So I went back to work. After four and a half months home with my baby, I returned to the classroom to teach Kindergarten. Despite all my fears about leaving her and taking on yet another challenge, I did it.
To quote Tina Fey: “You go through big chunks of time where you’re just thinking, ‘This is impossible—oh, this is impossible.’ And then you just keep going and keep going, and you sort of do the impossible.”
For a good month of my maternity leave, I really dwelled on the fact that I was returning to work. I built it up in my head and just kept thinking, “Um, I can’t get anything done now and I’m home all day. How the heck am I supposed to get it all done when I work 40+ hours a week?” Completely valid thoughts. I’m still not sure how we made it happen. Either way, I was convinced that it would be impossible, that Cora would grow to resent me, and that there was no way I’d be able to make pumping work while trying to wrangle 18 kids in a classroom. I thought I’d never sleep because I’d be up all night doing the tasks I didn’t do all day (can anyone here tell that I’m an over-thinker?).
It was really hard. I was exhausted when I got home. But there was no time to think about how tired I was because when I got home, I got to see my baby and she could care less if I wanted a nap. And while it was hard, it was not impossible. I have to admit, I think part of me really liked being back to work. I’ve always said that the name of this blog was about raising a grounded family at home, but it’s also about the truth of motherhood–that sense of feeling grounded at home and a bit confined; that selfless time spent catering to your kid at home (especially when said kid is born in the dead of a winter that gave us something like 8 blizzards). It felt so good to get out of the house and have a chunk of my day doing something for me.
It was certainly a rollercoaster. While part of me feels like I never even left the classroom, I know it took me some time to readjust to the demands of teaching.
The first two weeks weren’t so bad. The workload felt light, and the kids were glad to have me back. Week three is when sh*t hit the fan and the honeymoon period abruptly ended. I had to really reassert myself as the leader of the classroom who might have different expectations than my substitute for the year. Meanwhile, “end-of-year” requirements were flying at me left and right, many of which I had to do once I was home because I was pumping during all my free time at work. So there was a two-week period that I was very stressed and very exhausted, and I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t make it after all.
Finally, we reached the home stretch. The final two weeks. Parties, shows, lunches galore. Throw in field day and I’d say planning was relatively light. The kids were bonkers over the impending summer break, but it took me only a hot second to remember that this is normal and that I see the same thing year after year. Sliding into the final week, I felt really accomplished and even motivated to start planning for next year. I was able to close out this year and pack it up (literally), knowing the room was a little disjointed and imperfect but satisfied in what I accomplished and how the kids grew. As Tina Fey said, it just sort of happened. After all that preemptive stress, I’d made it through the impossible. I was finally free to see my baby all day again. That face…
In some ways, going back in September might be harder because it’s daunting to think I have 10 full months of teaching ahead of me. Plus there’s that baby at home. But now I know I can do it, and I think that when the time comes in August to prep again for school, I can not only remember how fulfilled I felt by returning to work, but how doing so is ultimately best for Cora’s well-being. I hope that I can continue to relax expectations of myself and to learn to enjoy my downtime. I’ve never been good at that. I plan to put a bit less on my list these next few months and spend more time watching Cora see summer for the first time. You can imagine the bathing suit lineup I have prepped for her. And hats…
Some things that helped me:
Building and relying on a support system
I wouldn’t have made it through these six weeks without the people around me. I know people do it every day on their own, and I truly appreciate and admire them for it. What you do every day is the impossible, and you are all angels! Zach was my number one supporter when I was stressed, and he did the little things that just didn’t fit into my schedule anymore (like dropping packages at the post-office on his way to work or picking up diapers on his way home when we both realized we forgot over the weekend). On any of these occasions I could’ve strapped Cora up and headed out once I got home from work, and there were times when I did, but he was always so willing to help.
When I left for work each day, I also knew that Cora was in great hands with either the babysitter or my mother-in-law. After the first few days, during which I checked my phone CONSTANTLY throughout the day, I knew I could put my faith in both of them and that everything would be fine.
I still check my phone constantly.
Easy meals and planning them out ahead of time
I hadn’t been to Trader Joe’s since I lived in New York until the week before I returned to work. Well, Trader Joe’s, you are my hero.
Being able to stash your fridge and freezer with easy dinners that are fairly healthy is everything when working full-time. I’ll be honest, I don’t really LOVE cooking unless I have nothing else to do and all the time in the world to clean up the mess that I inevitably make. When I have time to cook something delicious from a new cookbook, well that’s amazing, but also incredibly rare. So on weeknights after work while entertaining my baby and washing all the bottles and pump parts and going for walks and maybe finishing report cards, no, I don’t really feel like cooking a gourmet meal.
So I made sure that by Sunday night, our meals were planned out and ready to go. Bonus points for the weeks where all the veggies were precut and in containers and my lunches prepacked.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have no idea what I ate for meals at work during the last two weeks of school on the days a lunch wasn’t provided to celebrate some sort of event.
The art of distraction
Leaving my house on my first day back to work was nearly impossible. How was I supposed to say goodbye to the little girl who made me a mom and who I spent literally all my time with for the past four and a half months? How? My husband basically had to kick me out the door and strap me into the driver’s seat.
But I made it there and I made it through the first day. AND I went back the next day. And the day after that. Leaving was the worst, but once I got in my car I made sure that I had a podcast or some favorite music waiting for me. Sometimes, more so on the way home in the afternoons, I just needed silence. My needs depended on the day and my mood, but I always made sure to choose something that would fill my cup in that moment. It wouldn’t have been fair me to show up to my Kindergarteners sad and mopey from leaving my baby, so I tried my best to move on from those feelings once I got in the car. Similarly, it would have been unfair for me to return to Cora stressed and frazzled from dealing with 18 six-year-olds all day. So, my point is, do what YOU need to do to get yourself in the right frame of mind for your day.
Relaxing and staying present when pumping
OK, so seriously. The worst part about going back to work (other than leaving Cora) was pumping. It was so time-consuming and horribly inconvenient. There was always something else I “should be doing.” For the first week, I tried bringing a clipboard with a ton of paperwork down to my little pumping station. But with all the other supplies I needed to keep organized and small personal tasks I had to do (text the sitter, eat a small snack to sustain me, etc.), I wouldn’t really accomplish any “work” and then felt guilty and overwhelmed, which of course meant I’d get no milk from pumping.
A friend told me that she used that time to relax. So I tried that. It really helped to just simply sit, watch a video of Cora, and breath for a few quiet moments of my day. Funny enough, I started producing double the milk. The work got done at other times, and I had to be okay with the idea that “done” is better than “perfect.” My job at that particular time was to produce food for my child.
Being fully present when I was home
Just as I had to be present while I was pumping, I had to the same when I was home with Cora. I may have had about a million things to do for work, but once I was home I couldn’t let that get in the way of spending time with my daughter. I would wash my pump parts and any bottles used from the day, and then we would go for a walk, or play, or read books. Occasionally, she took one final afternoon nap that would give me a much needed 30 minute break from a chaotic day.
I had to abolish guilt and “need to” from my vocabulary (again, still working on that). Anything that had to get done would get done. Usually that was after bedtime or when I first got to school.
Accepting my new routine
I think what was most difficult was finding myself in a brand new routine during this new season of my life. Gone are the days when I can come home after a challenging day to eat a bunch of chips and salsa and take a nap while watching Fixer Upper reruns. I may be able to eat some chips, but we’re likely out of salsa and I’m probably folding laundry at the same time while singing “Baby Beluga.” Again.
I haven’t watched Fixer Upper in months. Please forgive me, Joanna.
I really have worked hard in the past six weeks to be more efficient with my time because it is more precious. I feel better about not being able to be at work as much, or work at home as much, on the days when I really hone in and I do what I need to do without letting myself get too distracted. I feel better about having to leave my daughter everyday when I know that while I’m home with her, I’m giving her my undivided attention. There might not be as much “me time,” and that’s okay.
Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The joy that comes from spending your time watching your baby grow and learn is insurmountable. I will take the chaos that comes along with that life any day. I think waking everyday, and knowing and accepting that today will probably be chaotic and unpredictable, and that my to-do list is likely to only be partially completed, is very helpful. No one likes to be blindsided. While I was for a moment, I know now what to expect from my days, like watching Cora drool all over my husband…
How did you manage the transition back to work? Was it easier or harder than you imagined? What helped? I’ll need all the tips again come September.