Every morning, I fly down a Metro escalator and onto an orange vinyl seat. The conductor relays a muffled message, the doors close decisively, and vent kicks on. The car is silent otherwise. I burrow under a scarf, but the unwelcome air finds me still. Then I am hurtling away from the station, farther and farther from the split-level house where my child is giggling and dreaming and exploring a world where, now that my maternity leave is over, I am increasingly absent.
Oh, I knew it would be like this, back when Sophie was the size of a bean, a grape, then a zucchini, and finally a watermelon, the articles I read always comparing a growing baby to a corresponding fruit or vegetable. She was hidden inside me, yet she existed so completely. I thought then about the separation. I knew nothing about the timbre of her cry, about the sharp pain and the cramps of nursing, but I felt her hiccups and watched my stomach undulate as she moved. She was there on the train with me as I sucked on sour candies to quell my nausea. She was in my belly in the heat of a deadline, a silent companion during sluggish August walks when I wore ill-fitting shoes and a back brace. Then she was a tiny figure in a too-big onesie, her sobs commanding the room. And when it came, her slow smile was even more transfixing: inspiring and pure, sweet and brilliant and whole.
Only Four Months Together
We had four months together, generous by most corporate standards. I played classical music while she laid in her bassinet, humming along to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring; I swung her in my arms and twirled through the house to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. How fitting it was, how rapturous I was to be her mother.
We fell into a new routine. In the mornings, I set Sophie on my chest in bed, holding myself still as she slept, our dog laying serenely beside me. Sometimes I put her down gently, tiptoeing to the kitchen, and racing back if she protested. When she woke, I tickled Sophie on her changing table as she stared into my eyes, and I imagined the next chapter, the afterward. That is, that hopeless day maternity leave would end; I would swing open the squeaky back door into my office, and walk, flanked by white walls, to my dusty cube.
So soon, too soon, that winter morning that signaled the end of maternity leave arrived; I swallowed my pain, and sanitized the keyboard and mouse at my desk. I was clumsy at first. I had forgotten phone numbers and passwords, things of such little consequence once my existence had become about her, only her. I survived assignments on autopilot as muscle memory guided me through those first shifts back at work. It was impossible to reconcile that after everything, the delivery, the birth, those first, slow walks in the stroller, the night feedings when even the lamplight was too bright, the baths in the sink, the spit up and sleepy grins, the nursery rhymes, the pain of Sophie’s cries so deep I would cry too, and the utter, complete, absolute joy as her limbs touched mine and I cradled her in my arms, after all of that, I was back at a desk. I was again a cog in a machine, and my sweet baby was without me. I felt destroyed.
Read my top ten tips for returning to work after maternity leave.