I was supposed to go back to work today.
When planning how long I would break from the clinic, five months seemed like a good amount of time. I thought our baby would be old enough to hang out with her grandmothers for a few hours each week with no issues. She’d probably take a bottle of expressed breastmilk and have a nap, and I’d get to go to work, earn money and keep the clinic running at an easy, gentle pace to begin with, seeing a few friendly clients on a Friday afternoon. Totally manageable.
January arrived and our babe was suddenly four months old. I hadn’t really thought about my impending return to work until another potential client registered interest in seeing me once my maternity leave finished at the end of the month, so we started getting ready. Having Joan feel ok with being away from me seemed like a good place to start. From fairly early on in her life, Joan hasn’t been great with crowds, and even with her grandmothers whom she knows and loves, she’d often FREAK OUT if I wasn’t in sight. She’s a sensitive babe (a velcro baby, as Pinky McKay puts it) who is very observant and curious, taking in all her surroundings, and sometimes she gets overwhelmed and needs help chilling out with the reassurance that I am there. So mum started coming over to look after the baby while I did housework. Joan was happy, she adores her Nana KK and they have a lot of fun together…but I was in the room, I hadn’t really left her. I knew we needed a few attempts of me leaving her with my mum and actually leaving. The first time we did this I went for a swim at the beach, which was down the road from our house. After a minute or so in the water, something in my gut told me I needed to get home, so I dried off, left Ben and my brother and ran all the way back. I heard the screams from the start of the driveway.
The most recent time I left Joan for more than half an hour was when Ben and bubs went for a walk around our neighbourhood. She’s always been completely happy with her Dad, he’s been fully present since birth and besides the fact that I have the milk goodies, Joan seems to find comfort in both of us fairly equally. Seemed to, I should say. Suddenly, while lying in the bathtub with a face mask on, a fancy wine glass filled with coconut water in my hand and an episode of Girls playing on the iPad (with the volume turned on! And no subtitles!), I heard SCREAMS. As my two loves get closer to the front door, the screaming grew louder and more heartbreaking. I hopped out of the bath (why am I always in water when this happens?!) and grabbed my baby. We stripped her naked and I held her, rocking and shushing until she finally took the boob and settled. This last happened precisely one week before I was supposed to start seeing clients. Later that evening I text my mum… “I can’t do this. It’s not going to happen.”
And so I started making other arrangements for my clients. I called and apologised, explaining the issue and the fact that I made a decision to choose my daughter and not return to work in the near future. I did not sleep well the night before I made those calls, I was feeling a lot of guilt for letting a bunch of new clients down. But thankfully they were incredibly sweet and understanding and happy to see the other dietitians I had referred them to, or change to see me via skype. It’s now January 29th, the day I was supposed to go back to work, and Joan could not have let me know any clearer that she didn’t want it to happen. She has been incredibly clingy and needing comfort all day, waking up from naps out of sorts and wanting to be rocked and nursed and sung to non-stop. While holding and rocking her by the window this morning, I looked down at her dear little head, the swirls of hair with that sweet baby smell, and was floored by how right it felt that I was home, comforting my baby. This was my job.
I wish that every person who wanted to stay home with their kids in the first year could. I feel incredibly lucky to be in the situation that I can, as Ben and I haven’t over-extended ourselves financially so there isn’t pressure for me to earn money. We had to be smart about it, as my husband and I are both self-employed and did not receive maternity/paternity leave pay beyond what the government gave us in the initial weeks of parenthood (which was a surprisingly generous amount), but we’re making it work. To save for a house will just take a little longer than we originally planned, and we certainly won’t be jetting off overseas anytime soon. We’ve adjusted our budget and will live a little lighter because me being home with Joan is important to us. And today, as I was holding my baby instead of prepping for clients, I couldn’t have been more certain that we’d made the right decision. I knew it would always be hard, leaving bubs the first times, and that eventually she would get used to it. But the truth is we weren’t ready to force the issue, and frankly we didn’t need to. “They grow up so fast”, loved ones assured me. “Take this time. If you don’t want to go back to work and truly don’t need to, then stay home with Joan.” And so I am. Writing and recipe assignments aside (which are hobbies that bring in a small amount of income), I am solely focussed on child-rearing and housekeeping. It’s been an adjustment, seeing what I do as contributing, despite a lack of income. They say that being a mum is the hardest job, and indeed I do believe that it is hard work – it never ends, you never get a break and while it’s often the same thing day in, day out, it’s also constantly changing as your child grows and develops. But it’s a job that doesn’t pay, and because of that, the whole situation feels a bit retro and odd. I’ve wrestled with insecurity about the fact that I will not be contributing to our family in any significant financial sense, but you know what? I love being home with Joan. I love housekeeping and looking after my loved ones in the sense that a traditional housewife does. I freakin love it! Washing, cooking, organising, cleaning, raising a little human and nourishing my family, I’m blissed out right now. So I don’t know…. I think I’m just adjusting to this new role and how I see myself now, having actively decided to not return to work. When Joan was still in my belly, I believed that five months would be a decent age to be back at work – not too early, not too late. But I now realise that you really can’t plan these things. You don’t know how you’ll feel, for one. I thought I would have been ready to get back to my work, which I love…but that’s not the case for me. And you don’t know how your baby will feel, they may be totally cool exploring the world with a loved one or in day care, socialising with other bubs. But that’s not the case for Joan. I am certain that some day I will get back into the workforce and Joan will want a break from her mumma, but right now we want each other and that’s ok. That’s beautiful.
I guess I feel a little silly that I didn’t see this coming. From the beginning, Ben and I have followed Joan’s cues regarding her care. We do not subscribe to the belief that we are spoiling her by “letting her win”, and so if she wants to be picked up, we pick her up. We follow her lead and respect her wishes and do not let her cry it out or force any issues if she is upset. I mean, there are exceptions to the rule, we are not completely driven by her mood…we still put her in the car if she doesn’t want to but we have to make an appointment, she still has to be burped if she’d rather not sit still, and she still has to have her nappy changed if she’d prefer to roll around on the change mat. What I’m trying to say is that for the most part, we are led by Joan and do not make her follow our schedule. Our needs and our expectations take a back seat. This is not to say that we don’t take care of ourselves, we do, and I suppose that’s worth a post in itself. But it is (now) pretty obvious that the way Ben and I choose to parent, in addition to Joan’s personality, is in conflict with me returning to work at the present moment, at least not in the capacity I was working previously. And I suppose I just feel thankful that I am in the position to give in, to get over my hangups about earning less and to start being proud of the fact that I am a stay at home mum. In this day and age, I am darn lucky I can be.
So here I am, Joan’s mumma, a full-time slow-cooking, floor mopping, errand running, poo-stain removing homemaker who is learning to embrace my decision and this title, and to not devalue my work because I don’t get a paycheck. I get kisses instead. And right now, that’s all I want.