Day One: A Ghost in the Machine
My first day back is not as wrought with tears as many of my friends said it would be. I’ve trudged through the day more or less a zombie, reading my mail and assignments and wondering how in the hell I am ever going to get interested in this stuff again. I went to visit Brandon at lunch and was almost confounded (although happily) by how well he was doing. He didn’t display relief upon seeing me or despair when I left. For this I was so grateful.
The afternoon is dragging by much more slowly. To fill the time I take breaks by emailing my office friends a picture of the “woobie.” I’m printing their responses to paste in a scrapbook and it makes me feel somehow closer to Brandon. Perhaps the oddest part of the day was the first time I closed my friend T.J.’s office door to pump breast milk. (She said I could use her private office while she’s out of town.) Next week I will have to find another place to pump or else toss her out twice a day.
As I used this bizarre device where my precious infant usually lies gazing up at me, I looked at the blurry Polaroid of him hours-old and tiny. He is growing so quickly. In three months, every activity, attitude and relationship I have has been illuminated by this new life. I keep catching myself trying to capture his scent, the swan’s-down feel of his arms around my neck, the sparkle in his eyes when he smiles at me. I wonder how long it will feel as if I’ve left a part of my body with someone else. I wonder if I will be one of those mothers who has trouble separating when the time comes: when he goes to kindergarten, when he won’t be dropped off in front of the junior high, when he has friends over and closes his door. All of that seems a million years away, of course, even though I know it’s not. Right now I just want to cherish the time he gets to be my baby.
I am selfish and insanely jealous of stay-at-home moms, even those I know and love. I want more walks with the stroller, longer morning cuddles, fewer fears about Brandon’s well-being. I have cried and wailed for months on end, knowing I couldn’t return to work but, paradoxically, that I would. Dan is a wonderful husband–my soul mate–and he makes a good living for a single individual. But it is too much to ask him to support three on his university salary. For complex reasons (Dan’s career path, our nearby family), we have trouble considering a move from our small town, yet it offers no home-based businesses that look promising. Mrs. Childers, the woman we have chosen for Brandon to stay with, is wonderful–a friend and neighbor of my in-laws’, licensed and highly recommended by parents whose children she has helped rear. Brandon will grow used to this and maybe I will too. We have no choice, or at least, no good choice.
As I detached the bottles from the breast pump, I spilt the contents of the biggest one all over the floor. All I could wonder was: “What am I doing here?”
Day Two: Despair and Jealousy, Every Bad Thing
10:00 a.m. I don’t want to write today. Each word brings me back to tears and I’ve spent the last two hours in the bathroom crying. I’ve shamelessly begged counsel from anyone who would listen. The best I got was from a working mother who promised it gets easier; the worst was from a grandmother who saw my pump and asked if I felt like a dairy cow.
All of this sobbing started when I tried to drop Brandon off this morning and–unlike yesterday–he cried and cried. I couldn’t leave him of my own accord, so Mrs. Childers practically pushed me out the door.
“It’s better if you just go,” she said. Although I know she was right (according to what I’ve read, at least), my heart is singing a different tune. How can I leave my sweet baby in emotional pain, day after day? I certainly wouldn’t leave him in physical pain for anything. Yet he reached for me, screaming, and I walked away at the insistence of a virtual stranger. What kind of mother does that make me? What kind of monster?
To hold my baby anytime I would live in a shack. That’s the romantic side of me. But the practical side of me–the side that reminds me Brandon will start school in a few years–says he deserves more. If Brandon can be as happy and cared for with Mrs. Childers as he is with me, it may be responsible to give up some time with him so he can have a nice home, a safe neighborhood and a college fund. But if he feels for one moment that he is less than the world to me, it would not be worth living debt-free in a mansion. Against what does one measure the benefits when making this choice? There is no way to know whether what I’m doing is smart and generous or wrong and materialistic. I only know that it hurts unbearably.
1:30 p.m. My boss is being very understanding about my current lack of productivity, but I can’t expect that forever. He is paying me to do a job–a job I can’t for the life of me feign interest in. Brandon is occupying every corner of my mind; I hear his cries in silence and feel his touch in absentia. I feel like I’m losing my mind, continuously playing a tape of brutal criticism and rabid anxiety. I never had the baby blues when I was with him. And I’m mourning. I’m mourning all the lost hours, all the missed smiles; for the millionth time I’m recounting the times I won’t be there and someone else will. Our friend Tiffany, married to Dan’s best friend Mark, announced today that she can’t even work part time now that she has Ashley. And, even though Mark has been watching Ashley for the four hours a day that Tiffany is gone, she is quitting her job altogether. She and I once joked that our pregnancies (the first for both of us) existed in a parallel universe: same sonogram dates, same registry bedding and shower invitations–even our complications were similar. Now she is going to live my dream and I am going to live in hell. I’m not sure I can get through these years without hating Dan.
Day 3: A Welcome Reprieve from Crying
I am calming down a little. I went through my closet last night (while holding Brandon, of course) and sorted all of my dressy clothes according to length and style. Then I wrote down what I’m going to wear for the next few days with what shoes and jewelry. I haven’t felt good about my appearance lately (naturally) and I feel like this is a step in the right direction. It may also cut down on the harried nature of the mornings. I must add an extra half hour to my commute to get Brandon to the sitter’s and make sure he’s okay. (Regardless of what Mrs. Childers says, I’m only leaving after Brandon has gotten used to being there for a minute.)
I don’t feel okay. I feel so hurt inside I don’t even know who I am anymore. And that is the right way to express it: I feel hurt–as if I have been hurt and am being hurt still, by some outside force beyond my control. But I’m going to march in to work every day and count my blessings: nice friends, a job I generally enjoy, a chance to use my various degrees, and, most practically, the bottom-line reasons most of us work. I have medical benefits for Brandon and me, money to live in a nice home with some property, a retirement account for my future and an education IRA for his future. It makes me crazy to compare material things with invaluable–and irretrievable–moments with my son. But he will be a baby a very short time. If I drop out of the rat race for a few years I may not get back in–not in this small college town where jobs like mine are scarce. And I just have to hold on until he’s in school. Then he will be with other people regardless of whether I’m working. This is a lesson in patience unlike any I have ever had to learn.
A Year Later
What a difference a year can make. I read those pages–discovered in a small pouch of my breast pump bag–and am astonished by the depth of my depression. All last year I cried the way I did laundry–at least once a week and for hours at a time. My son, still breast-feeding, has grown and flourished; everyone comments on his happy nature. My own soul has ached, perhaps for so long I don’t feel it anymore.
I think my depression is lifting–finally, after all this time. Maybe it’s because Brandon is old enough to express excitement upon seeing his friends. He calls Mrs. Childers “Meme” and they genuinely love one another. Although his “play dates” are more frequent than I may have wished, I’m convinced that they are better for Brandon than a lack thereof. Perhaps I’m so much happier now because my boss lets me work flexible hours, from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The four days are tiresome, but three whole days with Brandon certainly beat two. Maybe it’s just that sadness grows old, for even at my most self-pitying, I always felt tremendously grateful for my beautiful son and family.
Certainly I still wish I could stay home with Brandon, but I wish it in the way I wish my siblings lived in state. They don’t and, since that’s the reality, I see them when I can and make the most of our time together. While my situation with my son is much different (he needs me in a way that they do not), the cold nature of the facts is the same. Like most single mothers and widows with children (as well as millions of other married women), I have to work. This may not be the case in a few years with Dan’s increasing success, but it is the case now, when I am in my 30s and must conceive if I want to. Also, I do love my paid work and expect to pursue my career. When I compared my feelings of loss to mourning, I was not exaggerating; I sobbed for a year over a lost dream as if I’d lost a friend. I still go through all the stages of grieving, from denial (maybe I could work from home in a new career as a medical transcriptionist) to anger (why doesn’t the school pay Dan more?) to acceptance (Brandon’s happy; he really seems happy). As with a death, all the stages are mixed up all the time, and some days are better than others. But like mourning, it just can’t go on indefinitely with the same intensity. Sooner or later, a human being gets used to almost anything. I used to fear acute separation would damage Brandon; now I think it has only damaged me. I pray I’m never proven wrong.
I haven’t given up on the dream of working from home, but I really don’t think it’s going to happen. That aside, my focus remains on Brandon, who honestly loves his life. He reaches for his “Meme” in the morning now, but also for me at the end of the day. (She tells me to prepare for a stage when this may not be the case.) When he does cry at my departure, he stops the minute I drive off (she has always told me this and I believe her). His playmates, five girls between 3 and 5, shriek with excitement when he shows up. And he, equally excited, shrieks back.
Perhaps the ultimate reason I chose to accept my fate is that I want Brandon to see me smiling often and crying rarely. I want him to think his playtime with friends is a gift from Mama and a positive thing. When he’s older and I explain to him why I work, I will say that although I miss him very much, I went to school for a long time to do what I do and it makes me feel good about myself to do it. In other words, I’ll explain the way I felt about work before he was born. If he continues to be happy, some of those feelings might even recur.
Laura Sheridan Crutcher continues to work as a technical writer for Oklahoma State University as she plans her second pregnancy. Her son still thrives in home day care.
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