I went back to work last week.
I didn’t want to go. I tried not to go. I asked for a one year leave of absence from work and it was denied. I had a decision to make: negotiate as long a leave as possible or quit and say goodbye to financial security and eleven years of building a career. In the end it was a series of small things that made choose to go back to work. I did some volunteer work and noticed how refreshed I felt after a few hours away from the kids. I honestly think that I was able to be a better mother to them having had a break from them. A smell began to emanate from our washing machine – not unlike a combination of burning tires and skunk. A few days later smoke wafted out of our clothes dryer. The house needs new gutters. A friend’s family received a scary medical diagnosis that made me wonder how we would survive should something terrible happen to Jeff. There is the looming threat of layoffs at work – if I quit now I would get nothing, but if I were to go back and be laid off I would get severance and unemployment. I thought about how I wanted to show my daughter that a mother could balance family and career; I wanted to be an example of that balance. I realized that while I didn’t want to work at my current job, I did want to work. As much as I have loved the time I have spent with my baby girl, I didn’t actually want to be a long-term, full-time stay at home mother.
None of those thoughts changed the fact that I wanted to be with my baby girl for at least a year. I didn’t want to have to pump and struggle to keep up with her demand. I didn’t want to spend three hours a day in the car driving to and from work. I still don’t find my job interesting nor meaningful. But after months of being a stay at home mother, living on one income and savings, I knew that I would not be happy if I was the sole caretaker for three children 40+ hours a week. Nor would I be happy having to live so frugally that a broken washing machine or other inevitable home repairs would prove financially challenging.
I was able to negotiate eight and a half months of leave and so I took it and tried not to think about it ending. I kept thinking that I was going back to work in August and that August was a lifetime away. My dreams and my reality collided last week as August came in with 100 degree days and my return to work. I’ve been back to work a week now. I’ll be working part-time, three days a week. I miss my baby girl and my boys (more than I had thought I would for the boys) but I am fine for now. This is the easy part, actually; after nearly nine months of virtually uninterrupted Mama time, the ability eat my lunch slowly at my desk or use the bathroom by myself is a welcome respite. I am not yet tired of the routine, but refreshed by my time away from the children. I am, perhaps vainly, really enjoying wearing nice slacks and high heels. I still have a nice freezer stash of pumped breast milk and am not yet too worried about when it might run low. Anna even cooperated with my return to work. In her typical fashion of keeping us guessing until the last minute [recall that she was the child who vacillated between head-down and breech in utero - nearly until she was born], Anna finally decided to take a bottle just before I returned to work – erasing one huge anxiety of mine. For the next month she and the boys are being taken care of by their father; who I know loves them as much as I do and does fun Daddy things that I don’t. (I arrived home after my first day at work last week to find he had built them a balance beam in the backyard out of scrap wood.)
The really hard part is coming. In one month, Anna will begin spending two days a week at “school” (I hate the word daycare, although that’s what it is) and one day a week at home with her grandparents. I don’t worry about the days with her grandparents at all, but I do worry about her days at school. I have never had a child this young – still needing bottles of pumped milk – in daycare before. I feel sick to my stomach when I think about it her teachers throwing a bottle of unfinished breast milk down the drain or Anna crying when being rocked to sleep. In a month my commute will get even longer (traffic is noticeably worse during the school year) and I am sure the ongoing sleep deprivation of having a baby who wakes up multiple times a night will start to wear me down.
I am surprisingly sanguine about those eventualities because for the first time in my life I have the privilege of choosing to work at this job. It seems to me that married with three kids (one in private school), with a mortgage, and all the other responsibilities of being a grown-up that I should feel the most constrained, or “weighed down”, of my entire life. But I don’t; instead I feel a sort heady freedom that I am working because I weighed the pros and cons and decided that, right now, work is the right thing for me to be doing. I would be very surprised if I quit this job without having anther job to go to, but the fact that I could makes all the difference in the world. I don’t expect to stay at this job forever, or perhaps even very much longer, but I am here for now and I am doing the best job I can, savoring my lunch slowly at my desk, and wondering what the future holds.