Friday, January 8, 2016

The Hard Return

It's more than just a word processing function. It's also the first day back at work from maternity leave. 

In America, as everyone knows, paid maternity leave doesn't really exist. And unpaid maternity leave--after which you can count on having a job to return to, anyway--usually lasts 18 weeks at most. More often, women must return to work much sooner than that for financial reasons. I went back to my full-time lawyer job when my daughter was 8 weeks old and, three years later, when my son was 12 weeks.

Those first days back at work came rushing back to me this week, after two of my colleagues who recently had babies arrived back in our office. I texted one of them wishing her luck. "Thanks so much," she wrote back. "Super excited about my new office curtain. Helpful for both pumping and melodramatic sobbing."

I could relate, and I was one of the lucky ones. Lucky because my spouse was able to stay home with each of our kids and I knew for sure they were in good hands. Most women have the added stress of trusting their infants to daycare providers.

There's nothing lonelier than that moment when you first leave your baby in this way. Every fiber of your being tells you it's wrong: that separation from an infant at this age is psychologically and physically and fundamentally against nature. You're often still nursing and a hormonal mess because of it. 

But what can you do?

You close your office door (again, if you're lucky enough to have one), and look around at the piles of papers and work that have accumulated in your absence. The crush of business has marched on without you, and now you have to march back into formation without your baby, more or less pretending he or she doesn't exist.

Maybe you have a breast pump, and your breasts already feel engorged. They're expecting a baby, but there's no baby here. You know you're going to be pumping every three hours. You stick a sign on your door or escape to a break room and hope no one comes in. You know you should stop feeling sorry for yourself. After all, no one forced you to have a baby. You live in the First World. You're lucky to have a job, lucky to have access to a breast pump, lucky to have found child care even if it's gobbling up half your paycheck. And the fact that you don't feel lucky at all--that you feel sad, scared, and alone--only makes you sob harder.

It's at that moment when you can't help reflecting on a system long ago established by people who never needed to think about any of this. It's not the fault of the men you work with now, of course. What can they do? They didn't make the rules, and they don't have to worry about them. That's their privilege. It's not their problem.

And you wonder if it's ever going to get easier for mothers.

1 comment:

  1. This breaks my heart and my kids are in their 30's! I just met a couple from Denmark; she has a 3 year old, a 10 month old, and a job at a university. She is planning to go back to work in March, after a year of paid maternity leave. Sad commentary on the US.


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