It’s been over a year since I went back to work after becoming a mother, but the heartache of those initial weeks is still palpable.
On my first day back, I sit parked in my car outside the office, sobbing heavy tears, leaning back against the headrest. I just dropped off my three-month-old son at the nearby daycare we carefully selected. It’s time to start my workday, but if I leave the car it all becomes real. I stay.
Jack hadn’t shed a tear when I gingerly handed him off to his teacher, Tamika. She’d held him close and said, “Hiya, Jack!” then waved me out the door with a “See you soon, mom!” I walked out the door in a daze, arms empty, heart heavy.
After a year of togetherness—nine long months of pregnancy and three months of nursing, bonding, lullabies and diaper changes—my son and I are separated. I’m on my own again, free to reclaim my professional life. It’s tearing me apart.
As I look in my rearview mirror and wipe mascara steaks from my eyes, worries scatter across my mind: Will Jack be able to sleep? Will he take his bottles? Will someone cuddle him when he cries? Why am I paying half my salary so these strangers can care for my son? What am I even doing here?
When I finally muster up the resolve to go into the office, my workday passes much quicker than I’d imagined. Kind colleagues leave flowers on my desk and ask me questions about Jack. I have a backlog of emails to answer, fulfilling projects ahead and a job I love but something—someone—is still missing.
I’d left my heart with my son at daycare.
A few days later I’m pumping in the tenth floor lactation room, which I visit twice a day. I hate it. It’s so much work, it’s disruptive, and it’s a regular reminder I’m separated from my son. I scroll through Instagram and escape into carefully curated images of other people’s lives while my pump makes its telltale sucking sound. Photos of a messy baby in the kitchen and twin toddlers sprawled out on their rug playing blocks dredge up pangs of jealousy and a lump in my throat. I put my phone down.
I hate that I’m here pumping when I should be nursing my son who needs me. If I lived in Sweden, I’d have more than a year to bond with Jack before going back to work. I know it’s a privilege to even sit in this lactation room, to work for an organization that’s supportive of mothers, to even entertain the idea to stay at work or return home. I’m here because I need to work to provide for our family yet I can’t shake the swirl of jealousy, guilt and anger this brings.
My colleague Beth enters the room and we start making small talk as she sets up her pump. A moment later I hear soft, gentle crying coming from her corner.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says. “This is just so hard.”
“Oh Beth, you don’t have to be sorry,” I say, beginning to choke up myself. “This is hard.”
Three weeks have passed, and I’m at daycare again, dropping off my son. Tamika barely acknowledges us as we walk in—the room is total chaos. Two babies are crying, one is screaming and one almost-toddler is acting naughty. Someone definitely has a poopy diaper.
Nestling my son close, I place his bottles in the fridge and shut the door. I find an open boppy and set it down a safe distance from the other children. I place Jack in it and linger, crouched on the carpet, stroking his head. I close my eyes. I don’t want to leave today.
The other moms at the office said: “Give it a few weeks, it’ll get better.” and “You’ll eventually get used to it.” But the truth is, I’m still not used to it. It still hurts every time I drop him off.
I kiss my son goodbye and head out the door swiftly. This time the tears come on as I’m driving, before I can reach the office parking lot. I pull over on the side of the road and let them wash over me.
I worry about Jack. He hasn’t been drinking all of his bottles at daycare; he prefers to get up in the middle of the night to nurse. I’ve been shouldering the burden of these nighttime wakeups alone, and I’m exhausted.
The late nights are catching up to me.
All my insecurities and fears flood my mind: Am I even cut out to be a working mom? Am I wasting this precious time? Am I making a mistake?
I look at the dashboard clock. It’s 8:22 a.m. A long list of to-dos awaits me at the office, and I have to get going. I turn on the ignition, flick the turn signal and get back on the road.
A couple months pass, and I get a taste of that stay at home mom life I’ve been craving.
Jack has a fever so I text my boss and coworkers that I’m taking a sick day. We end up taking three sick days together nursing, napping, and hanging out. It’s glorious—well, for me.
My alert, active little rugrat is sluggish and irritable. I try to ease his pain with cherry red infant tylenol, cool washcloths and extra snuggles.
By the time the weekend arrives Jack’s fever has broken and he’s feeling better. Even though I slept less than usual, I’m feeling restored.
“I think I’m quitting my job,” I tell my husband that Sunday while washing up bottles and pump parts.
“Why? You like your job,” he says.
“I do, but I love our son more.”
“If that’s what you want, I’ll look at our budget. We’d have to cut back, but we could make it work.”
The fantasy of leaving my job is appealing. I think about all the things Jack and I could do together, what it would look like to have flexibility in my schedule again, and importantly, what it would be like to spend more time raising my son. I envy the moms who are making this work. Their lives look fun and amazing and free.
I know it’s not all fun and games. I know it’s really hard, too. I remember how grueling and isolating maternity leave sometimes felt. But it was also joyous, sweet ,and slow. I’d give anything to slow down.
Workdays are so hectic: get out the door by 7:30 a.m., drop-off Jack by 8:15 a.m., in the office by 8:30 a.m., pump at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., leave by 4:30 p.m., dinner at 6 p.m., bedtime at 7 p.m. Wash and dry the pump parts and bottles. Fall into bed exhausted. Rinse and repeat.
I wonder: Could I just … stop? Could I stay home with Jack?
Then I panic, thinking about what this choice would mean for my family financially, for my career and earning potential. I hate that this matters to me, but it does. This gives me pause.
I am a provider for my family. I don’t earn the most money but I make a significant contribution. Plus, we rely on my company’s healthcare.
And my husband is right. I do like my job. I get to hear and tell the most amazing stories—and I get paid to do it. It’s a dream job. Actually, it’s more than a job, it’s a call that allows me to live out my faith. I know deep down this is a great privilege and a blessing, so why am I feeling so conflicted?
I’ve never felt a call as strong as this job—until I became a mother.
It’s October, and I’m on the verge of a breakdown. It feels like everything is going wrong at work: I’ve mixed up one too many administrative tasks, and I’m not in good standing with my boss. My son hasn’t been sleeping well—I haven’t been either. I’ve been up twice nightly to nurse him; during the day, I feel like a zombie.
As I round the corner out of the lactation room, pump bag slung over my shoulder, thoughts scattered, I nearly run into Aurora, who works in HR.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” I exclaim. “I’m having a tough day … actually, days. I didn’t see you there.”
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” she says. “What’s wrong honey?”
Aurora seems like someone I can trust, and the rest of her team has left for the day, so I tell her. I tell her I’m having trouble with my job; I don’t know if I can manage a career and motherhood. “But I have to work,” I say, tears streaming down my cheeks. She runs to her desk and hands me a tissue.
“I remember this feeling,” Aurora replies, recounting her daughter’s sleep struggles when she was an infant, her difficulties juggling work and parenting. I hear the pain in her voice and realize I’m not alone.
Today I’m still ambivalent about being a working mom. Most days, I love it. My work is impactful and fulfilling. I’m proud of the ways I provide for our family. And I know Jack is learning and growing so much surrounded by his peers at daycare.
Yet whenever I think about all the moments with Jack I’ve I missed since going back to work, I get a little weepy. There are days I wish I could do it all over again, make a different choice. Even though I’m passionate about my career, motherhood is my favorite calling.
This is what I know: I can’t get back the moments I’ve missed, but I can cherish all the ones I have, big and small—Jack’s first wobbly steps from the coffee table to the couch; the curl of his lips whenever he’s about to burst with laughter; summer weeknights spent sliding, swinging and chasing the sunlight; the first time he called me “Mama.”
Working motherhood, with all its challenges, has ultimately been a gift: it encourages me to pay attention to the magic in each moment, to thank God for it, to claim joy.
That day outside the lactation room, Aurora told me, “You’re going to be alright.” And she’s right. I am.
Guest post written by Erin Strybis. Erin is a full-time working mama based in Chicago. When she’s not writing, editing or chasing her toddler, she loves practicing yoga or getting lost in a good book. Find more of Erin’s stories on Instagram and her blog.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.