After my first son, I practically sprinted back to work. I had just surfaced from a year of postnatal depression and was desperate to get back to normal – whatever that might be.
I found I felt compelled to hide how happy I was being back to work. It didn’t seem to be the done thing to be thrilled to be away from the baby for hours each day. I cringed every time someone offered consolatory words about how work would get better soon and how I was doing the right thing, doing what I had to do. Little did they realise that I did not need their encouragement remotely. To my mind, of course I was doing what I had to do, I had to get out of the house, not simply for finances but for my own self-preservation.
I didn’t feel remotely guilty about working but naturally, I did start to feel intensely guilty about not feeling guilty. Ah the infuriating guilt vortex of being a mother.
“I found returning to work after maternity brutal,” my friend told me. “That cliche of running to the bathroom to cry was me, every time someone asked how I was. To me, it felt completely unnatural to go from spending all day together to being gone all day.”
I spent a long time focused on the idea that my friend’s experience was the ‘right’ reaction to leaving one’s children, instead of understanding that my reaction was perfectly acceptable too. And so the incredibly meta “I should be feeling guilty” guilt spiraled on.
“Are the men doing it?” Is Caitlin Moran’s barometre for sexism and since then I’ve adapted the phrase to “are the fathers doing it?” to try and weed out the real feelings from the should feelings. I notice that The Man definitely doesn’t seem to suffer from ‘should’ feelings. In all other areas of my life, I don’t really either but it seems when it comes to motherhood the ‘shoulds’ come in thick and fast from the moment you’re fertilised. You should take your vitamins, you shouldn’t jump on trampolines. Some of the shoulds are to protect the health of you and the baby and some of the shoulds seem to be irritating nonsense imposed on us by the expectations of others – you should be thrilled and glowing every second of your gestation or you shouldn’t wear a playsuit when nine months pregnant (okay it was mainly my mother who objected to this one).
I have recently returned to work after my second baby and thinking I’d resolved my little guilt problem I wasn’t prepared for the sudden tumult of emotions this return inspired in me. In the lead up to returning to work, I didn’t give any thought to how leaving my seven-month-old would make me feel. I just assumed it would be the same as last time.
I’ll be honest, last time returning to work helped me out of a hole. I had spent my son’s first year wild with anxiety and terror that this strange new landscape (parenthood) would never become easy or comfortable or even enjoyable. Going to work reminded me that there was more to life than all my perceived failings in the motherhood department. Here was a space where I could be my old self again. Since then my old self and my mother-self have thankfully merged seamlessly and I have largely made peace with what a strange mother I must’ve been to my son during that first year. I think this is why the guilt of returning to work after my second maternity leave shocked me so much. I thought I was done with the shoulds and the guilt.
“Oh you’re never done with that,” a friend confided. “The best part of returning to work was getting dressed up in the morning for work, uninterrupted web browsing on the commute and work lunches with friends. The absolutely worst part was seeing mums with their babies while on lunch break – complete gut punch”
The very existence of the working mother’s guilt was apparently exposed as a myth in a 2014 Mumsnet survey in which nearly half of the mothers polled said they felt no guilt about working. I cannot believe this. While on an academic level I know that having a working mother doesn’t affect children adversely, my mother worked all my life and I never thought anything of it – on an anecdotal level practically every mum I know seems to struggle with guilt to some degree. It didn’t help that when it came time to have babies, people began asking me if I didn’t regret missing out on their babyhood – “luckily their babyhood does not only take place during the hours of 9-5,” was my testy response.
Still, though the guilts and the shoulds seem to be unavoidable and occasionally I find myself musing on the previous generations who didn’t have the option to return to work and ‘have it all’. You know the crazy has taken hold when you find yourself envious of a ‘simpler time’ of female repression. In case you’re expecting this rumination to come to a neat conclusion that will eradicate guilt about missing their childhoods (spoiler) it does not.
One thing that does comfort me on this subject is the fact that guilt is not solely reserved for working mothers and that if we wanted to look for the myriad ways we are ruining our children they are all there highlighted in every helpful study shared on Facebook. I’m waiting for that peer reviewed study that finds too much love is harming our kids.
How did you find returning to work after babies? Let us know in the comments…