Today is a big day. Not because anything special is happening. It’s an average Sunday – Dan is out on a bike ride, Bailey and I are still in our PJs at 10am and we have very few plans for the day other than a dog walk this afternoon. But while we will go about our day just like any other today, every little act that we do – from getting dressed, eating lunch and playing peekaboo to our daily bedtime routine – will be tinged with a little sadness. Because today marks an end. Today is the very last day of what has become an unexpectedly extended maternity leave. Tomorrow is my first day back at work, and as I’m sure you all already know, I’m feeling all of the feels about it.
I’ve had the return to work conversation so many times. I work in HR so this kind of discussion is commonplace, and before I had Bailey I managed a large team, at one point having no less than 7 of them either pregnant or on leave at the same time, so I’m no stranger to all the ups and downs and emotions that come with this day. I’ve listened as friends and colleagues talked of the fear of rejoining a world that’s moved on without them. The dread of not being with their little one all day every day. The excitement of having a purpose other than motherhood again. The conflict that causes deep within them. I’ve spoken at length of the con I believe women have been sold – that we can ‘have it all’ – because I believe that when trying to juggle both a career and motherhood, it’s inevitable that at some points you will feel like one of those isn’t getting your full attention. But somehow it wasn’t until last night, after Bailey had gone to bed and I acknowledged that the final day had arrived, that I realised it’s now my turn. Somehow it it has only just dawned on me that tomorrow I become a working Mum, and it’s now me that will feel all of that conflict and worry about whether I do either of my roles justice. So despite the fact I’ve had multiple conversations with my boss, despite the fact that childcare is all arranged and I’ve spent the last couple of months scaling back breastfeeding and planning things in to make the transition as smooth as possible for Bailey, despite the fact I ended up getting a fair few bonus weeks of leave due to Covid, I feel totally and utterly unprepared.
The truth is I’m kind of terrified. Returning to work after a long period of absence is always hard. Systems change, people come and go, for you time has stood still while for everyone else the word kept turning and changing – it’s incredibly daunting, feeling like you’re a year behind everyone else and wondering if you’ll be able to catch up. But this year has made things harder than ever. The world really has changed. I won’t be having my first day in the office, where there would have been friendly faces to ease the tension by asking how I am and how Bailey is getting on and fill me in on the gossip. There won’t be anyone sat a few desks away that I can grab to show me how the new systems work or throw a few quick questions at. I will be at home, figuring it out on my own. Our meetings are now all virtual so I’ll be that numpty who never realises when they’re on mute and doesn’t know how to share their screen. God, I hope I’m not the one who turns themselves into a potato and can’t work out how to turn it off! There will be no-one to sneak off for a quick vent with when the day is tough. No-one to kindly grab you a coffee when they see you’re a bit stressed. No impromptu ‘welcome back’ drinks at the pub after 5pm. Just me, in my own little echo chamber, overthinking everything (but probably at least distracting my colleagues far less with my constant need to fill the silence) Controversial opinion, I know, but I’m not someone who relishes the thought of only ever working from home. I was lucky enough to have the flexibility pre-Covid, and welcome the idea that employers will now be providing this far more these days, but I personally enjoy going into the office. I enjoy the act of getting up, dressed and leaving the house. I like having dead time on the commute to have a little me time and process thoughts and feelings without mundane tasks competing for my attention. And I genuinely like a lot of the people I work with, so spending time with them was no real hardship for me. I’m a creature of habit, and I will very much miss my little rituals like popping downstairs for my morning latte and toast before logging in and my little lunchtime jaunts into Birmingham – the city I was very much looking forward to being back in more regularly. More so, I will simply miss the comforting buzz of being in a room full of people even if I’m not interacting with them – all of which sounds very strange coming from an introvert who can happily go days without talking to anyone other than her select group of trusted persons. I’m also going back to a new role, which is always nerve jangling. The subject matter is more than familiar as my targets are ones I wanted to get stuck into before I had Bailey but never had the time, but it will be the first time in my career that I’ll be working independently and not part of or leading a team which is a bit of a comfort blanket for me. And of course, like most people in my situation, I worry about whether or not my brain can even keep up with the demands of working life these days. My mind works differently now. I feel slow, a few steps behind everyone else, constantly dropping spinning plates. I remember my sister in law describing it as having too many browser windows open on your laptop and it resonated like nothing else! Am I as capable as I was before? Was I even that capable in the first place? There is something about the process of giving birth and raising a child that somehow seems to dent your confidence in a way I really struggle to explain.
All of this, of course, I will get to grips with. It will take time, but I’m in the line of work I am because I’m resilient, and couldn’t have achieved what I have if I wasn’t able to roll with the punches, so I know that while it will be uncomfortable at first I will find my feet, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to being challenged again, to using my brain for something other than memorising nursery rhymes and trying to remember we need to buy the next size up in nappies! It’s far deeper fears that really concern me. Like how I will cope being away from Bailey for hours on end, three days out of every week. Sometimes I find it difficult to separate the idea of being a mother from who I was beforehand – it’s like I don’t really know who I am anymore when he isn’t here. Taking care of him has become second nature, something I can do on autopilot even when half asleep after a rough night of teething. There is something inherently natural to our routine, about feeling the weight of him in my arms, reaching for his monkey to soothe him when he cries or quickly throwing together a lunch that I think he will like. The anxiety of motherhood never really goes away, but you do get to a place where you feel like you know what you are doing, and it feels so good after months of second guessing. A world where I’m not required to do these things suddenly seems vast and very scary, like there are so many things I could be doing instead that I simply remain rooted to the spot, waiting to be needed. I felt it first last week, when Bailey went to his Nanna’s for an afternoon trial run. I cheerfully bundled him into the car, waved goodbye and headed straight out to walk the dog with no problem at all. But halfway across a field behind our house it hit me – a kind of breathless panic. What is he doing right now? Is he upset? What if he needs me? What if I never see him again? I tried to drown out those unhelpful and unwarranted thoughts by keeping busy, putting away the washing, hoovering, tidying the nursery, but once that was all done I largely sat and idly scrolled through my phone, counting down the minutes until he returned. I’m terrified of finding myself completely inefficient in those quiet working hours, unable to achieve anything other than needlessly worry about my baby boy.
And it is needless worry. I’ve been so fortunate to work for a company who have fully supported my request to go part time and be able to work flexibly, and as a result we don’t need to worry about nursery or childminders yet as Bailey will be spending my working days with both mine and Dan’s parents. This is a real source of comfort to me. Deep down I know he will be fine – he is somewhere where he is loved and cherished with people he knows and we don’t have to worry about him feeling lonely or not being cared for the way we would want. He will have the best time, playing with his cousins, the family dogs and going for lovely walks, it’s unlikely he will miss me at all. And maybe that is what I fear the most. Because as much as I want to raise a confident, happy, independent child, the thought of not being needed is the most upsetting one of all. Is it weird that a tiny part of me wants him to notice my absence, for no-one to be able to comfort him but me? For me to feel crushing jealousy of my own family that they get to be with him when I am not? Yeah, I think it is! But I bet I’m not the first Mum to feel it and I doubt I’ll be the last.
I think the hardest part though is just how much I’m going to miss him. Even as I’m writing this I can literally feel my heart breaking at the thought that I won’t be there to kiss his puffy little face when he wakes up from his nap or laugh at the expressions he makes as he tries something new for lunch. I’m so going to miss our long lazy mornings cuddling up on the sofa watching CBeebies, the silly songs we sing as we go about our day, the long walks we take in the afternoons with Bonnie, marveling at the changing seasons and learning about the noises the farm animals make. I dread the day he comes home and I have to hear that he’s said a new word or mastered a new skill and I wasn’t there. I know I will get to do all these things with him on my days off, but right now in this moment, it feels inconceivable that he’ll be doing those things with someone else. I just can’t picture what days without him look like, and right now, I just don’t want to, even if I must. Despite it ultimately granting us the gift of 4 precious months with Dan at home with us, and a few extra weeks off for me, I can’t help sometimes but feel like Covid has cheated us out of some of the things I so looked forward to about maternity leave. We’ve missed out on our first trip abroad, the play dates, the classes, the quality time with my family. It’s been a long 7 months since we’ve been able to enjoy our old favourite pastime of popping into town for a mooch around the shops and coffee and cake (yes, it’s possible, but it’s not the same). But still, despite these frustrations, and despite all the tough challenges and sacrifices that becoming a parent entails, the last 12 months have been the most wonderful, fulfilling, genuinely happiest time of my life so far, and honestly, I just don’t feel ready for it to end. I’m not sure any length of time would quite feel like enough.
I guess much like most other parts of becoming a parent, I will learn to live with it. I’ll swallow my pride and let him go off and start forging a path that sadly doesn’t always involve me, just like I have to now go and forge one that doesn’t always involve him. It will always lead back to him though, and I simply cannot wait for that first big hug tomorrow when work ends and I get to go back to being just Mum for the evening. It’s an unsettling thing, learning to be me again, and at times the lure of retreating into the predictable if dull routine of being a stay at home mother is so alluring. But I know I want more than that, for me and for him, so I will try to be strong and push through and think of that after work snuggle, which will undoubtedly make any trials of the day infinitely better. Here is to the brave new world of working motherhood and all the new challenges it may bring!
At least now I have a reason to start wearing my heels again, even if I don’t leave the house, and that can only be a good thing, right?!