My daughter was just four months old when I went back to work full time. Although I had moments of mommy guilt when I left her with loved ones while I was on maternity leave, intense guilt didn't strike me until my return to work rapidly approached. I looked at my little baby, so dependent on me, and worried that her world would be turned upside down.
One hot morning in the late Summer, a few days before I returned to work, my daughter spent some time at the daycare center where I had her enrolled. I felt uneasy about leaving her with a woman who was a stranger to me, even though she had been an employee of the reputable center for years and seemed warm and loving toward the four infants, all under six months, in her care. I told her caregiver about her likes, dislikes, and her feeding schedule. Before leaving the building, I peered into the infant room to check on her. I clearly remember the moment — she was dressed in a pale blue and white onesie with a pale blue ruffle around the waist and looked content while moving side to side in a swing. My heart ached, knowing I had no choice but to leave her in someone else's care. I filled with uneasiness about leaving my child — so innocent and dependent on me.
In the year since I first left her, my daughter has grown tremendously. I have partially come to terms with leaving her while I commute to and from and spend time at work, trying to think of the many positive things that have come out of the situation. As she is now a toddler, I know that she is not completely dependent on me, so I feel less guilty about spending much of the work week apart from her. That being said, my self-condemnation hasn't disappeared — rather it has changed.
My mommy guilt symptoms mimic the tide of the ocean throughout the workday. My daughter wakes up around the same time our alarm clocks blare, wresting us from our peaceful slumber. I have a limited amount of time to get ready each morning while keeping her busy and watching her explore her surroundings. Sometimes I find the energy to wash and blow dry my hair the night before, but usually I am too tired from the day's events to gather up the energy for this endeavor, leaving me with two options. I can wash my hair and let it air dry so I can spend more time with my daughter, but then I end up feeling unpresentable for work. Or I can wash my hair and blow dry it while my daughter plays with my husband or plays while we both get ready. If I choose the latter, my room becomes a sea of hairbrushes and toilet paper, but at least I'm spending time with her. If I choose the former, I end up feeling badly that I'm not spending time with her since we will be apart most of the day (now I understand why some women cut their hair short — it's one less thing to maintain)!
I try to get a little quality time in with my daughter each morning before I ship her off to daycare. This consists of us eating breakfast together while she watches yesterday's episode of Sesame Street or Thomas the Train on the DVR. This "quality time" together helps me power through the morning. It's fresh in my mind because the Count from Sesame Street in his Transylvanian accent singing the "number of the day" or the Thomas and Friends theme song, "They're two, they're four, they're six, they're eight..." are stuck on my brain.
When we arrive at daycare, my daughter is always happy. I am one lucky mama given that the center has become a second home for her and that she enjoys spending time there with her caregivers and fellow classmates. Otherwise, I'm sure my guilt would be much more intense. My time traveling to work is "me" time, spent reading, perusing social media, texting with friends, or writing. I try really hard to enjoy this time to myself since it's nonnegotiable — I have a 3-hour-a-day commute, so I might as well make the most of it. On the flip side, I feel so guilty that I spend these precious hours commuting when I wish I could be spending them playing, laughing, and enjoying my daughter's company. I should have listened to my mother when back in college she tried to convince me to become a teacher. I would have a lot more time with my daughter.
A pang of jealously always hits me when I see a mom and child together. It's just as intense when I see a mom with a small baby — even though my baby is now a toddler — because I have missed so many precious moments with my daughter that I cannot get back. I try to stay away from Facebook and the images of acquaintances and friends and their kids spending time together during the workweek. While I am happy for them and try not to compare myself to them, such images bring my buried guilt bubbling up onto the surface since it makes me feel as though I am not there for my child as often as they are there for their children.
I try to rationalize the long day apart from my daughter with thoughts like, "I am building my career," "I'm earning money to support my family," "I will be a role model for my daughter," and "my daughter benefits from time spent with her friends and caregivers at daycare." The more I tell myself these things, the more I believe it.
One recent Summer day, I took in the sunshine and fresh air on the rooftop garden of a cafe near my office while immersed in a book I was reading and enjoying a delicious lunch. I took in this glorious moment — a peaceful break from work — but in the back of my mind, I'm truly thinking that I miss my daughter and should be with her instead.
I have come to the realization that no situation is perfect and without guilt. I bet if I didn't work I would have a different set of pressures weighing on my mind. I know that there is no point in dwelling on the should have's and could have's. I have begun to zap those guilty thoughts away when they begin to creep into my mind. I will reflect on the all of the positives in my life and know that my daughter is healthy, happy, and loved — that's what really matters. Raising a child is not easy, but there is no benefit to letting guilt weigh you down.