Taking leave of maternity leave

Neve, about to leave for her first official day at daycare

We didn’t make any specific plans for how things would go on the morning of my first day back to work, after a 3 month maternity leave.

Joe and I didn’t decide that one of us would take both kids to the daycare center two blocks from our house; or whether we’d stagger it with one kid each in tow. We played it by ear, trying to be flexible while seeing how things naturally played out.

And despite our lack of planning, the day started idyllically.

Neve slept through the night, waking at 6:50 to eat. After I fed her, she went back to sleep, and a while later, Lily got up with Joe (as has become the norm since Neve’s birth). I spent a bit of time with Lily before she left with Joe for pre-school, and then I got things ready for my day as Neve snoozed in her room. At 9:30, after Neve had had nearly 12 hours of sleep, I woke her (she was still deeply asleep), fed her, and changed her (pooped-soaked) diaper. With all this going for her, she was nothing but big, flirty smiles and coos as we walked to the daycare center and I handed her off to one of the women who’d taken care of Lily when she was the same age.

I drove to work in Ann Arbor, plowed through more than 800 e-mails that were waiting for me (using the delete function liberally), used my breast pump there and at home, and then went to pick up the girls from daycare. (Joe and I feel so weird saying “the kids” now; it’s as if we weren’t really defined yet as suburban parents until we had a second child and started having to use the plural instead of just saying “Lily” or “our girl.”)

I decided to check in at Neve’s room at daycare first, since Lily often tends to be the Norm Peterson of pre-school (wanting to play and stay until closing time at 6 p.m.), and I was anxious to find out how Neve had done on her first day.

Neve was perched on a caregiver’s lap, but she looked a little hangdog – which made sense when I learned that my usually sleepy baby had napped very little during the 7 hours I’d been gone. Yes, she’d been her laid back little self all day, so she hadn’t been crabby; she’d just either not been comfortable enough in a new place to sleep easily, or had been too excited by all the new people and toys around her.

Still, the guilt reflex was immediate. Some part of my brain was hoping that I’d come in, and she’d be just as wildly smiley and happy as when I left. But that’s not what happened. And when I learned they hadn’t given her her last bottle, I asked if I could feed her in privacy in the next room, where the babies nap.

I settled into one of the gliders and stared at the half-dark room of cribs, reminding myself that it was the first day, and that it was only natural that Neve needed a little time to get acclimated to a strikingly different place and routine. She needed to get to know and trust the women caring for her there – to get used to looking in their eyes and knowing she’s OK.

I also internally repeated the mantra of all mothers who work outside the home: a happy mom is a better mom, and if your work fulfills you and makes you happy, then you keep doing it, despite the rough spots.

That evening was one of them. Neve was restless and fussy – again, not like her – so I walked around various rooms, cradling her in my arms, while Joe made supper and Lily watched a portion of “Sesame Street.” Not only was I struck with fear that my sweet little baby felt abandoned and betrayed by me, but in that moment, I also felt I was shortchanging Lily, with whom I also wanted to spend time. A lose-lose situation, really.

Joe ended up holding Neve as we ate dinner (he seems better at eating one-handed); I fed her again; and then Joe swaddled her and got her to sleep, and she was down for the night.

There was a relief in this, of course; moments of quiet and peace had finally been restored to our little house. But my first thought was, “I miss Neve.” Yes, I’d spent some extra time with her in the morning, but the time later in the day was a wash, since she was either eating or fussy. I’d gotten so accustomed to spending all day, every day with her – and it was actually relaxing the second time around – that the transition back to work was more difficult than I expected.

When returning to work from my first maternity leave, there was a sense that I’d fought hard to reach a kind of finish line, and that now, people who understood babies better far than I did would be in charge of Lily for several hours each day. “Lily will be happier with people who know what they’re doing,” I’d told myself, “and she’ll enjoy being around other babies, and all those toys.” And she certainly adapted pretty quickly. But because I now have my bearings regarding baby care, I felt more competent during my maternity leave with Neve, and wasn’t quite so anxious for my time with her to end.

Yet the 3 months flew by. And while Neve’s second day at daycare went a bit more smoothly, the third day nearly broke me.

Not because of Neve, though. Once again, she was hungry when I arrived, so I fed her in the babies’ nap room. When she was sated, I walked down the hall to retrieve Lily, whose class was outside on the playground. But just as I walked into the room that leads to the playground, one of Lily’s teachers opened the door, spotted me, and said, “Lily, your Mommy’s here. Maybe she can help.” It was then that I heard Lily crying.

She came into the room, weepy and red-faced, and Miss Crystal explained that Lily had had an accident a little earlier, so they’d recently changed her into the extra pair of pants we’d stored in her cubby. Lily had reportedly wailed about this and claimed the pants were too tight (which they weren’t); and as I heard the story, Lily yanked her pants and underwear off like they were on fire, crying harder.

Miss Crystal took Neve from me while I knelt down to talk to Lily, now naked from the waist down, as other parents straggled in to pick up their kids (presumably having a “there but for the grace of God” moment). I gently held her arms and tried to get her to look at me, but she just kept screaming “They’re too tight! They hurt me!”

I told her she had to wear something, and that we couldn’t walk home while she was almost naked. But frankly, as all parents do in this “pick your battles” world, I was considering what would really happen if I did just walk home with her nearly naked. It was only 2 and a half blocks. Sure, we’d get some funny looks, and strangers would temporarily pass judgment on me. But really – we wouldn’t get arrested or anything, right?

At this point, Lily was lying on the ground, screaming and trying to roll up the long, mat-like rug over herself. Huh. Where did this idea come from?

I continued to try to talk to her, to ply her with incentives. (“If you get dressed, we can go home and get you some juice and a snack, and you can watch ‘Sesame Street.’ I think you’ll feel better.” “No! I won’t feel better!” she said, as if she’d make sure of that.) We seemed to be making zero progress.

Other kids started coming into the gym, and a sympathetic fellow mom offered to hold Neve for a few minutes while I continued to try to work this out. But I was stumped. “Why don’t you have a snack?” I suggested. “Do you want some graham crackers?” Nothing. Miss Crystal asked Lily if she might wear something else – maybe some extra clothes that the pre-school had on hand. When a cute little denim skirt with a pink ribbon was unearthed, Lily finally nodded and said, “Yes. That.”

“OK, but we need to put a Pull-up on you first,” said Miss Crystal. I got Neve back, we all went into the next room, and Lily finally accepted the graham crackers from me. She was still waist-down naked then when she said something I considered rude to Miss Crystal – I don’t even remember what it was – and I grabbed her arm, then on its way to her mouth with a cracker – and sharply said, “Do you know how nice Miss Crystal is being to you? You need to be nicer to her!” Graham crackers fell to the floor, Miss Crystal picked them up, and I turned red with shame, embarrassment, helplessness.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Miss Crystal. “You clearly have more patience than I do.”

She kindly said something about having to deal with these kinds of situations every day, and how that made her more immune. But still I burned. Partly, because I felt like I’d learned nothing. If, during the weekend, Lily did this random pants-freak-out all over again, I would have no better understanding of what the hell I could possibly do. There’s no chapter in parenting books on “spontaneous, willful stripping while senselessly wailing.”

Plus, I was angry at myself, because I was afraid that I lashed out at Lily more because her behavior reflected badly on me than because it was out of line.

So when she finally started to calm down and asked to stay and play a while, I sheepishly said yes.

“What took you so long?” one of Lily’s friends said to me.

“What do you mean?”

“We saw you coming with the stroller a long time ago,” the girl said.

“Well, I had to feed Lily’s baby sister Neve first,” I said. But then I thought, Oh, God, was this a contributing factor to Lily’s freak-out? That she expected me after spotting me walking to the preschool, and was disappointed and angry when I didn’t show up right away? How do parents of more than one child strike this balance consistently between them?

“Carry me over to the dollhouse,” Lily said in a pathetically weepy voice. The dollhouse was on the other side of the gym.

“I can’t, sweetie. I’ve got to carry Neve,” I said.

Lily began to lose it again. “No. Have Miss Crystal hold her,” Lily said.

“Lily, it’s not Miss Crystal’s job to hold Neve. She was very nice and helped me with her a few minutes ago, but she’s got other kids to take care of.”

“Please carry me, Mommy!”

And in a moment of flustered decisiveness, when you know you’re doing something really stupid, I scooped up crying Lily, who weighs 40-some pounds, and tried my damnedest to carry both her and Neve across the room. Halfway there, Neve’s upper body swerved away from me, and she started to cry, too, as I crumpled into a heap on the floor.

It was as if the universe was intervening, handing me this symbolic moment as if to say, “Did you really think you could take care of two children and not make them miserable and still work? What hubris! You can’t carry this load. You’re incapable of it. Others have more than one child, but you’re simply not built for this. You’re not strong enough.”

So I had a little breakdown on the floor of this daycare center’s gym, where I briefly cried with the two girls I’d pushed out into this world. But I tried to pull myself together as quickly as possible, worried about being a little too dramatic and emotionally naked in such a public place, where parents were still coming in to pick up their little ones. What on earth was the matter with me? I’d always thought of myself as a grounded, rational person; but becoming a mother has seemingly chipped away at that.

Day by day, though, we’ve made it through the first two weeks of my return to work. I’m still struggling to figure out how to balance spending one-on-one time with both Lily and Neve, but that will be an ongoing issue, I’m sure. I got to run a 5K, which ended with me touching the Go Blue banner in Michigan Stadium. And work provided me with the opportunity to speak to a terrific writer I’ve always admired, as well as the chance to see/review three theater productions and have lunch with my work-girlfriends. So the things I most love about work have now come back into my life.

This past weekend, I took Lily to another preschooler’s birthday party at a bouncy house wonderland. While there, I chatted with a mom of a four year old who was expecting her second child in the coming weeks. She told me about how her mom would watch the baby while she took classes to train for her new career in electronic medical billing. She said she wouldn’t place the baby in daycare, because she didn’t want strangers raising her baby.

I bit my lip and tried to nod politely, as I was taught to do (my apologies to those who wish I would have spoken up). But I saw red, of course. What a thoughtless thing to say, I thought. Everyone’s circumstances are different. I make a point of never judging someone else’s childcare choices; there’s no solution that uniformly fits every family in the same way.

“Let it go,” Joe said later that day. “This woman doesn’t matter. She said something stupid, and you’re letting it get to you.”

He was right, of course. And I remembered then how this same mother once tried to herd Lily to where many of the other kids were playing, despite the fact that Lily was happy as a clam going up and down a big slide by herself. Fortunately, Lily stood her ground and disregarded that mother’s admonishments to do what she thought Lily should do – an act of independence that made me smile.

So I need to follow my smart little daughter’s lead on this, I think. Our family’s not perfect. We have our breakdowns and moments of rage, frustration, and bad judgment. But that same evening, after it had gotten dark, I sat in a chair in our house’s front room, singing “Lida Rose” to Neve as she fell asleep, and I watched, through the window, the silhouette of Joe hoisting Lily up over his head, making her fly around our front yard while she giggled excitedly. And my eyes welled up with contentment and a sense of validation.

Lily and Joe, enjoying a leisurely game of chess

Despite the constant second-guessing and self-doubt that regularly plagues me, I’m more than satisfied with my job, my choices, my marriage, my children. And my little family seems pretty happy most of the time, too.

So like Lily, I’ll quietly, doggedly stick with what I know I want, rather than what someone else thinks I SHOULD want.

One thought on “Taking leave of maternity leave

  1. susanmaj says:

    Everyone tries to give advice on parenting and you let it go in one ear and out the other. The hardest job I have ever had is being a mom and going to work is actually relaxing sometimes! It is sometimes the only time I talk to adults for days at a time!

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