I have a lot of friends and relatives right now with small babies. Still in the midst of maternity leave, in that blissful place where you’ve got over the first hurdle of OH MY GOD I’M A PARENT NOW WHAT THE HECK DO I DO WITH THIS SMALL SQUIRMY THING? and are just starting to relax and enjoy the ride. The easy naps, the play groups, the buggies and slings and nappies and first smiles and weaning… then all of a sudden you realise you’re halfway or more through your time off, and the return to work starts looming.
I can remember looking forward to my return to work. Looking forward to socialising with people who weren’t parents, who talked about things other than poop and washing and husbands in the army. I wanted to stretch my brain once more. I’d miss my time with my daughter, of course, but she’d be fine in nursery, won’t she? It’s good for her, right? Besides, needs must and bills have to be paid.
Then when the reality hit and before I could blink I was back full time. And I didn’t just miss my time with my daughter, I ached without her. I was lucky; my nursery was on the site where I worked, so I would see her every lunch time for a breastfeed. My time apart from her was never more than four hours at a time to begin with. But it was still hard. Harder than I thought it would ever be! Colleagues of mine had just had babies, too. They all seemed to be returning to work part time; taking two afternoons off, or working from home one day, or working four day weeks. Time spent with them is precious they would say to me. Some things are more important than work, or money. And I thought they were probably right; but I had made my choice to be full time, and I’d get used to it.
I did get used to it, eventually, but it took much longer than I expected. I expected a period of adjusting to a different routine, back to something I used to do, and had given myself almost two months of part-time work using up my annual leave to get used to things again. But it wasn’t enough! For months, maybe even a year, I agonised over whether I’d made the right decision. I tried to justify to myself that I could drop my hours. If I didn’t work Fridays I could attend the breastfeeding group I’d grown to love, and then do some amazing things with my afternoon. I’d do soft play, and craft, and cooking, and imaginative play. We’d spend time in the garden, the park, the shops. We’d walk places and do things together, just the two of us.
It wasn’t just the time spent with M I missed; it was the quality of life that maternity leave had provided. The home-cooked meals I made every day of the week, cooking in the kitchen with M slung on my back. The long naps M would take on my lap, nursing, during which I’d do useful things on the internet, or watch the TV shows I’m come to love (hello, Home Under The Hammer!). The time I would spend with M at the library, shops, swimming pool, local cafe. None of these were available to me any more. When I returned to work we started eating more frozen pizza and breaded chicken crap, because I couldn’t figure out how to cook a meal for a tired baby when we got home from work at 6.00pm. We started paying for shopping online, because no-one wanted to go to the shops after work or on a weekend. We no longer went to the library, because it was always shut when we were free.
But, over time, I got used to it. I got better at planning, and working around office hours, and multi-tasking. I started to see the big advantages that working full time could offer
; how more opportunities could open up to you, and how people admired you for being a full time working mum (interestingly, no-one ever admires a full-time working dad). And, slowly, I began to love work once more. M settled into nursery with astounding ease, and I never worried about leaving her – not once!
So, mums who are about to come back to work and are dreading it: I feel your anguish! It will be hard. You will question yourself. You will doubt your decisions. You will agonise and fret and stress. BUT it will get easier. Probably not as quickly as you would like. Certainly not as quickly as non-parent colleague would expect. But it will get easier. And you know what – whichever childcare route you take will work, because babies and toddlers are amazingly adaptable! That time spent with grandma will be an amazing bonding experience they will both cherish. Nursery will teach her more than you ever could, and will bend over backwards to welcome your child and meet her and your needs (and if they don’t, you should be looking for a new nursery). A child-minder will cherish and support her, socialise her and take her to the best places. And, if you do decide to go back on a different working arrangement, you will appreciate that time spent with your baby more than you ever did.
It will be hard, sometimes, but it will work out. And the day you pick her up from their childcare setting in their third change of clothes, covered in flour, proudly holding out a painting of a cat and telling you about the biscuits they made and the books they read and the train they built out of cardboard boxes, you will know you are doing the right thing.