I stared into the mirror in the sixth floor bathroom of the newspaper where I worked. I wiped away tears at the corners of my eyes and willed my chin to stop trembling. I feared the dam would break and I would start sobbing. It was about ten o’clock in the morning and I was alone in the bathroom. Newspapers get moving slowly in the mornings, but co-workers soon would be rushing in and out. I didn’t want to bawl in front of anyone else.
I said, “Caroline, get it together. You can do this.”
I heard the door behind me swing open. I looked up into the mirror and made eye contact with a co-worker, the mother of two young children. She stopped and put an arm around me.
She knew it was my first day back after maternity leave. Like every working mother out there, she knew how I felt.
“It will get better,” she said.
Even though I knew she meant well, I wanted to shout at her: I don’t want it to get better! Does that mean I will love my child less? That our bond will lessen?
“Sneak out of here early today,” she said. “Everyone understands.”
I splashed water on my face and dabbed it dry with a brown paper towel. “Caroline, get it together,” I told myself again. “You can do this.”
I had only been at work an hour, but already I was exhausted from the range of emotions. First, there had been the happiness to be in dry-clean-only clothes, talking to adults about grown-up topics. That was quickly followed by the guilt for the happiness. Then came the sadness of wondering what my little girl was doing, what I was missing. Finally, the irrational fears came. Was she okay? What if the nanny left her on the floor and the dog sat on her?
I took a deep breath and left the bathroom, walking down the hallway to the business news department. I passed a few colleagues who welcomed me back and said they would stop by later to see baby pictures. I sat down at my desk and started reading through my inbox.
When I got home that day, I found my daughter happy and smiling. I gave her a big hug. We had both survived.
The next morning, I got up and went back to work. And again the next morning. And the next morning. And after a while, you know what? It got easier.
Fast-forward two and a half years. One evening, the phone rings. A good friend, who has just gone back to work after the birth of her first child, is on the other end. Her son, she says, was so tired he could hardly smile after the first day with his nanny. He was shell-shocked. She is guilt-ridden and worried and sad.