Today was my first day back to work after a nice, long, heavenly maternity leave. It is unusual, and I feel grateful, for such a long time off. Because of some intricacies of academe, the timing of Meera's birth, and a progressive FMLA policy at Lehigh, I was able to be "off" from May 28 (the day Meera was born) until now. It has been 7 months of bliss. Sincerely. Some women probably say that sarcastically. I do not. It has been bliss for me. Which has made going back to work even harder than it might otherwise be. Yesterday, at just the right moment, I said to the boys, "Kyle and Owen, tomorrow I have to go to work. Do you remember what my job is?" Owen said, "No, I don't remember." Kyle thought about it a second and then he said, "I do remember!" I said, "What is it Ky Ky? What is my job?" He said, "Your job is to take care of us and keep us safe." It took me by surprise. And it was so perfect. "Yes!!!" I said, trying to hide my surprise (this was not the answer I had been looking for). "Yes, you're exactly right, that's my most important job! Do you remember my other job -- my job when I go to work?" "Yes," he said, proudly, "my mommy is a professor!" Owen jumped in, "Yes! Oh! That's right! My mommy is a professor!!!" When I explained that I wouldn't be picking them up from school because I'd be "working at my Lehigh office," they acted totally unfazed about the change in routine. If anything they were excited. I figured that's how they'd be. That's just how they are. But me, well, I'm another story. I feel a deep sense of ambivalence about going back to work. Never before in my life have I felt so profoundly ambivalent about anything.
ambivalent (ām-bĭv'-ə-lənt) –noun 1.) uncertainty or fluctuation, esp. when caused by inability to make a choice or by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite or conflicting things. 2.) the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.
On one hand, I know for certain that I do not want to be home full-time; that I want to work beyond my family. On the other hand, I am not thrilled (at all) about returning to work and being away from home. I am committed to the work I do. I am committed to the family that I've made. I want to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, using my gifts and privileges as best I can, maximizing upon the opportunities I have. But still, I can't help but want to be with my babies while they are still young and wanting to be with me. Like many people, I imagine, I want it both ways, but am all too well aware that it doesn't work that way. You can't have it all. You can have part of each, but you can't have all of both. What I always come back to is this: I believe that every person has the right to have their personal potential unconstrained. What does that mean for me, as an individual, at this point in my life? How do we balance all we can be with what we want to be? How can we be mothers with empowered careers and not feel like we're short-changing ourselves, our kids, our work? How can we be good mothers without feeling like we're short-changing the rest? I could go on and on and on. But I won't. Whole volumes have been written on it. Many others have already gone on and on. I've thought so much about it that I bore even myself with it at this point. Plus, the truth is, it is all too complex to do it any justice in a blog post. So, I'm left... with the internal personal private ambivalence. And I'm left... feeling judged by everyone out there --- the high-powered-career-working-moms and the working-because-they-have-no-other-choice-moms and the stay-at-home-moms and everyone else in between. I dread even posting this because of the reaction I'm sure to get. And it is hard to take. But the personal ambivalence, deep within me, is even harder than the judgements that I feel swirling around me. Regardless of all of it -- the personal and the public, the intimate and the overt -- here I am. Back to work. After seven months off. The day has come. The boys are back to seeing Mommy dressed for work in the morning ("Why does my mommy look so beautiful?" Owen asked this morning as we sat together at the breakfast table), and they are back to being two of only a handful in their classes who don't have mommy there every single day to pick them up at 1:00 when school's done. It is familiar for them, I'm sure. And familiar isn't necessarily bad. But my baby girl... she is, for the first time, facing the reality that she didn't even know was hers: the reality of having a working mother. A mother with a pretty demanding career. Over the next couple of weeks she'll have to adjust to what she didn't even know was coming. That, to me, feels like a loss of innocence. I have known it was coming, but she didn't. And it feels painful for me. The thing is, though, that ultimately I do know that my three kids will be great. I'm absolutely sure of it. I know because I can see it in them. They all three love life. They are fully engaged with life. They are happy, self-confident, grounded children. And I'm fortunate to have a husband who is just as deeply committed to me working as I am. I'm not worried about the four of them. But what is left is me. And down at the core of all of my ambivalence lies the simple truth that actually, mostly, I'm just sad to have to miss out. I'm sad to have to miss out on a whole day's worth of slubberly sloppy drooly kisses all over my baby's face. I'm sad to have someone else pick up my bambinos at school. I'm sad that I won't hear every one of the boys' stories first, that I won't put Meera down for every nap, that I won't get to laugh at every single one of K & O's antics, that I won't hear every coo and babble from my girl, that I won't make every afternoon snack, that I won't change every diaper, that I won't give every time-out. It isn't so much that I'm worried about my three sweethearts. I'm more just selfishly sad for me. And jealous of whoever gets to do all those things with them. At the same time, I have a career that I've been building for over 15 years. I have a PhD, I do work I believe to be important for the world, I have tenure. I have things to do. Things that are larger than what lies within my self, my children, my family, or my home. In my heart I know that I cannot quit. I know that I need to do. So here I am. And here we are.
I figured the first day back would be emotional. It was, a little bit. I cried, of course, when I had to leave my baby this morning. I figured that it might feel good to get away from home and caught up in the workday without being tied to an infant all day. It did feel good, of course, a little bit. Mostly, though, what I've been thinking about today has caught me totally off guard. It isn't what I expected at all. I hadn't anticipated it. Mostly today what I've been thinking about is how grateful I am.
Grateful that I got the time I did. Grateful that Meera gave me this gift. Grateful for the time spent with her -- and because of that time "off," the time I got to spend with Kyle and Owen too. I'm grateful to have been witness firsthand the the early development of the beautiful sibling relationships between my three children. I'm grateful for the sweet and gentle spirit of my baby girl and the peaceful addition she is to our family. I'm grateful for the seven months I've spent just sitting and watching as her life begins to unfold. I'm grateful for the cuddles, the moments sitting still together in the family room, the hours in the rocking chair, the months of nursing, the days of summer and then of fall and then of winter -- able to be "just a mom." I'm grateful to have played so many hours with the boys, to have watched them ride their bikes and dig in the sandbox and shovel snow. I'm grateful for all the play dough and painting and baking and I'm grateful for every single new development of the first seven months of Meera's precious little life. I'm grateful for all that I've learned during this time. I'm grateful for the time. I'm grateful to have felt what it feels like, at least for seven months, to just sit back and breathe and enjoy. Most of all, I'm grateful to have been able to give Meera this gift. A gift that I was not able to give to my boys. A gift that is precious and profound. As a mother who knows what it is to not be with your baby for the first seven months, the value of these past seven months is not lost on me. I will forever be grateful for this time that I've had. Having had it has given our whole family, and individually every member of it, a precious gift. It doesn't heal us completely, and it doesn't protect us forever, but it surely helps. And I'll forever be holding it in a sweet, soft spot in my heart. I am so thankful for Meera Grace-- this tiny, gentle soul who has found us and filled a special place in our family. I am so thankful for all that has been and all that will come. And so now we end one era and embark anew. And we give thanks, again, for all that we've got.