I returned to work the last week in January, when my son was just 7 months old, and like every parent my feelings about it were mixed.
On one hand, I was delighted to be back in the corporate world. I have a good job which I enjoy. I don’t save lives or improve the environment, I don’t save whales or better mankind, but it is a useful job, and I am good at it. It brings me a sense of achievement and accomplishment. I get done what others struggle to do, and I do it with style. I’m not defined by it, but I like my job.
Then the other side of the coin swings around to punch me in the gut. As a new Mum, when I say those things out loud I think ‘that is selfish me talking’. That is me talking about what I need to feel like a happy human in the world, and really I should be thinking what my son needs to be a happy human in the world, and the guilt starts.
I feel guilty that I enjoy talking to adults, moving things along, helping on projects, more than I enjoy singing the Wheels on the Bus to my son for the hundredth time that week. I enjoy getting a lunch hour where I can walk the dog, listen to my podcast, chat to a friend or have some alone-time, and I feel guilty enjoying that time without him. I enjoy challenging my mind, stretching for solutions and I feel guilty because I know I was getting bored as a stay-at-home mom.
But is all this guilt fair? When I look at my son and ask – does he really miss me for the eight hours I am without him? Does he feel abandoned without his Mama around him 24/7? The answer comes back; probably not. In fact, as crushing as it is to admit, he seems totally happy without me.
Sometimes I’m a little put-out that he seems so happy without me! – but really it’s not surprising. He is a happy, healthy little wobbler. He is not a helpless newborn, I think I would feel very differently if he was, but he is at a stage where he is playing independently, is getting social with others, and so long as he has someone giving him love and attention, it really does not matter that it’s not his Mum.
So, because he seems happy as he ever did, I put the guilt in a box labelled ‘unhelpful feelings caused by outside pressure’ and allow myself be happy to be back at work.
I know this is not most people’s reaction to returning to work. Most people say that they hate being back away from their children. And for people who have to commute for long hours and for whom returning to work means that they will not see their baby awake during the week, I can understand how this separation is gut wrenching. But I think a lot of new Mums feel compelled to say they feel bad being back in work, because if they say they are delighted to be back it sounds like don’t enjoy motherhood, or worse, don’t love their baby as much as all the other mums who are distraught to be back.
Also, and I am going to say this plainly despite the controversy it might cause, but I also think a lot of women would rather not be in the corporate world. They have reached a stage in their life where they do not get a sense of fulfilment from their jobs, it is not where they want to be and they would rather be at home with their children. Unfortunately however they have bills to pay and they need to work, and so they do, but it is not where their heart is, and so this adds to the pain of leaving their children for the working day. Even if I could afford not to work, I think I would anyway. I do not think that is true of every woman (or indeed man) in the workplace.
Now, before I get a series of angry responses to this post, I want to raise one point: most Dads, if they are lucky, get two weeks paternity leave, and then they go back to work because someone has to pay the bills. Are they bad Dad’s for doing so? Aren’t they ‘leaving someone else to raise their kids’? Aren’t they ‘abandoning their children to baby-farms’? Most of people would say no, because they are leaving the baby with someone loving and safe while, as a responsible father, they are going out to the workplace to ensure they can provide the best possible for their family. So why is the same standard not applied to mothers?
Working Mums spend hours researching, interviewing, testing, comparing childcare options to find the best. Not just the ‘best for them’ (whatever that patronising phrase means), they find what they believe to be The. Best. Very few Mums (or Dad’s!) compromise when the safety or happiness of their children is in the offering. They go to work knowing that they have left their baby somewhere safe and loving (otherwise they would not leave them there), and now they are going to do their best in the workplace to ensure their family reap the rewards, just like the Dad’s. So why the double standard?