Returning to the daily office grind after the holidays is tough—but it’s nothing compared to the challenges faced by new parents returning from extended leave.
A few months ago, I was into the final six weeks of my maternity leave following the birth of my son Nicholas, and fretting about what felt like my imminent return to the office. Thankfully, a dear friend and fellow mat leaver in arms imparted a grounded reminder: “Sure, you only have a month or so left in your post-baby break. But imagine your boss came up to you out of the blue, pre-Nicholas, and said, ‘Hey chum! You get the next six weeks off work!’” Good point.
I feel extremely fortunate, as a Canadian, to have had all the time with Nicholas that I did. Sure, we all hear the rumours of how, in France, new parents get two years off, a nanny, and a view of the Eiffel tower, but let’s be real: our closest neighbours to the south are only guaranteed 12 unpaid weeks, and our fellow Commonwealthers down in Australia get only 18 weeks paid leave, compared to our 50. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think our parental benefits are what they should be, and I sure wouldn’t turn down a nanny, but we do get our year off (provided you’ve clocked at least 600 hours of insurable employment beforehand) and our jobs are guaranteed, and that in itself is worth a lot.
So, here I am, my year off gone in a poof, and now five weeks back into the office grind. Caring for a baby is a feat unto itself, but add those responsibilities to the expectation that you be productive full-time worker, and you’ve got a whole other set of hurdles. Here’s what new parents have to look forward to upon returning to the office:
Exhaustion: Apparently, at work, you don’t get family nap time—those glorious two afternoon hours when Nicholas and I would hunker down in our respective nests. The frequent exclamations of “gee, you look super tired” don’t make the 4:30 a.m. wake-ups any more fun, and I can only hope that this will sort itself out before I have to replenish my supply of under-eye concealer.
The daycare drop-off/pick-up rigmarole: In my naïve, still-on-mat-leave state, I somehow envisioned my husband and I dropping Nicholas off together in the morning and then, after work, I’d walk from the subway to his daycare and we’d stroll home arm-in-arm. That doesn’t work so well if you’re required to put in eight-hour days at the office and your daycare doesn’t want to keep your kid for more than 10 hours. We’ll get the routine down eventually but, at the moment, it feels like we spend more of our day attempting to get Nicholas and ourselves somewhere and not enough time being the somewhere we were trying to get to.
Pyjamas and KD for a week: I’m sorry, you expect me to do laundry and groceries when? By the time I get myself home, I’m in no mood to make the arduous trek to either the grocery store or my washing machine. This situation is made no better by the fact that Nicholas arrives home covered in the evidence of his day: His sleeves have become maps on which you can trace his daily activities and food intake. Pass the mac ’n’ cheese ’n’ sauvignon, please.
Contagions: Pink eye (twice), adenoviruses, ear infection, the flu (now featuring the runs!), croup. And this is just after five weeks in daycare.
The wrinkle in time: It would appear, on perhaps a rather superficial level, that everything and everyone at my office is exactly the same as when I left it. It’s as though I existed in a different dimension for a fleeting period of time while everyone else just paused momentarily and, when I stepped back out of the elevator, they’re having the same conversation, drinking the same latte, and wearing the same ill-fitting dress pants.
Everyone’s going to be okay: For my husband and I, Nicholas is our little buddy. All his milestones, his quirks, his goofiness, even his gas, are ours to enjoy and (in the case of his gas) endure. So while I certainly hoped Nicholas would love daycare and the wonderful woman who runs it, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to see him be okay without me. Discovering that he now claps, eats popcorn, and free stands for significant periods of time while inspecting the daycare dogs has been bittersweet because, quite simply, I wasn’t there to see him do all that the first time. Equally disconcerting is the realization that I’m also okay without him all day—I still think of him constantly, and I’m itching to see him come check-out time. But there is something novel about being able to go to the bathroom whenever I damn well please, and I’m managing tear-free, so far.
Sometimes, I wondered if that whole year off would just make it all the more difficult to get back into the swing of things, but 52 weeks of anxiously executed nap time, running out of diapers at inopportune moments, and wearing the same jeans for several days in a row have made me, on some level, ready to play grown-up again. Maybe we, as parents, need that year—beyond nurturing our brand new beans, of course—to realize what life really is and what it can be. Maybe it takes a whole year of doing a job that you can never be trained for (and likely involves way more interaction with poo than one is generally accustomed to) to learn just how lucky we are. It’s certainly made stepping off the elevator every day considerably less painful for me.