No one ever told me the gut wrenching feelings that would stir and erupt forth when deciding to go back to work. No one ever told me how coffee would become my savior, or how running out of coffee would become as bad as one of those blockbuster movie moments where time stops for an instant. No one ever told me that the smell of my baby, when I leave in the morning (or think about leaving the next morning) the night before would literally tie my stomach in knots as a guttural, instinctual reaction that whisper screams, I cannot leave my baby is activated in my body and echoes into a society unheard.
The day the baby is born everyone cheers and cries tears of joy and brings balloons and sends flowers. People send onesies and diapers and soft teddy bears. Family members bring food. Everyone asks if you are okay. When you are pregnant, there is a constant influx of attention on every nuance of your life. Deli clerks and crossing guards smile at you warmly and knowingly. Scruffy strangers you would never think were friendly open doors for you or give you the last seat in a crowded room. In laws constantly check up on your progress, symptoms and journey. Family member wait by in excitement. Somehow, the idea of a child is more celebrated and nurtured than the actual life of the child, and mother itself.
After the baby is born, this tremendous honor of a new life is ironically halted. As quickly as the pregnancy brings on instant allies in the world, within weeks of birth a mother is more isolated then in any time of her life. As suddenly as the pregnancy months and creation of your child brings forth love and attention, well wishes and support, within weeks a new mother is alone, ignored, burdened by being part of a system that in no way supports the child, the mother and their connection once earthbound. Not to be unmentioned, she is simultaneously healing from a life changing event, physical, emotional and hormonal shift and major surgery. She often cannot fully walk or tend to basic tasks, has other children and a home and husband she is expected to provide care for during this time. This. Is. Insanity.
People slowly stop asking her how she is, and when doing so, it is a rushed sentiment on their way to asking about the baby itself. As the baby ages, they stop asking about both mom and infant. During her maternity leave, most of the time is spent healing and the bonding process is funneled into a quick 8-12 weeks of time. With very little paternity leave available, the father returns to work. Family may drop in occasionally. However, for 12-16 awake hours of each day, the mother is alone, isolated, facing a new chapter in life, sleep deprived and many times tending to older children and her home as well.
A time comes very quickly when the mother is expected to leave her infant behind and return to work. The phone isn’t ringing that night with questions about how it went. No one sends her flowers of encouragement. She leaves her baby behind for the first time they have separated in about a year (including the pregnancy). She cries alone in her car at the emotional pull on her heart. She pulls herself together and puts a smile on her face because she has a boss and colleagues relying on her to be productive, upbeat and successful today. As one mother experienced, “I was at work, but struggling and feeling overwhelmed because my kids were sick and I had to find other care for them-thank God for family members always willing to help. I was sort of venting to another manager of not getting sleep and feeling overwhelmed. His response? "You made the choice to have a baby, right? This is part of it. "Such a cold and unsupportive thing to say to someone barely keeping it together. It was so disheartening.” Allyson, NY
She might be taking breaks every hour to hide in a closet and hook an intrusive loud machine to her breasts as it sucks milk from her sore nipples, causing an influx of hormones and plain old human feelings that make her miss her baby. She worries if he is safe. She worries if he is being loved, cared for and kept warm and happy. She feels she abandoned him. But, who is there for her today? No one asks and if they do, she knows they don’t want the real answer, that she is a wreck, that one third or more of her salary is paying for a stranger to watch her child while she returns to a job she isn’t even sure if she wants anymore. She has to now choose between herself and her community and her child. She is in an impossible position. She feels guilty. She feels alone. She smiles and says, I’m so blessed to have a healthy baby. She nods and agrees that she is also lucky her employer took her back, and allows her to pump instead of take a lunch break.
Let’s talk about basic expenses: the average cost of childcare for a 3 month old in CT is $12,973.00. In NY it is $14,939.00. (https://www.bostonglobe.com/2014/07/02/map-the-average-cost-for-child-care-state/LN65rSHXKNjr4eypyxT0WM/story.html)
Some women do not return to working full time because if they have two or more children and do not make enough, they literally are working for daycare. So, she stays home or works from home which in itself has a whole other realm of difficulty. Not working puts her family in a very tight situation. On average nationwide, working families with two parents and two children require an income of $48,778 to meet the family budget. In major urban areas, expenses for this four-person family range from $42,106 in Oklahoma City to $71,913 in Nassau/Suffolk, N.Y. http://www.epi.org/publication/bp224/ If her husband is lucky enough to make an above average salary of $70,000, chances are the family is still close to or living paycheck to paycheck. This means, they count pennies and decide how much money to spend on groceries to ensure it doesn’t mean not paying the electric bill and having no lights. This means saying no when your 5 year old asks for the shoes they like for school and feeling bad, this means cutting coupons. It means riding in your car for weeks with the check engine light on hoping to make it to soccer practice. It means you cannot afford to live in the better school districts, pay for music lessons, buy new clothes regularly or own a car. This means further isolation as you stay in your home all day with the children because you cannot afford to take them out. This means a risk of post partum depression. That risk means cultivating a strained emotional and mental environment for the mom and the children. This means malnutrition when the mom does not have the skills learned to meal prep healthy food on a budget or manage her child's behavior to get dinner cooked. This means no outside help from a house keeper, or babysitter which means a twelve hour day with no breaks. It means going to bed hungry sometimes because you were so busy with the thousand responsibilities of motherhood that you were too tired to eat. The list goes on.
Moms who choose to stay home are challenged in another way. This is another subject for another post, but neither moms who return to work nor those who stay home have it easy, and that’s just straight emotional fact. Economics and social structure play a huge role in this. It is a time of life that requires strategy, navigation and a secure, resourceful network. Otherwise, the mom is literally abandoned and alone in the worst way possible-the invisible way-the way that is never noticed because it is built into structure not physical boundaries. She may look happy, look lucky and look like she is surrounded by people, but she is living a lifestyle that is far from supported and nourished by the network around her.
The good news is; it doesn't have to be this way. There are solutions to this problem. The biggest one being networks. Moms who have or seek out proper support during this time period do not have to experience most of these challenges. The key is having the awareness, courage and support to do that. With the right mindset, harmony can be reached.
Olivia Treubig ©