When my daughter was just over five months old, I returned to work. It wasn't my choice; my maternity leave had finished, and we needed the money. It was a time I had dreaded. I didn't want to go back to work. I was enjoying my time with my daughter - she was becoming very interesting. And she was very, very cute and beautiful. I was still breastfeeding her, and had decided to express to give to the nursery whilst I was working. I had arranged to breastfeed her at lunchtime, being that she was in the building in the next street.
On the first day I reluctantly handed her to one of the nursery staff. I stroked my daughter's cheek, said a cheery goodbye, and left the building. I heard her crying as I left; I instantly found myself crying with her as I walked into work. I felt like I was the worst mother in the world for leaving her. When I arrived, I was greeted by my colleagues, then left to get on with it. A full clinic after six months off. It was time to turn off my baby brain and start thinking, again.
In my coffee break I locked the door to my room and expressed some milk, whilst gazing at a photo of my daughter. I was in a rush - I had patients to see, and paperwork to catch up on. I had found the morning challenging so far, but also wanted to get to see my daughter at lunchtime, to feed her, cuddle her, smell her and hear her laughter. I was in a hurry to get my work done before lunchtime so that I could see her.
My life went on like this for two long days per week, for several months. I found it incredibly difficult to work and be a mum. It was a difficult juggling act - not from a time point of view - but from the guilt I was experiencing. I felt terrible that I was leaving my daughter in a nursery, when she should be with me; and I felt terrible that I seemingly wasn't performing to the standard I had reached before going on maternity leave. I wanted to be the best I could be - as a mother, and in my job. My coffee breaks were spent expressing; and my lunch breaks were taken up with breastfeeding my daughter and then rushing back to my desk, to eat lunch whilst doing my admin before starting my afternoon sessions. As a result, I lost social contact with my work colleagues. My morning coffee session and lunchtime visit meant that I didn't see them at all. We worked in our own rooms, so unless I needed to ask them something or saw them walking past, I had precious little time to interact. Overall, it was an intensely painful, lonely experience governed by guilt and feelings of inadequacy, capitalised by the need to be the best I could be. And for who? It wasn't for my daughter - I would have preferred to be at home with her; it wasn't for my bosses - although resentment built up over time because I felt that I had been ignored and overlooked, and that they had no idea of the mammoth effort it was taking me to do my job; it wasn't for the sake of finances - despite the ridiculous situation I was in, where I needed to work to boost our money pot, which by the time I had paid tax, NI, fuel, nursery fees, pension, and packed lunch I was effectively working one day a week for free and was a constant source of frustration, anger and irritation;
I was doing it for me:
I was putting myself through all of this in order to ensure that my daughter continued to receive the breastmilk I felt she needed to give her the best she could have despite the awkwardness of doing so; and I was working to the standards expected of me by my bosses, colleagues, patients, and myself. I was putting an enormous strain on myself, with perhaps unrealistic expectations of my abilities as a mother and in my job. I felt the guilt of my choices and hated the situation I was in. Guilt led to resentment, frustration, anger and helplessness; and was only remedied by the passage of time, and my daughter's developmental milestones.
However, in retrospect, I feel that those early days at nursery were brilliant for my daughter. She settled after a couple of months, and became very sociable. She also caught every bug going, resulting in lots of sick days (and more guilt when I had to stay at home to look after her instead of working, knowing that I was causing a great deal of inconvenience and annoyance). She thrived on those two days in nursery because she met lots of other babies and toddlers, and was cared for by other adults. I partially attribute her outgoing, bubbly nature to her social interaction from such a young age. We have a wonderful relationship with her: she is unharmed by those early days. She also has a strong, healthy immune system, thanks to the multitudes of viruses and bacteria she came into contact with at the nursery!
If I could go back to see my younger self 6 years ago, I would mother her. I would reassure her that guilt is not necessary. I would explain that it is not the quantity of time spent with my daughter, but the quality of time we had together. We went for walks, went swimming, to music time, the library, the park, shopping, reading, painting, collecting leaves. Those days were the days in which I showed her the world in chunks of time that were meaningful, enjoyable, and fun. I would give myself a hug, and say, "you are doing brilliantly, enjoy the moment, enjoy the time, because this stage will pass and will be replaced by something else to think about, plan for and make changes. Guilt will only make it harder for you to get things done, and most importantly, it will stop you from enjoying the simple pleasures of motherhood". Whether I would listen to my own advice would be debatable, since I was in a cloud of my own self-determination to succeed - but it may have helped!
Several years later and I am still experiencing guilt - not spending "enough" time reading to my children, not playing with them for long enough because I was too busy, not taking them to the swings or the beach frequently enough. Or forgetting to be the tooth fairy for my daughter's first lost tooth. It was a particularly bad moment, whereby the previous evening had been spent in excitement at the process of putting her tooth in a box under her pillow, only for me to be too tired and forgetting to replace it with some money before I went to bed - resulting in tears and disappointment the following morning. "Don't worry", I told her. "The tooth fairy was too busy last night, but you're first on her list for tonight!"