This is a post by Penny. As you’d expect, it’s beautifully worded, and contains uncomfortable truths. About looking after a baby and about being in the workplace. About anxiety and how we battle it. About how we only appreciate what we’ve done once the dust has settled.
And it’s perfectly timed, because I’m going back to work next week, and leaving Ellie in nursery for five days a week, and I can’t even begin to untangle how I feel about it.
Over to you, Penny:
I can’t help it. I find it profoundly annoying that so many colleagues see maternity leave as a holiday. They refer to it as “a year off” and say they quite fancy it themselves. Whatever Trevor.
The fact that a time off bringing up a baby (although not without its joyous highs) is not quite the same as a year sitting on a Thai beach supping on a bucket is not something I really want to get into here. We’ve all had our fill of “oh you’ll never understand until you’re a parent” parents. I’m not one of those guys.
However. In spite of the last year being the hardest thing I’ve done yet, the thought of it being over and having to go back to my office job still filled me with an inexplicable, primal fear. The kind of feeling you get at the top of the worst rollercoaster, that sickening lurch, but constant, just rolling round and round in your guts like a prickly nervous ball of jitters waiting to explode into your chest at any moment. Now I don’t love my job, which doesn’t help. And there were other contributing factors which added fuel to the anxious fire – being shuffled down due to a company restructure while I was off, a new manager who was out to thwart my flexible working application at any cost, the fact that there would be negligible difference between my pathetic monthly salary and a month of nursery fees, the list goes rather boringly on. But the fear-feeling about going back was somehow more than that. It was like nothing on earth, as if somebody had told me I was about to be burned at the stake and there wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it.
The back to work fear eventually developed to the point of mania. Applying for flexible working and being put through the wringer by a new boss plucked me from my happiest–ever state and flung me into the most anxious weeks of my life. I was haunted for months by the hysterical belief that my company wanted to take my son away from me, that I was being punished for something I hadn’t done. It wasn’t rational, but even knowing and understanding that how I felt wasn’t grounded in reality didn’t seem to stem the panic. Onlooking friends and family backed away from me slowly, calling me work-shy or hysterical. Maybe I was. Maybe it was the hormones. I don’t know. I do know from other mums that it’s not a unique experience. OK, there’s a spectrum, and I was grinding my teeth at the upper end, but it’s still a feeling a lot of parents have. The night before I went back my husband sat and told me (in a rare show of emotion) about how he felt going back to work after his two weeks paternity leave: “as if something was really badly wrong. I kept waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘it’s ok, it’s only a dream! Of course you don’t have to go to work and leave your newborn baby at home! What kind of crazy reality would that be?” There is a deeply human truth in there somewhere.
Rather blandly, and reassuringly, a new normality sets in. I’m just coming to the end of my fourth week back at work now. It’s fine. I have not once cried at my desk, nor have I lain on the floor, red-faced and screaming about how I need to see my baby (these are things that I thought would happen at least once a day). Thanks to the company restructure, my job has changed from highly stressful and pointless to being just a little bit dull, which I am managing with better than I expected. I definitely need a new challenge, but I am looking for the right one. I drink more tea than I imagined possible, because I have time to do it now. I wander aimlessly round on my reduced-to-30-minutes lunch-break and wonder what on earth I ever did with a whole hour. I get to sneakily write for my favourite blog in a tiny minimised window in the corner of my screen (HIYA MAN SITTING BEHIND ME) on slow work days. I am starting to realise that looking after a baby all day every day – even after the 6 month point when it started to feel normal and even manageable at times – is really, really difficult, and maybe you only really realise how difficult it was, and how far you’ve come, when you go back to what you were doing before.
Although not as bad as I’d feared, emotionally speaking, it’s still not easy. I look at pictures of my little boy every hour, and wonder what he is doing every minute. At least every minute. And I do still feel sad, but only very occasionally. I think that’s normal. For the first time in years I had a job where, in spite of not always doing it perfectly, I was really, truly valued – and that was bringing up my child. If I need to work (and I do, for a number of reasons) I need to find at least a tiny echo of that feeling of self-worth in my working day too. With a bit of patience and perseverance, I hope that will come eventually. Just like the figuring-out-how-to-live-with-a-brand-new-human stuff did. One day at a time.