Recently, I’ve had this heavy feeling of doom inside like I’m approaching my own gallows.
On the plus side, I’m not actually awaiting execution.
On the down side, this feeling exists because, come Monday, I’m going back to work.
My blissful maternity leave from teaching is drawing to its close, and I have that wistful feeling that I assume normal children get when camp is over. (As for me, I was generally rejoicing at the thought of leaving camp since I spent much of the summer penning tear-strewn, histrionic letters to my parents that said things like, “Only 28 more meals to survive till I get to come home!”)
As I changed a shit-filled diaper this morning (the first of six in a row; note to breastfeeding mothers: eating FiberOne is a VERY bad idea), I found myself growing homesick for my maternity leave. Every small gesture was tinged with a certain heart-hurting sadness. “This is the last time Eliana and I will drop off Lila at nursery school.” Because Husband will get to take over that job as I have to be at my own school by 8. “This is one of the last times I’ll be able to nurse Eliana in the morning.” Because come Monday, I’ll have to pump like a homeless degenerate in a school bathroom, praying that none of my sixth graders walk in and wonder what I’m doing. “This is the last time Eliana and I will have our morning talks—without anyone else around, no Lila, no Husband.” Because from now on, the only private time Eliana and I will have is on the way to pick up Lila at her school after my school day is done.
With each smile on Eliana’s face today—the smiles I worked so hard to get in my intensive Smile Training Sessions—I couldn’t help but feel sad. Because come Monday, someone else will get these smiles, not me. Someone else will get to hear her first squeals—the ones that I’ve started to hear at the tip of her tongue when Lila plays with her. Come Monday, Eliana’s fingers will instinctively curl tightly around someone else’s finger, not mine. There will be smiles that I’ll miss and weird, goat-like cries that I know how to interpret as Eliana’s mother: cries that someone else will have to learn. Who will sing “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” to her in a snooty French accent? Can anyone else’s performance of “Open Shut Them” rival my own Tony-worthy display? Her early morning shitstorm—her babysitter at my school’s daycare will have to discover that Eliana poops endlessly at 10:45 AM, often necessitating three consecutive outfit changes. (In fairness, I’m not actually lamenting missing this particular motherhood experience.)
With my own return to school, it’s like the sun is setting on Eliana’s newborn-ness, and my return to work makes it feel like a door is closing—like this is the end of Eliana’s sweet, small, baby phase. Like I didn’t take advantage of it enough. Like I should have spent more time staring at her, drinking in her newborn-ness while I had the chance. Like I should have marveled more and been aggravated less. Like I should have relished holding her when she wouldn’t nap in her crib instead of resenting her for not napping in her crib. Now, the patience that had been solely reserved for my own children will have to be distributed among them and my one hundred students.
There may not be enough to go around.
But now, here I am, and it’s too late for should’ves and could’ves. Because on Monday morning, I will be standing in front of a room of sixth graders who only know me as “the teacher”—not a mother who misses her baby. I will spend the day teaching other people’s children, not my own. I will think of Eliana at those moments when my breasts feel like they’re filled with pins-and-needles—a biological side dish to my own heaping portion of maternal guilt. Eliana will be upstairs with a babysitter, starting the first day of her own independent life: one that I will often know very little about.
At ten weeks, she’ll already be flying solo.
At thirty-one-years-old, I’m still not good at doing it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I’ll get over it. When Lila went to daycare at 12 weeks old, I cried when I dropped her off that first day in November. Husband and I held hands as he walked me to the school I was teaching at then, his hand squeezing mine as I quickly tried to brush away tears as my students passed me on the street. Then, day by day, slowly but surely, it got easier. My time with Lila outside of school hours became more special because we weren’t together all day; our daily reunions were hilariously dramatic and euphoric. Even now, each day when I pick Lila up from daycare, she runs towards me with a huge smile on her face, often throwing her arms around my shoulders, burying her face in my neck before pulling away and confirming, “You have a snack for me?”
So I know that Eliana will be happy, just as Lila’s happy. Neither child will lie awake at night wondering, “Why don’t I get to stay home with Mommy every day?” because neither one will have ever even known that in some far-off world from ours, that’s a reality for some kids.
Instead, it will be me lying awake at night wondering, “What did they do today?” Because there’s never really a way to know for sure. The best intel I’ll get from Eliana is some spit bubbles and a shart. And Lila, in her three-year-old world, will continue to tell stories that border on lunacy. (“Once, yesterday, this boy hit me and we went bonk but then I rode a giraffe at the zoo. I know ballet!”) With two unreliable witnesses, I will only be left to imagine what their lives are like.
What if I miss everything?
It’s that question that makes the thought of going back to work nearly impossible.
It’s 3:45 PM, and I’m picking Lila up from school with Eliana. It is one of our last days together on my maternity leave. Eliana is screeching in the back seat because, horrid parent that I am, I decided to have a Diet Coke at lunch, which apparently is the equivalent to lacing my breastmilk with LSD, given Eliana’s horrified, banshee-like, bad-trip screams. The music in my car is blasting—partially to calm Eliana, but mostly to blare out her screaming, which is not-so-slowly starting to drive me insane.
We pull up into our parking spot as Eliana continues to wail. I pop open the trunk of my SUV to pull out the Graco Snap-n-Go stroller, which was obviously designed by some masochistic asshole who wanted to make otherwise-intelligent people struggle with its deceptively simply “PUSH” red button. I squeeze the button at least five times before the damn thing unfolds, and with the stroller base set up on the ground, I’m ready to open the back door to get out my Bucket o’ Banshee. I take a deep breath, steeling myself against Eliana’s screaming.
That’s when I hear it: SMASH! Followed by white bubbly foam dripping all over the pavement.
Nothing says “Degenerate Mommy” like two beer bottles rolling out of the trunk of an SUV, breaking in the nursery school parking lot.
I might as well call Child Services on myself.
Foamy beer runs down the asphalt, and the entire parking space stinks like a college kegger. There are shards of bright green glass everywhere. Eliana continues to wail in the car.
Frantically, I look around—thankfully, no one is in the parking lot but me. Desperately, I search in the trunk for something—anything—to wipe up the spill and save my car tires from getting sliced by the glass. I don’t like what I see, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.
With a diaper, I gingerly pick up about a thousand pieces of broken beer bottle glass. With another diaper, I try to mop up the spill.
With things cleaned up enough, the parking space still stinking of beer, I get Eliana out of the car and put her car seat in the stroller base. She’s stopped crying—she looks at me thoughtfully, her baffled face suggesting her thoughts: “Wow, Mommy’s really lost her shit this time.”
Instead of being defeated, I toss back my hair, hold my head up high, and walk into the school to get Lila.
And it’s moments like these—these are the ones that make me think that maybe going back to work won’t be so bad after all.