I see you, Mama, pacing from room to room, recalling what still needs to be packed for tomorrow. You pause by the sleeping baby’s crib, in awe of his eyelashes and his measured breathing, unsuspecting that tomorrow someone else will be reading him his favorite bunny story and putting him down for nap time.
You try to cook as much as possible to prepare for your upcoming 11-hour, perhaps 12-hour, absences. You bought a crockpot and bookmarked recipes online; you stocked up on groceries as if Armageddon is fast approaching, and now your freezer door won’t close.
You toss the carrots and the broccoli in the steamer basket you’ve been using recently to make baby purées. Starting tomorrow, you might not always have time to purée things. He’ll have to content himself with those store-bought pouches occasionally, even if it means contributing to the global landfill and defying studies about the importance of chewing.
You set out the pumping supplies and the black and cream yellow mechanism on the counter, wondering if the baby will take the bottle since you haven’t “trained” him lately, as everyone recommended.
You pick up one of his framed newborn photographs but can’t decide which of the two is better, so you pack both, staring at the empty space on your nightstand.
And you resent the way everyone was right — how those first few months seem to have vanished. All you have are hundreds of photos on your phone, a testament to the fact that you gave life and nurtured it every hour of the day and night, the legacy of your child’s infancy. To make it seem more real, you type up the things you did on your maternity leave — from your requisite daily walks and story time and playdates, to music in the park and trips to the museum (as if babies care about free jazz and Tyrannosaurus rex). Could you have done more? Should you have done more? The smell of burned carrots and broccoli permeates the room.
You dash into the kitchen and chuck the burned vegetables.
The daycare will be fine — you keep telling yourself. You were thorough in your research. The sight of other babies lined up by the wall in high chairs, caregivers huddling over them with plastic spoons; the smell of warm milk, antibacterial spray and winter coats lingering in the hallway, all of it so abstract and distant back then. What will they do if he refuses to eat? If he looks for you, sobbing with increasing crescendo?
You wonder if it was the right decision to go back to work. But things cost money. You wanted a better home, away from the downstairs neighbor who blasts his television at all hours and leaves his barking dog home alone all day long. You wanted to see family more often across the country.
You wanted to wear dresses and heels, sometimes, just sometimes, and an occasional break. You wanted your work experience and passion to matter, shuddering at the fact that only 0.0025% of mothers find a job after an extended absence. More like 73%, but it seems equally daunting.
Some of your friends sell leggings and makeup on the internet part-time, but you always sucked at sales. You just wish there was an alternative to the average 47 hour-long American workweek and a two-hour commute.
As the carrots from the new batch roll down on the floor, you come undone. You rush to your sleeping baby in his fuzzy footed pajamas and hold him close, afraid of squeezing too tightly.
But tomorrow, you’ll just take it a day at a time. You’ll have mornings and nights and weekends.
Tomorrow, I’ll see you on that train, Mama. I promise to love the photo of your kid on your phone if you show me. I promise not to pry if you get teary-eyed at your desk but to hand you a tissue and offer to bring you lunch (since you probably won’t take lunch breaks). We’re all cheering you on, Mama, from the 4:30 p.m. conference room meetings, from the bleachers at the school games, from our preschoolers’ midday recitals. No matter where you are, you are doing your best, Mama. Remember, we’re all in this together.