Over the last few weeks, one friend announced her first pregnancy, one finished work to go on her first maternity leave, and one is counting down towards her first return to work. All three are going through a mix of nervousness and excitement, but unsurprisingly, for the friend who is going back to work, it’s mostly nerves.
It’s a universal fear – even mothers who are really enthusiastic about getting back to the office worry about the transition to childcare, particularly if it’s childminder or crèche rather than family. And I think there’s no quick fix solution for that worry – it’s something we all go through. But that in itself is the reassurance – we all go through it, and in the end, we’re all fine. If I was starting over, that’s what I’d hold on to.
I vividly remember the first time I left my daughter in crèche. I remember feeling slightly sick as I walked out of the baby-room, where she sat happily in her carer’s arms. I remember the manager putting her hand on my arm and asking me if I was OK. I remember bursting into tears. I remember the manager telling me that it was perfectly normal to feel that way. And I’ll always remember being grateful to her – in spite of dealing with sobbing mothers every week, she made me feel it was valid and normal and fine.
I cried that first day, and I never cried again. Maybe it’s a rite of passage. And perhaps it’s unavoidable – not necessarily tears, but a feeling of deep discomfort. And looking back, it made perfect sense. For six and a half months, I’d been the sole carer for my baby during the working week. We had spent our early days hanging out together in the house, getting to know one another and trying to figure it out. Some very lonely days, but we were in it together.
The last part of maternity leave was the fun part; she became more settled and I became more settled. We got braver about going out and meeting people, and became addicted to coffee and cake (me more so than her) It took us a while to get there, but we were a team of two, and we were literally joined at the hip. Then suddenly, just as I had figured it out, it was time to go back to work.
I remember counting down days while trying desperately to avoid spending my last weeks counting down days. I remember doing everything one last time – one last playdate with my maternity leave buddies, one last trip to Dundrum, one last walk on the pier. I remember emailing the crèche to ask what their baby-room routine was, so that I could try to follow it for a few weeks before starting. I’m not sure it made any difference to my daughter, but it gave me a sense of control.
I remember the first day of crèche induction, sitting on the couch in the baby-room, looking around at happy children, unconvinced that mine could be one of them. I remember how lovely the childminder was, and feeling that I could trust her to take good care of my child, but still. It felt wrong. And walking away felt very wrong. That’s when I cried. And after that, it got better. At first, imperceptibly slowly, but soon in greater and greater leaps. I can’t put a time on it, and it’s different for everyone. But I know that one day not long after that first day, I walked away without feeling bad. My mind was already on my first meeting of the day. And my daughter was fine. As she had been since that first day – the only casualty was me.
Six years later, looking back, I don’t think there’s anything I could have done differently – I don’t know that there’s a way to avoid the worry on that first day. But it does help knowing that it’s normal; that dozens of women go through it every day and come out unscathed. Or at least, just a little bruised.
Talking to friends who have been-there-done-that is hugely helpful, as is stepping back and considering that if so many women are going to work and getting through the day without crying into their tea (at least not every cup), then it must doable. And maybe it’s a training ground – the first of many small goodbyes ahead – starting pre-school, starting school, a first sleepover. Each one a source of worry for the parent, but a step of independence for the child. Smiling when we say goodbye, and keeping any tears until we round the corner. And then onwards and upwards to a new stage, or at the very least, a hot cup of tea.