Last year, my future was divided up in my head, into “before baby” and “after baby”.
“Before baby” was filled with Things To Do. Get the builders in to do the bathroom. Work out how the hell a breast pump works (not on the same day). Assemble bouncy chair, waving a screwdriver victoriously aloft. Make soup to freeze for when the baby is born and eat the soup because it smelled so good. Have (another) argument about whether the nursery is dark enough, lose the argument and make (another) trip to Dunelm Mill for lined curtains. Have an existentialist crisis about becoming a mother and then get over it.
The “after baby” column was empty, a bottomless pit of white space, filled with thoughts and feelings and maybes but nothing definite, nothing tangible. A baby was an unknown entity. I didn’t know if I’d collapse under the weight of it all, or breeze through it like a seasoned pro. I didn’t know what I was facing. There’s something terrifying but liberating about that.
And when she came, it was glorious, having nothing else to concentrate on but her. There were ups and there were downs. There was staring in wonder, and there was jolting myself awake from a 4am feed, having nearly dropped her from my arms. There was the day she first smiled and her eyes lit up in astonishment, and there was the day she wailed so much I thought her heart would break. There was feeling grateful at having a baby that didn’t cry too much and there was Googling “when does the crying stop?” I kept up with the news, political and other people’s, reading Twitter and the online papers during night feeds. For the most part, though, I was in a bubble, where I had the luxury of Ellie being my everything.
I’m not sure at what point the bubble broke. At six weeks I went on a course for work, and left her at home for the day. I was in bits as I left her in her basket. “She’s watching me, she’s asking me not to leave her WITH HER EYES!” I sobbed. “No she isn’t” said the ever-practical Mr K. “Just go, and don’t be a muppet”.
And I stood on the station platform, I’d forgotten my gloves, and the wind made my eyes sting. I bought myself a coffee and I waited for the train, and I saw all the commuters around me, bundled up against the cold, and I realised that life had gone on, whilst I was wrapped up with my baby, the world had kept turning, people had still loved and lost and undertaken the daily grind of work whilst everything in my world changed. And then I had my reality check.
Ellie is a big, big slice of my pie, but she is not the whole pie.
I’m going back to work in two-and-a-half months. I’ve gone from “I will never leave this infant, she NEEDS ME AND NO-ONE ELSE WILL CUT THE MUSTARD” to realising that nursery may well be the making of her. It is a huge privilege to be able to take a long maternity leave, to spend all day every day with Ellie, and I am grateful every day for the opportunity. But the older she gets, the more interaction she needs, and I’ve come to realise I’m just not up to the task, not full-time. It works for some, I know, and believe me I’m not sporting my judgey face (two years ago I’d have been sporting it. Fear not, I’ve given my judgey face a poke in the eye). But I think I’ll be a better mother if I can go to work. I need to think about things other than Ellie, I need to talk to people about things other than babies, I need to make decisions and lead a team and argue my case and be put under pressure in a way that I am simply not whilst I’m on maternity leave, and the biggest decision in my day is whether I can get away with breastfeeding in this cafe whilst I sip my coffee.
I’m surprised that the decision has been a difficult one. I always assumed I’d go back to work, and Ellie would go to nursery, and play with other kids, and learn to be with other people, and that was that. I wanted Ellie to see me work every day, to develop a strong work ethic, to understand that working can bring opportunities. I wanted to give my all at the weekends with her, I wanted to see her face light up when I pick her up n the evenings. But there is something inside me which I suspect most mothers battle with. It’s that pull, that tug on your heart, that subtle whisper that says “your baby needs you, don’t leave your baby, she needs her mother, not someone you pay to entertain her”. I know, for me, that’s not necessarily true. But I was unprepared for the strength of that voice. Whether it’s primal, or whether it’s guilt, I don’t know.
And that’s just my story, me, who has the luxury of guilt being my biggest problem. The Family and Childcare Trust 2014 Annual Report ‘s headline finding was that “...for a family of two children, the cost for one child in part-time nursery care and one in an after-school club is £7,549 a year compared to the average UK mortgage of £7,207“. This figure sickens me. This drastically reduces choices for families, and women fail to return to work after they have children and the economy loses their skills and their taxes. Childcare vouchers go some way towards resolving the problem, but they feel like a token gesture. We are now, as a country, in a situation where we are attempting to encourage women into the workplace yet should those women want children, we are making it far harder than it need be to do so.
It’s an absurd situation, and one that makes me realise my guilt at leaving Ellie at nursery serves nothing. There are mothers and fathers out there who, financially, simply do not have the option of working because the cost of childcare far outweighs what they could ever earn. Forget pie. That’s a real reality check.