Want the truth? Here's what it's really like returning to work after having a baby

Want the truth? Here’s what it’s really like returning to work after having a baby

In my mind, I was ready to go back to work. Apprehensive, maybe, but ready. I had psyched myself up for it. I had planned for every eventuality...

If Pip was stricken with a dreaded daycare lurgy – which Ellie had warned me about so frequently, I fully expected Pip to fall victim to whooping cough before the week was out – I had a back-up plan (her name was Mum). Nina had promised to pick Pippa up, but if she couldn’t, I’d arranged with Meredith, my new boss, to leave early. It wouldn’t happen often, I’d promised. I could count on Nina. I’d found the fastest route to the station from our house and Pip and I had even practised it. I was ready. I could do this. I knew exactly how each morning would start. I rehearsed it over and over in my mind during those endless breastfeeds that ate up entire afternoons. The ones that lasted from the end of lunch to the start of dinner. I would get up around 6.30, early enough to get shit done but not so early that my eyes were in danger of falling out of their sockets. Sun streaming through the shutters, I would nurse Pip as I made a pot of coffee, then breastfeed her as I read the news on my phone, getting a head start on the day. Yes, all at the same time. This is how I would do things from now on: all at the same time. Ha! Younger, childless colleagues would have nothing on me. I used my time purposefully because I must. No faffing about looking at pictures of overhyped milkshakes on Instagram for me. Nope. I could feed a child with my very own body and stay on top of current affairs. The important thing about being a working mother, I knew, was to behave as if you were not, in fact, a working mother. So yes, you could go to work and have a career and contribute to society, but you should never, ever forget that your number-one priority is your child, and that as well as leaning in and kicking arse and smashing glass ceilings, you also needed to ensure your child never ate sulphates (note to self: Google sulphates) or was in danger of being monolingual. Yes, you could go back to work, but if you did, you needed to really step it up at home so nobody thought you were a Bad Mother. I needed to get over feeling confused and underprepared for this motherhood caper. If I was going to go back to work, I needed to step it up like never before. So I needed to ensure that Pippa only ate locally sourced, organic food. I needed to make sure she was breastfed for… forever? That seemed to be the amount of time experts agreed on these days. I needed to make sure she got adequate tummy time and language play and outdoor activity. In order to be a Working Mum, I would need to devote all the time I wasn’t at work entirely to Pip’s wellbeing. No problem at all. When Pip had her final suck, she’d peacefully drift away from me and go… somewhere (lounge? Watch Baby Einstein? Down to the shops for a loaf of bread?), and I’d be free to have my shower. Now that I was a working mother, the pressure would be on to look like I had not given birth in the last six months or been up several times in the night, even though both were true. I would have a long, hot shower during which I would shampoo and condition with the expensive stuff (leaving the conditioner in for the recommended three minutes, to allow full moisture lock), cleanse and exfoliate, shave legs and underarms and wash bits with pistachio-honey body balm. I would feel like dessert warmed up. Exit shower feeling ready to start the day, not to mention gorgeous. Apply toner and moisturiser to face and let them sink in for recommended minute. Apply primer. Rub thick globs of moisturiser over scaly legs until they appear silky and luminous, like Pip’s (youth: always wasted on the young). Twist wet hair into loose curls, dab ends with argan oil and spray with the proper curling spray stuff that I would definitely find before I had to go back to work. Undies and bra on (both clean!), silk dressing gown over the top. Check on Pip. Still fine. Loves Baby Einstein. Clearly becoming a baby genius. Dot foundation over face and blend with sponge. Do the contouring thingy with blush and bronzer and choose from a selection of eyeshadow shades. Settle on ‘nude bronze’, which sounds like something they keep at the British Museum but is also perfect for your eyes. Pencil in eyebrows (men are allowed to have their natural, wayward, homeless-cat-fur eyebrows but women have to wax theirs off and then pencil them back in so they look normal) and flick mascara over lashes. One swipe of lipstick (Red Riding or Pink About It? Neither – today feels like a Peach Blanket Bingo day) and a few minutes of a cool blow dryer and I’m done. Almost. Pick up Pip and tear her away from her beloved Baby Einstein DVD. She lets out a small cry but somehow, in this new fantasy, I can assuage her tears with nothing more than a soothing ‘shh’ and a series of gentle pats to the head. Cuddling her close, I feel her crying slow down and then stop. Looking up at me, she smiles. Good girl. Take off her pastel pink pyjamas and nappy and put her in her daycare outfit – cheap (for obvious reasons), brightly coloured (so I can spot her in the photos they email out each day), ready to be spat on, torn and covered in spilled milk and stewed vegetables (see above). She will giggle as I smooth cream over her nappy rash and coo to her, remembering the importance of speaking to your child NO MATTER HOW YOUNG THEY ARE. How else will Pip become a High Court judge or even a judge on MasterChef? Nina will call out to me from downstairs, ‘Want some breakfast? I’m putting toast on.’ Downstairs we’ll go, Pip and I, to a plate of hot buttered toast and another coffee. When I’m finished, I’ll hand the baby to Nina and head upstairs to don the outfit that I ironed the previous night and have laid out in readiness, shoes and all. Then it’s out the door. I’ll strap Pip into her Bugaboo and she’ll happily flick through the Paddington board book I’ve hinged to the side. How I loved Paddington as a little girl! How thrilled I am that Pip inherited that same love! We truly belong to each other. Evolution is at work, right before my eyes. Amazing. I am so fulfilled. We walk to the train station and find our platform. Strangers will make way for us and even offer to help us down the stairs. Thank you, thank you, that would be lovely. The train pulls up and on we get. I sit and whip my phone out once more, eager to see what has been tweeted in the fifty-six minutes since I last checked. Pip is still ensconced in Paddington, page three of four. Town Hall is here before we know it and off we get, walking briskly through the crowds to the brand-new, progressive learning-style daycare I managed to get Pip into. An eager young teacher will take Pip from me and engage her in some French language play as I make her cot for the day (these people can teach infants French but cannot be expected to pull a fitted sheet over a cot mattress?) and finally, give her a firm squeeze and a pash on the cheek before I dash out the door, leaving a smiling Pip gurgling as the daycare teacher sings, ‘Je peux chanter un arc-en-ciel’. A quick pit stop at the cafe downstairs for another coffee (because even in my fantasy life, I am tired) and I’m almost there. I’ll swipe my card over the security gate, send a beaming smile to the doorman and bingo, I’m in. A productive eight hours will whiz right by and then it’s time to head home, where I will make dinner, bathe Pip and put her to bed, and then settle down in front of the TV, totally satisfied with how the day went. Except that’s not exactly how it went. The first day back was fine. Everything (basically) went according to my extreme fantasy plan. OK, so Pip threw up on my first outfit and I had to change into my back-up dress, but hey, I had a back-up dress. I was ready. And yes, she cried on the train instead of becoming engrossed in the adventures of a charming, marmalade-obsessed bear, but that’s OK, right? Babies cry. It’s sort of their thing. It was the day after that when it got hard. And the day after that, it got even harder. And so on. It was a grotesque bell curve – the days went on and things got exponentially worse. Every day I would think, ‘Once I get X done, things will be fine,’ but even if X got done, there’d still be Y. And Z. And if we’re being really honest, I usually never got around to doing X in the first place, so… When we woke, it wasn’t for a restful twenty minutes of catching up on the overnight news and a quick boob session. It was more like armed battle, where my arms were intent on holding my phone and scrolling through headlines and Pip’s were determined to push mine away at any cost. She was focussed, and she wanted me to be, too. For the first few days, I attempted a sort of breastfeeding yoga thing and twisted my body so Pip couldn’t see the offending phone and I could read in peace. Well, if you call peace lying with one leg at half-mast, a baby attached to your left nipple and your right arm stretched comically away from said baby so you can read ‘10 Reasons Lucy Turnbull is Ready for a Makeover’ (after which I would definitely get cracking on the New York Times profile of Edward Snowden). But no matter what position I pretzelled myself into, Pip found me out. She was like the world’s tiniest, most adorable MI5 agent. So in the end I sat there, staring at the blank wall in front of me, trying to remember the coming day’s to-do list and reminding myself to please put some photos up v. soon so I can at least stare at my baby girl and try to feel something other than sheer boredom as I feed her. Post-feed, it would be time for my coffee. None of this ‘feed yourself before you feed the baby’ nonsense. Pip would never allow such a thing. The second she rose, she was ready for food, ravenous for it. So I waited until she had finished with my boobs and then I headed to the kitchen. Once I got there, I played an exhausting game of ‘Pick Up Put Down’, which involved me putting Pippa down for a matter of microseconds as I deftly filled the kettle with water and switched it on, and then picking her up again because, during that time, she’d become so distressed that I had dared put her down that she’d started to cry with the insistence of a sorority girl fresh outta lip gloss. Then, when I needed my hands again, it was time for Put Down. Pick Up. Put Down. You get the drift. Getting myself ready – having a shower, applying makeup, putting on clothes – was another game entirely. It was called Fast Fast Fast. The first morning, I had followed the fantasy plan and plopped Pippa in front of a Wiggles DVD (turns out we don’t even own any Baby Einstein) and plopped myself into the shower. Ten minutes later, I could hardly believe my luck – it had worked! I’d shaved, I’d washed, I’d shampooed and conditioned! Hurrah! Then I turned off the water and realised it had been masking Pippa’s devastated cries the whole time. So I took her into the shower with me – like, all in. It took more time this way, yes, and it wasn’t convenient for me, but it was easier than listening to Pip crying for ten minutes. This was essentially parenthood: figuring out a way to get through the day that will least upset your child. After I did a thirty-second wash-conditiontheendsonly-cleanseface routine, I dried us both and slapped on some moisturiser, and, if I remembered, a dab of eye cream for which I’d paid about the same amount as a week of daycare, in some distant past I’m not even sure really existed now. Then the real fun began. Nina made me toast, like in the fantasy plan, but instead of eating it hot, as wisps of steam rose from it and the butter formed tiny scattered pools of yellow, I ate it cold, the fat of the butter having congealed in a greasy mess on the plate. By the time I got Pip and myself downstairs, Nina could have made and served a three-course breakfast. But I wouldn’t know, because she was gone before I even saw her, most days. Clothes on (mine clean, Pip’s only very, very lightly stained) and hair still wet (both), I strapped Pip into the pram as I sang ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ to calm her down. How entirely inconvenient it is to have a child who hates their pram. At seven kilos already, Pip needs to love the pram. For the love of my sciatica, Pip needs to love the pram. But she doesn’t, so I mime an elaborate version of ‘Wheels’ every morning in a valiant attempt to soothe her, desperately hoping that one day she’ll magically become so entranced by my off-key rendition that she’ll forget all about the straps tightening over her chest and legs, start giggling and then, god willing, fall asleep. Because Pip doesn’t like trains, either. Every time the doors close and open, she cries. Every time there’s an announcement over the loudspeaker, she cries. Every time a person sits down next to me, she cries. So I get her out of the pram, sit her on my lap and cuddle her into calmness. And then I remember, oh Lord give me strength, now I have to strap her back in. We make it to daycare. It’s not the shiny bilingual baby’s paradise from my dreams. Apparently you have to put your baby’s name down at that one the minute you get your first period. The one daycare in our area that did have a free spot was housed in a somewhat rundown workers’ cottage that I truly hoped was not overly diseased with asbestos. Faded paintings of gardens and sunshine marked the walls, and while every intention was unquestionably good, it was sorely in need of some sort of renovation rescue reality show situation. The teacher, whose name I could never quite remember (Janine? Jane? Jean? Jen?), comes towards us, arms outstretched. She is lovely, Jen (?), she really is. But Pip can’t stand her. She burrows her head into my shoulder when Jen approaches, and makes a whimpering sound. I then begin a round of ‘Let’s Have a Look,’ where I take Pip around the room to show her all the toys and books. ‘Ooh look, Pip, a dinosaur! Roar!’ I say, holding a soft pink toy up and shaking it in my daughter’s face. ‘Oh, look, they have Dr Seuss! Oh Pip, you’ll love that! So fun!’ I say, wondering if any other parent expects their six-month-old child to understand a single thing that they are saying. I have to believe it, because how else will I be able to go to work unless I think Pip has understood me when I say, ‘I love you and I will be back very soon’? My hair still wet, my shoulder now covered in a slimy epaulette of Pip’s saliva, I make a break for it. On the way out, another mother catches me. ‘Hello, Georgia!’ she says, holding little Harry (Henry?) on her hip and carrying his water bottle. Shit. I forgot Pip’s water bottle. Again. Now my child will have to use the ‘spare’ bottle, and essentially risk cryptosporidium/Ebola. ‘Hi . . . mate,’ I said, blanking on the woman’s name. ‘Call me George. How are you?’ I sing-song as I attempt to sidle past her towards the gate. She steps in front of me. ‘Great! Just wondering, are you around for a playdate on the weekend? I thought it might be nice for the kids to get to know each other outside the daycare environment.’ NOPE. Bad Mum. ‘Oh . . . this weekend?’ I ask, feigning disappointment, as if there might be another, more convenient weekend for us to get together. ‘Gosh, we’re not, actually.’ OK, the ‘gosh’ might have been too much. ‘Off to, uh . . . Palm Beach.’ We are not, and never will be, off to Palm Beach, but Henry’s (?) mother does not need to know that. All she needs to know is that I suddenly have a convenient, weekend-long excuse not to spend time with her. ‘How lovely!’ she smiles. She looks at Harrison (pretty sure it’s Harrison) and tickles him under the chin. ‘Do you want to go to the beach like lucky Pippa? Do you? Pippa’s mum is a clever clogs, isn’t she?’ I wince and smile at the same time, like I am sucking a lemon or watching an acoustic performance of ‘Everybody Hurts’ at an open mic night. The only beach Pip will be visiting this weekend is Laguna, when we watch The Real Housewives of Orange County as I nurse her. ‘Maybe some other time,’ I say, attempting to move again. I am now ten minutes late for work. I start working on excuses in my head. ‘I’ll give you my number! Then we can work out a better day.’ She is smiling so much I am afraid her mouth will just burst right open, spilling teeth and tongue everywhere. ‘OK, sure . . . mine is 04—’ ‘Wait! I’ve got a better idea. I’ll friend you on Facebook. And then I can add you to the group.’ ‘The group?’ ‘It’s a group just for the daycare parents. So we can organise meetings and discuss what’s going on here. I mean, it all seems fine so far, but there is a new staff member coming on board in a few weeks, so . . .’ ‘There is?’ ‘Yes, didn’t you get the newsletter?’ I shake my head. ‘Look, I’m really running quite late, I do have to run. But thanks, er . . .’ ‘Jen,’ she says. ‘I’ll friend you. Then you won’t forget!’ I run for the gate, laughing in that big, loud, pretend way I do when something is not actually funny but I need to save face. I sprint for the office. Sweat patches start to form under my arms. If Jen is Harrison’s mum, who the hell is Pip’s teacher? When I finally make it to the office, the line for coffee is twenty deep. I check my phone. 9.20. Fuck. I swipe my card and run for the elevator. By the time I have made it to my desk (9.23), I am what the kids would call a ‘hot mess’, only I am literally hot, not metaphorically. Sweating profusely, I switch on my computer and breathe. Time to start the day. Extract from Crazy, Busy, Guilty by Lauren Sams, out now | Photo Jade Warne