“I never used to be this anxious of a person,” my client said. “At least, I don’t think I was.”
She was in her early forties, a stay-home mom, surprised to find that she couldn’t entirely remember her earlier self. She was that person not very long ago, after all, her baby being only six months old.
“New motherhood can feel like a vortex,” I said. I had only emerged from it myself two months prior, when I returned to work part-time.
“I barely leave the house,” she said. “It takes too much effort, and there’s so much gear. I’m afraid that if I disrupt her routines, then…” She looked down at her hands. “I don’t know what I think will happen. I don’t want to find out.”
Our sessions brought on flashbacks of my maternity leave. It felt like I was looking at a parallel life, the one I would have had if I’d never gone back to work. Her desire to make everything run smoothly, to be what she thought of as a good mom, was causing her world to contract. It was making her unrecognizable to herself.
I could certainly relate. My maternity leave hadn’t gone the way I’d planned. I’m a homebody by nature, so I would have expected to love all those days spent in my yoga pants or pajamas, gazing down at this little being I adored. Instead, I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility, by her dependency, by the struggles to breastfeed (I eventually became intimately acquianted with the breast pump eight times a day, every three clockwork hours.)
It turns out, I am not a fan of life in three-hour increments. I am not a fan of never being off the clock, of never feeling unencumbered. While I appreciated the good intentions behind the advice, I wanted to screen-print a T-shirt: I CANNOT NAP WHEN MY BABY NAPS. There are things to do. Dishes, and laundry, and…what else? What else had I accomplished? Where did the time go?
Not being able to answer that question, as a person who has always enjoyed a certain measure of control and productivity, threw me for a loop. I didn’t recognize this person, and not only because my grooming habits were suffering. I was a mother, and no one else. I felt adrift.
I knew this wasn’t terribly unusual. I also knew I’d be returning to work soon (though honestly, it didn’t feel soon enough.) Don’t get me wrong, I loved (and continue to love) my daughter very much. But loving someone and loving to be around her 24/7 are different things. What I knew, with every fiber of my being, is that I was not meant to be a stay-home mother.
I’m lucky in that I work three days a week. I don’t know how I would have felt if I’d been going back to work full-time. But part-time suited me perfectly. It was just enough time with her, just enough time off being my old self. It was balance.
Looking back, there are things I wish I’d done differently while on maternity leave. I wish I’d forced myself out of the house more regularly, for one. (If you know any pregnant women, or are one, a copy of “The Rookie Mom’s Handbook” could prove invaluable as a source of encouragement and ideas.) But what I did well was to never, ever guilt myself for returning to work.
Working made me a saner, more appreciative, and engaged mom, no question about it. I got to exercise other parts of my identity. I felt competent and productive. I felt whole.
“I should be happy that I get to be home with her all the time,” my client said, looking anything but happy. “Other people can’t afford to be home with their children all the time.”
“You’re fortunate because you get to make the choice,” I responded. “But it’s not an automatic decision.” I went on to tell her how much better I felt working part-time. How much more myself.
Her smile was immediate and full of relief. It was like she’d been waiting all this time for permission to rethink the arrangement.
“Not that my way has to be your way,” I added hastily. “But it’s a way. Just something to consider.”
What I’ve learned is that each path has its own concessions, drawbacks, and rewards.
What are yours?
Aspiring moms photo available from Shutterstock