This is what I tell my nine month-old in the mornings now, when I’m giving him a breast milk addendum to his blueberry oatmeal and nuggets of scrambled egg. He’s easily distractible and pops off repeatedly to stare at the cat, or his dad, or the window, or the magic of his own hand. And now I ask him, “Are you sure you’re done? Because the girls are going to work.”
Yes, after three months of meandering routines and on-call milk from the tap, “the girls” and I are back at work, caught in the whirlwind of teaching and prepping and pumping and attending an absurd amount of meetings. And Michael is in full-swing stay-at-home-dad mode.
Part of me feels relieved. Summer comes with weighty expectations. You’re supposed to do fun! exciting! things that other people will find interesting, people who inevitably ask, after regaling you with tales about ice climbing in the Himalayas or spooning with dolphins in the Caribbean: “So, what did you do this summer?”
I hung out. I played with my baby and my nephews. Once, I thought briefly about going camping and had ambitious plans to take a road trip to a wedding, but neither of those relatively minor excursions panned out. I picked some berries. And I ignored the Internet for an extended period of time because the endless pictures of other people doing their fun! exciting! things was beginning to make me feel dissatisfied with my slow-going, home-bodied, berry-picking life.
Aside from unreasonably lofty expectations, summer also wreaks massive mayhem to any sense of routine, which, before I had a baby, was refreshing. Now? Not so much. As August dwindled, both Michael and I began to anticipate the return of some structure and consistency to our lives. Wide-open days become unwieldy after awhile.
So when the deserted campus was once again overrun with (mostly) eager students and colleagues, I felt and welcomed the electricity in the air that comes with a new school year. It felt good to inhabit my office, to be alone and have a task to anchor my mind. It felt good to lose myself in the unending possibilities of syllabi tweaking. It felt good to work.
But underneath this honeybee enthusiasm – deep in the sticky hive of my mother-mind – I felt something else: the steady drone of guilt.
Ugh. Guilt. I know it’s an inevitable part of mothering. This was recently illustrated to me a couple months ago when I swung Julian up to my shoulder a little too harshly, making him veer awkwardly and start to cry – obviously not anything serious, but I felt bad nonetheless and said as much. My mom, rather than reassuring me that this was no big deal, launched into a rather terrifying story about my brother almost drowning as a young boy because of (what she perceived to be) her negligence. She wasn’t chiding me; my expression of guilt had simply triggered her own reservoir of the stuff. I could palpably feel our mother-guilt pooling and undulating as we looked into each other’s haunted eyes, and I thought to myself, “This is motherhood. I will now feel guilty, about something or another, FOREVER.”
Some of the time, I am fine. Some of the time I tunnel headlong into whatever I’m doing at work and manage to stay focused. But then my milk lets down, and I think about my baby, about the reality of our physical separation. I check my phone to figure out whether I need to pump (in which case I spend the next 15-20 minutes marooned at my desk, lamely scrolling through Facebook with my left pinky) or whether Michael has time to bring Julian by for a nursing session.
This should be the ideal scenario, of course. I am lucky to have a job with the space, flexibility, and proximity to accommodate nursing, and I feel a surge of giddy joy whenever I see Michael and Julian appear in my office door. As soon as I know they’re en route, I watch the clock in anticipation and listen for Michael’s familiar plodding tread on the stairs.
But then, after Julian eats and crawls all over my office, pulling books off the shelves and eating paper from the recycling bin, they leave. They leave and the office feels empty, eerily quiet. I find myself wondering about how long Julian’s nap will be, and if he’ll wake up crying or not. I wonder if he misses me, if he thinks about the fact that I’m not there.
Tuesday was the hardest day this past week. On Tuesday, the wonderful flexibility of my job backfired. Michael brought Julian by for some milk, and as I watched my baby gleefully tear apart old copies of my maternity leave paperwork, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be there. Tuesday is a day I don’t teach, so I use the time to prep classes, grade, meet with students, write – all necessary parts of my job. But as soon as the thought presented itself – the thought that it was selfish of me to be in my office when it was possible to be at home – I couldn’t unthink it. I gave into the guilt, went home, and spent a frustrating and futile afternoon trying to work from there.
I’m sick of the should voice. The voice that tells me I should be working when I’m with my baby and that I should be with my baby when I’m working. I don’t know where this voice is coming from, but I can’t give it what it wants.
Of course — just processing out loud here — maybe this isn’t all about guilt. Maybe this is about me being territorial. Maybe part of me is threatened because Michael and Julian are honestly completely fine when I’m not there. Or maybe – I’m feeling an inner ding ding ding! as I write this – maybe I’m feeling guilty not simply because I’m missing out on time with my baby, but because I actually enjoy being at work.
On Tuesday, truth be told, I wanted to work. I wanted to stay in my office and power through and get some stuff done, but I felt compelled to be home, simply because that was in the realm of possibility, and I seem to have absorbed the cultural expectation that babies should be with their mothers 100% of the time. Given the choice between being with her baby and being at work, a good mother should want to be at home right? But I’m the bad mother who wanted to be at work.
So that’s where we are, the girls and I, stuck on the “damned if you do or don’t” merry-go-round. When I’m working, I feel like a bad mother – especially if I’m enjoying myself. And if I come home leaving a lengthy “TO DO” list smoldering on my desk, I feel like a bad professor.
We’re too hard on ourselves, we mothers. Remember that Time cover? “Are You Mom Enough?” Those editors knew exactly which button to push with that headline, exactly which wound to prod. I never feel like I’m mom enough. But who does? Who could possibly meet all the demands, all the steaming piles of should we heap on ourselves? I know it’s bogus, I do, but still, I keep shoveling.
And so, at the dawn of this new week, this new school year, I would like to raise a toast, to all you pump-weary, guilt-haunted, stretched-beyond-the-limit mamas. Despite what you may feel, you’re more than mom enough — say it with me now! — and the girls and I salute you.
[SIDE NOTE: I referred specifically to “mother-guilt” here, because I’m honestly not sure if men feel this same pressure to be constantly present to their children. Is the guilt a dad thing, too…?]