Each time a new mom comes back to work after having a baby, I’m reminded of the day my first maternity leave ended. I remember how I sent my 5 week old to daycare full time because the money was running out and we needed my paychecks again. I remember how I had maybe 2 outfits that were “business casual attire” that I could somewhat fit in to. I had no money to buy anything new. I still had stitches that hadn’t fully healed, a milk supply that hadn’t finished regulating, and more hormones going through my body than complete thoughts. I was terrified, full of dread, and barely holding myself together. The worst part was, I was a middle school teacher. Parents of preteens know that kids that age say exactly what’s on their mind.
“Mrs. Cookus, why do you look so tired?”
“Weren’t you bored staying at home all day?”
“Mrs. Cookus, you still look chubby. How long does it take to go back to normal?”
I hope it’s not the same experience for every teacher friend I know that hands their baby off to someone in order to go to work and and spend the day with other people’s children. Sadly, my experience isn’t a rarity. In fact, many would say I was lucky to get as long as I did. I can’t imagine going back to work any sooner.
My oldest is 3 years old now. He’s been in daycare since that day I first went back to work, with few exceptions. When I look at him now and think about all the things he’s learned at daycare and how his little personality has been shaped by being surrounded by lots of other children his age, you could never tell that I felt like I was giving him the short end of the stick in terms of parenting him during his infancy. You wouldn’t be able to tell that I as I rocked him to sleep each night for his first year, I was so sorry for having to put him in second place to my job so often. I was so sorry that even when he did see his mama, she was so bone-deep exhausted and stressed that she wasn’t as present and she wished she could be. I apologized to him in his sleep during that time more than I’ve ever apologized to anyone. I wanted so badly to do better for him.
So how can we?
How can we do better for the moms who have to go back to work so soon, when their tiny babies still need them so much? What can we do for the women who have just given life to another human being and have completely sacrificed their bodies, minds, time, and sanity in the process? How do we support the employees who appreciate their jobs, who give all they can to their work during (and sometimes after) the work day, but now have a hundred other responsibilities in the form of a new little person at home?
It starts with us, deep in the trenches. It starts with taking care of each other so that we can take care of our children. It starts with women talking each other, asking questions, practicing empathy and compassion. It starts with grace. I can’t say that our country’s maternity leave policies will change anytime soon or even at all, really, but I can say that regardless, moms will overcome. We’ll make it, friends. We were made strong and resilient and so are our children. And in a few years, our stories will be the fuel that lights the fire for the next generation of mothers.