I have a truly lovely cousin whose maternity leave ends today and — as it does for so many of us — it’s kind of tearing her up a bit. So I’m writing this as a love letter to her and all the other parents who are facing that first day of work after being at home with a newborn.
Dear brave soul,
Here you are, on the eve of your first day back at work. I can’t presume to understand exactly how you feel, but I’ll tell you how I remember feeling. I suspect we’ll have a lot of those feelings in common.
Part of me couldn’t wait to go back to work, because DAMN BABIES ARE BORING. Especially newborns. As the one with the mammary glands (not to mention the one with the gigantic abdominal surgery to heal from), I understand why I got first shift on the family leave thing, but I really got the short end of that stick. Newborns don’t play with toys. They might lie there semi-quietly while you read a book to them, but you will get very few expressions of interest, let alone comprehension. They can barely focus their eyes, for crying out loud, let alone have an I-thou moment with you. And that fantasy that you can strap your baby on like a backpack and explore the world? Pfft.
Yes, I am not a baby person, and even so — that first day back to work was so hard. Dropping my son off at day care for the first time felt like someone driving a serrated knife into my gut and twisting it. He cried, of course… and cried. And clung to me. It was a terrible moment.
But let me tell you something that I have learned over the years. Babies are like dogs. They are SO UPSET the moment you leave and it is but a matter of moments before something shiny or tasty or messy has distracted their attention and they are perfectly content until you come back and then they’re like OH YEAH, YOU LEFT SOME INDETERMINATE AMOUNT OF TIME AGO… HI HI HI (NEED NEED WANT WANT). And for all you know that sucking need was there the entire time you were gone and you are a horrible person for having left it all unfulfilled for that eight hours that you spent helplessly trying to catch up with your goddamn email. But that’s not what happened. Your baby was cared for and fed and entertained and got to watch other kids in action and now you’re back and that’s great.
For a while, every time you leave will be a GIANT TRAGEDY that will end as quickly as it began. Babies are not walking wounds waiting for you to drive them into therapy. They are emotionally resilient creatures that — again, think dogs — act like exposed nerves because no one has taught them yet how to keep their immediate feelings in check.
I also found going back to work hard because I found that my brain, which had once been this perfectly formed piece of rock candy, was now a glob of saltwater taffy being pulled in eight different directions simultaneously. I had trouble concentrating. I felt like an entire lobe was now devoted to thinking about my child and his needs, and it meant that I was a LOT less focused. I still haven’t gotten back to the rock candy state — I’m somewhere in the region of soft caramel these days. It’s incredibly irritating. And sometimes even embarrassing.
But you know what else? I also gained some perspective. The nice thing about devoting a lobe to a little person who needs your love, is that you realize how unimportant so much of that work crap was that you used to get so wrapped around the axle about. It might even lead you eventually to rethink the whole direction of your career — not necessarily to stay home with your kid full time (though that’s a great choice for many), but just in some way to make work time matter. If I’m going to be at work, I found myself thinking more and more, it had better be for something really, really, REALLY good.
I hope your day tomorrow is not too hard. I hope that in that moment when you feel the knife twist in your gut, that you will also feel my hand on your shoulder. I totally get it. You are so not alone. And she will be perfectly, perfectly fine in those hours you are gone. And increasingly, as she gets older, she will enjoy having the company of other kids and not just her parents. And you are allowed to have your life, too. Much love to all three of you.