I've gone back to work after almost four years at home with my kids. I got the job a while ago and have been anxiously waiting to start, unsure of how I'd feel. I'm not sure I've been at it long enough to make any grand declarations, but I do feel like I've gained clarity on some of the anxiety-inducing feelings I had about this new transition. In the process, I'm relearning some important life lessons:
1. Kids really are resilient. My kids have been through some big changes before, but I forgot. We are still working on a new routine, but they are adjusting. Of course, they test the waters with tears when they see me dressed and ready (in something other than running shorts) when they wake up. But by the time breakfast is served, they are all smiles. The hugs I get walking through the door at 5:15 are as big and as fun as the hugs I got at 3, outside their classroom doors.
2. Whatever it is you're thinking of trying, but hesitating over because [insert all your excuses here]... take the chance. Try it. Even if it's not what you thought, you will learn something. I wasn't really looking for a job, but this opportunity presented itself. I could've said no because it's difficult to find a babysitter. I could've said no because I'm almost 40 and have never done this before. I could've said no because I really enjoyed being physically around for my kids. But I said yes. If I stay for three more weeks or three more years, I'll never wonder what might have happened if only I'd tried it. Always take the chance.
3. Overcomplicating your feelings only causes more stress. I think about my kids all day, and that's OK. It doesn't mean taking the job was a bad decision. It doesn't mean I'm a bad mom for leaving them. It doesn't mean I should try to come up with a plan for how to stop thinking about them. I think it just means I miss them. I'm not sure if this is exactly equivalent to acknowledging a feeling so you can let it go, but I think it's the same idea.
4. Today should always be the priority. While going back to work is certainly not as dramatic as someone dying or getting sick, it's helped me remember to take life one day at a time. We're always in a rush. To do more, be better, get to the next thing. I don't know everything I need to know yet to do my job really well. I worry that tomorrow I'll fall behind, or that when my kids finish school next week, things will fall apart. That may happen. But today is here and, therefore, most important.
5. I don't think working will make me a better or worse mom. Parenting is a daily struggle, no matter what. You always wonder if the grass is greener, but I hope I can remember that how I mother makes me a good mom -- not whether or not I work.
6. The quality of your character and how you treat people has so much more influence on the way your kids (and others) see you than the tasks you complete. I'm not sure my kids understand "I write articles" any more than "I did the laundry." Maybe when they are older they will. But for now, I'm not sure I'm teaching them any grand lesson about contribution or responsibility. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself.
7. Let go of the guilt. The working mom guilt, the stay-at-home mom guilt, the "I locked myself in the bathroom" guilt, the "I shouldn't have yelled" guilt, the "I 'cooked' cereal for dinner" guilt. It's taken me nearly 40 years, but I'm beginning to feel like guilt is just a twisted way for us to think we'll feel better. We think if we punish ourselves for our mistakes, it will somehow make things better. It doesn't. It's useless. Will I feel guilty when I miss a school function because of work? Absolutely. But feeling guilty will do nothing to make my kids feel like they are a priority. So let go of the guilt and try again.
Despite all of this unsolicited wisdom, I don't feel like I've made some cosmic shift from one kind of mom to another, the way I thought I would.
It's helped me to see that the role of mother isn't weighted differently depending on circumstances. Having four kids doesn't make you more of a mother than having one. Working at home doesn't make you more of a mother than working in an office. Presence doesn't always equal the amount of hours you are present.
We share the same fears and hopes. We love with the same fierceness. Our mothering is deeply personal, but motherhood is reassuringly and earnestly universal.