Going back to work after mat leave made me feel like a failure as a mom

I remember a moment during maternity leave when I thought I was mastering this mom thing. A year later, I had to stay late at work and I missed putting my son to bed. I cried in my Uber.

Photo: Stocksy

For a few months now my son, Rafa, has reacted to me leaving for work in one of two ways. He either happily accepts a kiss on the nose, gives one in return and waves “Bah!”—or crumples into a crying fit at the front door of our home. There is no in between. Because he’s not yet speaking in sentences, it’s not always possible to discern the deeper cause of his reaction. Is he teething? Overtired? Did I not pay enough attention to his cornflake counting demonstrations during breakfast time? There isn’t always a reason for his morning greeting.

Not too long ago, questions like these would saturate my day. Rafa was born on the first day of 2017, I’d ended my maternity leave with him at the very end of December, and I’d returned to a job in public broadcasting on the first working day of 2018. In part because of this, and because I have a stubborn habit of understanding concepts such as growth and progress as neat little units that click into place rather than ongoing projects, this seemed like fortuitous timing.

I clung to the idea of a year and assigned it all sorts of meanings and responsibilities. A year to figure out how to get my child to sleep through the night, to eat well, to be comfortable in the company of other caregivers so he’d be fine while I wasn’t around. A year to learn how to handle work, school and family responsibilities on the same 24-hour clock. A year to perfect the job of parenting, as if parenting was ever anything other than constant adaptation.

I transitioned out of parental leave the way one might pass on from one school grade to the next. I’d ticked off the boxes, passed all the tests I’d set up for myself. Now that it was time to return to work, it was time to set up a whole new list to check off.  “A Why going back to work doesn’t suck as much as you think it will

For the first few days, this is exactly what it felt like. On my first day back at work, I woke up at 5:30 a.m., jumping out of bed like a keener to pack a lunch, shower and dress before Rafa, who was still nursing in the mornings, woke up. This gave me an uninterrupted hour with him before I got to the office, where I was eager to do everything that teething and tottering and nap schedules didn’t allow for. Extended conversations with colleagues about pop culture, industry gossip, politics. The time to think about a single idea for more than 10 minutes. The deep and previously underappreciated pleasure of finishing a mug of coffee while still hot. The naive ability to believe I could do all this and still spend what felt like enough time with my son.

This lasted for two weeks at most.

By the end of the first month, the pre-dawn morning routines were out the window, and with it, the last of Rafa’s nursing days. There were some nights he would constantly wake up and start chatting through the baby monitor to anyone who’d listen, excited about some new thing he’d learned to do or word he’d learned to say. If it weren’t three in the morning, my husband and I would probably have loved to be just as psyched. Instead, we’d begrudgingly alternate roles of sleep-training enforcer. By the end of the second month, pre-packed lunches consisted of whatever in the fridge could be forced into a Ziploc bag; any further planning seemed a pointless luxury.

Then, in March, the daycare germs hit. Endless runny-nose colds filled our bathroom wastebaskets with soggy tissue and, eventually, we were visited by Fifth disease, a milder cousin to rubella and measles that still has all the aesthetic markings of a Biblical affliction. High temperatures, copious vomiting and a lacy red rash I’d never before seen on human skin, until on my son’s skin—and then on mine, too.

It was at some point in the middle of that feverish week that I kept thinking: at this same time the previous year, things were looking up. I’d just gotten comfortable with nursing. Naps seemed to be taking on a pattern. I swaddled my baby confidently; disassembled and disinfected breast pump equipment in a five-minute routine. I was becoming more confident in the role and label of parent. But now…why was I getting worse at this? How could things be moving backwards?

Adhering to this type-A approach too closely can fool you into thinking that having a handle on parenting has to look and feel a certain way.  Not only is this unhealthy, it can disguise some of the subtler measures of growth that come with early parenthood, and some of the more obvious things, too.

About a month after everyone recovered from the sick season, I stayed late at work for some reason or another. I sprung for an Uber ride to get home, where my mother was likely getting ready to put Rafa into bath and then to bed. It was late spring, when the days finally start to turn a corner into later and warmer sunsets, and everyone in the city seemed to be on the street. The traffic was horrible. I didn’t get home in time to read to him or say goodnight.

It was, in other words, a completely normal annoyance—one that I somehow in my mind managed to turn into more evidence of my failure as a parent. A lump sat stubbornly in my throat through every red light on the way home; at one point, the driver looked up at his rear-view mirror to find me quietly crying.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I managed. “I just miss my kid.”

It wasn’t until I’d spoken those words out loud that I realized what had felt wrong this whole time. The simplest and most understandable thing: I missed my son. I missed him while I was at work, and sometimes even pre-emptively, while we were still together. When I kissed him goodbye in the mornings, when he was sniffling and miserable, or while I watched him through the baby monitor rolling around in his sleep. It wasn’t until I could acknowledge this as the primary problem—and realize that this sadness was OK—that it started to feel a little less awful.

This past October, I was talking with my mom about what Rafa was dressing up as for Halloween when she told me that she wasn’t around the first time I celebrated the same. Maternity leave in Canada was 12 weeks at the time, and the commute from her job nearly two cities away got her home every night well after my bedtime.

“It was horrible for the first few months, but it got better. Sometimes without me even realizing it,” she told me. “I think that’s the case for you, too.” And, of course, she was right.

These days, Rafa’s send-offs have evened out a bit. No matter where I’m going—to the office, to the grocery store—if I’m putting on my shoes and he is not, he’ll run up to the door and shout, “WORK?!” Sometimes he’s happy about it. Sometimes he’s not. Either way I tell him that I love him, will miss him and will come back to him. He isn’t able to say it in words yet, but I know he believes this.

Chantal Braganza is a digital media producer at TVO and a writer and editor living in Toronto.

Read more:
After maternity leave: A diary of my first day back at work
One year later: What it was like going back to work

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