Skip to content Skip to footer

It’s OK not to be OK

When maternity leave ends, returning to work is an emotional tug-of-war.

Mining for diamonds

As maternity leave draws to a close, I find myself emotionally lost, once again. In so many ways I’m looking forward to the return of my professional self, excitedly daydreaming about super-stardom and frankly, ‘being a somebody’. But on the other hand, it hurts.

We’re all familiar with the autopilot words of independent women, the world over. “I’m so ready to get back to work” and “bring on adult conversations at last”. As for me, I like to think that I’m ready too, and that when I step back into my work shoes it’ll be business as usual. Better still, I work from home, so I wear ‘work slippers’ a lot of the time. But the reality is, whilst of course it’ll be alright, something about it feels wrong. My grit and determination shine brightly, but hidden in the shadows of my ambition, is an undeniable anxiety.

And it’s tinged with sadness too. I have a sense of grief that comes and goes. Like when that hopeful feeling you get on a warm and bright spring morning inevitably transitions into a chilly, less cheerful evening and you wish you’d brought a jacket.

Firstly, I don’t want this time with my baby to end. I’m not done yet. Whilst having kids can be mind-bendingly stressful at times, it’s also the most important, purposeful and imperfectly perfect thing I’ve ever done.

Parenting is like mining for diamonds. On average, you need to move 250 tons of earth to find a single carat of diamond. But when you do, you have something indestructibly beautiful. Raising children, through blood, sweat and tears, you’ll deal with 250 tons of sh*t (literal and metaphorical) but the beauty you unearth is like nothing else. It’s invaluable.

The end of an era

When this ‘baby phase’ is over, I know I’ll miss it for all time. Just as everybody does. It’s why almost every parent in the history of parenting says, “they grow up too fast” and “cherish every moment”. I must hear those exact words at least once a week, from friends, family and perfect strangers alike. So right now, I have an uncontrollable, uncomfortable, uncertainty. No matter how long or short your time on maternity leave may be (mine has been a privilege), it’ll rarely seem like long enough. It’s still over in the blink of an eye. For me, this is the end of an era.

As I write this exact paragraph, I’m sitting with my daughter asleep on my lap. We’re still listening to the peaceful piano music I asked ‘Alexa’ to play in a bid to stop her crying with over-tiredness (and frustratedly pinching my neck skin) and ultimately to ‘go the f*ck to sleep’. You can YouTube that for an amusing narration by Samuel L Jackson – you’re welcome.

For now, all I care about is that this is a moment in time. And it won’t last. And I’m so sad. Screw you tinkly piano music, sounding like the tear-jerking soundtrack to ‘the sad part’ in a movie.

It’ll be over when it’s over

Secondly, I’ll probably never do this again. Whilst we should never say never, my husband and I are unlikely to have any more children. And so, when maternity leave ends this time around, it ends forever. I’ve been silently dreading it for months. Though I cherish this time, I somehow find myself pining for what I still have.

Something I have come to notice, in a phase of life where many friends have children and most of us are not whippersnappers anymore, is the difference between a mother and father’s response to the question, “Do you want any more kids?”. It’s interesting to me that a lot of men respond with an emphatic, “Hell no” of sorts, usually delivered with a sprinkling of bravado and received with macho humour. Women on the other hand, tend to respond with a version of, “Nooooooo. I’m too old” or, “It’d be too hard”, or, “we can’t afford another”, usually delivered with an awkward looking smile and received with knowing nods.

Given that having children is overwhelmingly more strenuous for women, physically and emotionally (in the beginning at least), shouldn’t the responses be the other way around? I can’t decide which parent is playing the game more.

In my humble opinion, there is almost always something in the eyes of a mother answering that dreaded question. There’s still a twinkle, but it’s cheerless. Perhaps that ‘something’ is a physical representation of what I’ve been feeling lately. Like she knows there’s a diamond hidden somewhere, but doesn’t have the inclination to look for it.

“I doubt that we can ever have too many diamonds, but we can definitely run out of energy and time for another 250 ton dig.”

Run for it

Thirdly, whilst I have thankfully rediscovered my sense of self (which can elude you for a while after having a baby), I’m worried that other people’s perceptions of me may have changed. Like ‘buggering off to have a baby’ makes me seem professionally incompetent. I’ve convinced myself that I’m now a stranger to my colleagues. I’ve missed out on so much, how can I not feel left behind? My apprehensive-self is asking, do I still fit in? Whist my insecure-self wonders, did I ever fit in? Can I simply rejoin the career race or have I been lapped?

In the early years of senior school, I was roped into running the 800m race on Sports Day. I don’t enjoy running, never have, but I was reasonably fast and naturally competitive, so you’d better believe I wanted to win. On the day, with my friends and school-house cheering me on from the sidelines, I ran like the wind … until the last 100m. With three runners ahead of me, I sprinted for the finish line and easily took the lead. And then I realised that my friends, my confidence in human form, were together, united in the crowd … and I was out on the track, all alone. I felt exposed and vulnerable. I buckled and deliberately dropped back into 4th place, afraid to take the podium alone. Almost 30 years later, it still bothers me that I allowed myself to lose because of irrational fear.

As tenuous as this may seem, going back to work carries a similar irrationality. I want to win, so badly! But my team, my confidence in human form, is now the family I have created at home. And I find myself back at the start line, feeling exposed and vulnerable once again.

Warenting is a competitive sport

As warents and as humans, we’re often afraid to acknowledge emotional pain. In the same way that some people (often of the older generation, dare I say it) refuse to admit when they’re unwell. “Doctor? Pfft. I don’t need a doctor. I’m fine.” says the person giving off bubonic plague vibes.

The acknowledgement of physical pain isn’t always as sketchy. In some cases, it’s quite the opposite. Put your hand up if you’ve ever encountered one of those delightful people who brags about giving birth ‘naturally’, probably without pain relief, in a bid to out-birth others? To ‘win’ at giving birth. A fine example of how unanimously irritating one-upmanship can be. Since when was the endurance of physical pain a competition? Let’s keep it real – if you have given birth, then your body either (painfully) contracted and stretched in ways that don’t seem humanly possible, was (painfully) torn apart from the inside out, or was (painfully) sliced open and stitched back together again. As my midwife once told me, “there is no easy way to get a baby out”. So, however you did it, ‘fistbump’ to you. You’re double-hard! Nobody can take that away from you.

Dads, you are credited with 0.011% of the workload. Thanks for your help. (Little in-joke there for my husband 😜).

Warenting is a competitive sport. I have known plenty of women throughout the course of my career, who proudly flaunt the brevity of their maternity leave. They wear it like a medal of honour. “Oh, I only took (*insert short amount of time) off work. I couldn’t wait to get back to the grind” and, “I was responding to work emails from my hospital bed, like 10 seconds after giving birth”. If that’s you, then good for you, I get it. But it’s not me.

Emotional dumbbells

Why do we view physical pain as strength, yet emotional pain as weakness? When I look back at the moments in my life which caused greatest emotional difficulty, it’s the hard times that most helped me grow as a person. Since our struggles are such a heavy weight to bear, perhaps we could think of them as emotional dumbbells. The more we lift, the stronger we become … now, who wants two tickets to the gun show? 💪🏻

Why is it that I feel like I have to pretend that I don’t care about leaving my little bundle of chub behind in order to go back to work? Like it’s a weakness to acknowledge that it will be difficult for a little while.

Yes, I want a badass career, but no, I don’t want to leave my kids. Yes, I want professional success in abundance, but no, I don’t want to sacrifice meaningful parenting moments. Yes, I want to stretch my maternity leave for a while longer, but no, I haven’t lost my ambition.

Am I still laser focussed on how to be professionally successful? Yes. Am I still conjuring up the ways in which I will achieve that? Yes. Do I love my babies so much that I’ll miss this time dearly when it’s over? Big fat YES.

“What I want to say, to shout even, is, “I don’t want to be at work instead of being with my baby. But also, I do want to be at work, absolutely bossing it”. It’s a psychological tug-of-war. I want my cake and I damn well want to eat it too.”

It’s OK not to be OK

Some of us are wrongly programmed to feel as though admission of our struggles is an admission of guilt. Like it’s telling people we’re not strong enough; not good enough. And as we all know, there’s only one solution…

I’ve turned it off and back on again, and instead of pretending that I don’t give a hoot about something I find painful at times, I’m acknowledging it. Because the pretence doesn’t make me any stronger. On the contrary, I feel like a fake, and that weakens me. Being true to myself and accepting that this is a perfectly natural emotional challenge, is empowering.

With the acknowledgment of my own challenges, I’m also prepared to tackle the perceptions of others. So here’s to setting my ambition alight and using it to blaze a new trail.

Because as a mother, it is my right to feel this way. And it’ll be OK. Because it’s OK not to be OK.

Leave a comment