic, messy, exhausting, and difficult, but I would not trade that time with my family for anything. Now I will have to work even harder to connect with my kids and husband when I get the chance, and try to help them understand why I have to leave them to go to work. I know the leaving will eventually get easier on all of us, but right now, it is so hard.