By some miracle, the house is quiet. My daughter sleeps hard as the shades in her windows block out the afternoon sun. In the room next door, I hold my son close, dancing him to sleep while Audrey Hepburn softly croons “Moon River” over my iPhone speakers. His tiny newborn body is already so much bigger than it was a few weeks ago; my arms tire from holding him much faster than they used to. He’s growing so well, a product of many hours and late nights spent nursing, nurturing. His smile spreads over his whole face and gives me goosebumps every time he graces me with it. Tears stream down my face as I breathe in the sweetly intoxicating scent of his head — three more weeks of maternity leave. The thought of leaving this sweet baby boy and my creative, energetic little girl makes me sick to my stomach.
As everyone who has ever done it knows, the initial transition from one to two kids is an extremely precarious state of existence. Just the slightest challenge can throw everything off balance. One minute, my daughter is happily playing with her toys while my newborn peacefully naps, lulling me into believing I can get away with giving myself a quick, 5-minute manicure. (Yes. In retrospect, so foolish.) Without warning, the next minute said daughter has peed on the floor and is scream-crying about it, waking up the newborn, all problems which require the use of my hands to fix, thereby ruining my fresh mani. This should not have been a monumentally big deal, and I wish I could say I handled my frustration with admirable grace … but no. I had been putting everyone else first all day and just wanted five minutes of self-care. When that didn’t happen, I lost it. Not my proudest moment, as a mother or as a human being. Three more weeks of maternity leave, then I can at least have five minutes to myself on the drive to work.
Going back to work and leaving your baby feels impossible. Not going back also feels impossible, in a different way. It feels like a no-win situation.
I love my job. I work in a field that is highly challenging and incredibly rewarding. I interact with scores of people on a daily basis, which makes me feel like an integral part of a team. On any given day, I get to solve puzzles, offer reassurance, and teach my craft to up and coming members of the squad. I have worked for years to get to this point. This job feels like something I was created to do. And yet, the thought of leaving my babies and walking out that door is enough to reduce me to a sobbing puddle of emotional overwhelm.
I’ve had some practice. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to leave my babies. Three years ago, after a six-week maternity leave that went by in a blink, I left my tiny, 7-pound baby girl in the hands of a very capable family member. I cried the whole drive to work. While my heart and mind were somewhere else, I checked my phone compulsively as my body performed the work functions it knew so well. Every shift felt like it lasted an eternity, and I thought work might actually kill me.
Even now, in retrospect, I don’t know if I can honestly say it got easier. I just got used to it.
Two years ago, I left that same baby girl to deploy to Afghanistan. She was 15 months old and still so tiny. She had just learned to walk. To this day, I have no idea how I summoned the strength to walk out that door, knowing it would be at least six months before I walked back through it. Every day I was gone supporting the war effort, a war for my emotional wellbeing waged within me. I cried most days. It felt as though a huge piece of me was missing. I was proud to be doing the work I was doing, but I didn’t feel whole again until I walked down those stairs at the airport and scooped up my baby girl as she ran to me.
The two practices that have served me best as a mother who works outside the home are perspective and gratitude. A dear friend gifted me a gratitude journal while I was in Afghanistan, instructing me to find one thing to be thankful for, every day.
It was hard.
Some days, the only thing I could find to be thankful for was that the day was over —I was one day closer to going home. Other days, practicing gratitude shed light on just how great I had it, even though I was 8000 miles away from my family and watching my baby grow up over FaceTime. I had my health and all four of my limbs. I had a family to miss. I would be going home eventually. These were not luxuries afforded to everyone. My time in Afghanistan has shone perspective on all of life since. Once you’ve survived six months away from your baby, an 8-hour shift at work is much less of a big deal. Perspective reminds you that it could always be worse. Gratitude encourages you to find the joy in what it is.
With my second baby, I have had the great luxury of having 12 weeks of maternity leave. The extra time has been a precious, necessary gift. My son and I have settled into a more healthy and consistent breastfeeding routine than I was ever able to achieve with my daughter. My body is well on its way to putting itself back together … so necessary after having spent the better part of a year growing, birthing and feeding another human being. We are all sleeping better. My mind feels less scattered and more capable of functioning in the capacity my work demands of it. Twelve weeks has been infinitely better than six weeks. But leaving still feels impossible.
Our babies don’t stay babies forever. From the moment we give birth to them, they begin to takes steps on the long march to independence. Every day, in little ways, they are learning how to live without us. My daughter learning to use the potty, to pedal her tricycle, to tiptoe along a balance beam — my son sleeping through the night, learning to soothe himself, smiling at people other than me — in these and countless other ways, they demonstrate their independence. I know my going to work helps foster their independence, too. Introducing them to caregivers other than myself gives them practice building relationships, broadens their perspectives as they experience life through fresh eyes, and adds to the long list of people who love them dearly.
It is both incredibly liberating and unspeakably painful to have someone else do the work of caring for your children. Having it be anyone other than you feels unnatural. Impossible.
I am grateful to have a job that I love, but I hate that I can’t be in two places at once. Going to work for the day is a walk in the park when compared to a deployment. But it hurts to miss milestones and firsts. It still hurts to see the disappointment on their faces when they see me in my uniform and know I have to leave. No amount of perspective makes being away from your baby ever feel totally okay. It still hurts, but you wear that hurt like a badge of honor, as proof that you love your babies well.
“You go through big chunks of time where you’re just thinking, ‘This is impossible—oh, this is impossible.’ And then you just keep going and you keep going,
and you sort of do the impossible.”