All summer long, I looked forward to an 8-week “vacation” from working. I’ve had a job, at least part-time, since I was 16 years old. (I actually got my first job much earlier, working 4 hours a week at my father’s business starting at age 10.) My maternity leave would mark the first time in decades that I took an extended time off from work.
My first full-time job started just a few weeks after graduation, and with the exception of two weeks of surprise unemployment back in 2003, I’ve been gainfully employed ever since. I was excited to have a nice long break, even though I knew it would be anything but a “vacation.”
Making a plan
With my boss’s blessing, I laid out a maternity leave plan that allowed me to come back gradually. I’d take eight full weeks off, and then start back to work two days a week at first. Then I’d go to three days, then four, and finally full-time about 4 months after Baby was born.
Peanut arrived and my eight weeks began, moving slowly at first, and then faster. As my eight-week break dwindled away, I tried not to think about returning to work. But nothing could keep it off my mind as the days flew by (while simultaneously lasting a lifetime, strangely).
When September 30th , the last day of my maternity leave, dawned, I could no longer ignore the dread. I woke up feeling profoundly sad. Like something bad had happened overnight, something terrible, and I just needed to rack my brain and remember why I felt so awful. But there was nothing concrete – just an overwhelming sadness that my maternity leave was coming to an end.
I made it to about 10:30am before I started crying. My husband thought I was crazy. And I couldn’t really explain why the thought of going back to work was so devastating. At 2pm we met another couple, friends of ours, for ice cream. When we pulled up to the store, they were waiting out front, and my friend walked out to meet us. “Hi! How’s Peanut, and how are you?”
“Not so good,” I replied, feeling the tears rising up, and me powerless stop them. “I don’t want to go back to work!” I cried, and burst into tears again.
“Oh, honey,” she whispered, putting her arms around me, and I hugged her back, tightly. Over bowls of ice cream, she listened as I tearfully described my dread toward going back to work. It helped a lot just to have someone to talk to.
Hard to easy
The next day, surprisingly, I bounded out of bed when the alarm went off. I showered, pumped, dried and straightened my hair, and dressed in my workplace best. I packed up my pumping supplies and my lunchbox, and kissed my husband, baby, and dog goodbye. I didn’t shed a tear. And the entire day I was relaxed and calm.
So what made the day before so difficult, while the actual first day back was so easy?
I gave that question a lot of thought and came to this conclusion: on Monday, my first day back at work, all I had to do was get up and go to work that day.
The day before, all I could think about was that I would be getting up and going to work every weekday for the next 30 years.
It was daunting. And I was grieving a loss at the same time: I would never again get to spend two months at home with my baby girl. Ever. That day marked the end of a precious time that I’d never experience again.
Back to the grind
I’ve been back to work a few weeks, and I’m working Monday through Wednesday right now. It’s hard, and by the third day, I’m exhausted (I should take more naps). As a wise friend once said, ‘This working mother stuff is for the birds.”
But in a way, it’s actually nice to be back – my sense of accomplishment while on maternity leave was almost nonexistent, and I felt victorious if I showered each day. At work, I have a list of to-dos, and I check them off one by one. By the end of the day, I feel accomplished and capable.
But then I start down the four flights of stairs in my office building, heading home. My footsteps quicken, a little bounce in my step. I may have to work every weekday for the next 30 years, but for the next 18 or so, after a long day at work, I’ll get to come home to my little girl.
That is, without a doubt, much sweeter than a completed to-do list.