The Definition Of Bittersweet: Returning To Work After Being Home With My Kids

The Definition Of Bittersweet: Returning To Work After Being Home With My Kids

Amanda Elder

My 2-year-old gripped his hands around my neck, nuzzled his head against my chest, and said, “Stay, Mommy. Stay.”

I held him and said I was going to work. I assured him he would be safe with Maemae and told him I’d be home in the afternoon. We hugged each other tightly until he finally said with reluctant acceptance, “Okay, Mama. Okay.”

I got in the car and drove off, suffering a minor heartbreak, but feeling good about having my hair done and heels on. I was headed out into the world, which is something I’ve wanted to do since I became a mom over five years ago.

The job came like a godsend. I didn’t want to scour the internet looking for work or sell my soul in the process of resume-writing. All I did was ask for the perfect opportunity to come to me. (Yes, I get weirder as I age.) I wanted one that would work well for my family and wouldn’t require all my earnings for childcare. I was open to anything, and without expectation, a teaching position presented itself.

It happened while I was chatting with a new friend about my concerns with sending my 5-year-old to kindergarten. She told me about a private school in town whose philosophy of education aligns with mine and encouraged me to schedule a tour. I blew it off, knowing I couldn’t afford it, but the next day, I bumped into her again, and she told me they were looking for a third-grade teacher. In a series of what seemed to be fateful events, I was offered the position and free full-time tuition for both of my children.

The new school year doesn’t start until August, but I went in to substitute for a day. For the most part, it went smoothly, but I was totally exhausted as I left. I imagined work would revitalize me, but I heard myself taking deep-sigh breaths as I walked to my car. I pulled out of the parking lot and counted the hours I had until my children’s bedtime, but not with the eager anticipation I usually feel.

I missed my kids, and the heels that felt so empowering that morning annoyed me. The outfit I imagined I would even bop over to Trader Joe’s in just wanted to go home and kick itself into a ball on the bedroom floor. I pictured my house in its messy glory, all of us half-naked with no use for time, and although this is the aspect of motherhood that often felt so long and hard, in that moment, I saw it as perfection.

I remembered all the times we cruised Target, eating popcorn, and checking out the clearance sales, and it felt more meaningful than simply killing time. I thought of our deep conversations in the bathroom, and it felt so sweet and intimate that I forgot why I ever felt the need to escape. I recounted all the games of hide-and-seek I played while concealing that I was really putting laundry away, and I kicked myself for ever thinking time away from my children would make my life more balanced.

I came home, and although I couldn’t wait to embrace my 2-year-old, he was overtired and cranky. I imagined going to work would give me a break from the screaming and the demands. I thought my kids would miss me and greet me with love, hugs, and appreciation. But I actually came home to a mood that even ice cream couldn’t improve. I usually have no problem giving fussy kids space and time to work out their mess, but because I was gone all day, I felt less sure of myself. In a single moment, I could sense the guilt that comes with being away and the pressure that’s put on the time of togetherness to be perfect.

Since I was offered the job, I imagined the post I’d write about being so much happier as a working mom, but I didn’t expect these cold feet. I didn’t think the mundane bits of my life that I once wanted to run from would feel like such freedom and privilege. I used to be jealous of the people who celebrated the coming of Fridays and dreaded the passing of Sundays because all my days are the same. But now I see they’re actually the ones jealous of me for that very reason. I used to want a sense of importance in what I do, but now I see alarm clocks and paychecks don’t determine that. Perhaps I’ve been doing the most important thing of all.

Despite incredible joy and gratitude, stay-at-home motherhood also evoked loneliness, frustration, and boredom. But while I’ve been stuck in that struggle, my boys have been growing older, my life has gotten easier, and I’ve found ways to live passionately and creatively. Now that I have the solution I thought I wanted, I’m not so sure I need it. I’m mourning what I’ll be leaving behind, but also sure that’s a natural part of change, which comes regardless. My son is 5, and it’s time for school. This is our next step, and we’re so fortunate to be taking it together.

The truth is, the grass is never greener, and it’s something I need to remember, not only as I look forward, but also back. Sure, I see my new opportunity will come with its own obstacles, but I also know it’s actually in taking the step toward it that I reflect on my stay-at-home life in such sweetly biased ways. It seems our blessings become more clear when they can no longer be taken for granted, and perhaps that’s the balance and perspective I’ve actually been after. Clinging to things as they change is still a grass-is-greener trap, and the way out is to simply let life unfold with an openness to what’s to come.