A few years ago, I was scheduled to go on a work trip for a few days. My boys were little, though they weren’t infants. And I was no longer breastfeeding, pumping, and feeling the postpartum hormones and oxytocin that stuck around for so long. Though I’d only be gone for three or four days, I still had this horrible, horrible pit in my stomach. “I shouldn’t be going,” I told myself. “But why?” I thought for a while, then realized I was telling myself the following: “I’m abandoning my children by going on this trip to do something for myself professionally.”
I explained to my husband how awful I was feeling about going – told him specifically about the fact that I felt like I was abandoning my family by going away. Though I’m sure he put it more kindly than this, his basic reaction was, “You’re kidding, right? Who do they ask for as soon as they wake up in the morning? Who do they beg to wipe their butts? You’re MOMMY, and you will still be Mommy in three days when you get back. THIS is not ‘abandonment’.”
He absolutely set me straight. And I go back to that conversation every time the “abandonment” thought crosses my head.
Being the word-loving lawyer I am, I saw the need to poke at this heavy, laden, triggering term a bit. According to a few notable dictionaries, the verb “to abandon” means to:
- “Withdraw protection, support, or help, e.g., he abandoned his family”;
- “Cease to support or look after (someone); to desert”; or
- “Leave a place, thing, or person permanently or for a long time.”
I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that many of us have probably felt abandoned at some point in life. Perhaps by a close relative who passed away. Or by a family member who withdrew love and support. Or by a boyfriend who walked out.
Let’s be clear. None of those examples applies here. That’s NOT what’s going on when you leave home to go to the office. Or when you get on a plane for a week for work.
In finding a responsible caretaker for your child, you have done the opposite of withdrawing protection, support, or help for your baby. You’ll be back home soon, to love, nurture, and look after him. You haven’t deserted anyone. And you aren’t leaving permanently, or even for a long time. (Yes, time is relative, but trust me when I say that our little ones who grew inside our bodies do not forget us.)
Are you committed to your baby’s survival and ability to thrive on this planet? Do you cuddle with her when she needs love and attention? Do you ask your kids how their days went? Have you found supportive communities for them to belong to? I’m not defining these activities as the threshold for parenting. I’m just saying they’re pretty strong evidence “abandonment” is not what’s going on here.
Let’s also spend a moment teasing out what probably is going on here. On the one hand, there’s guilt talking. Anytime you hear that word “should,” guilt is probably whispering its refrain into your ear. See this post for my thoughts on a more productive way to address working mom guilt. And, on the other hand, you’re probably missing your baby. Missing is not a sign of abandonment, mama. It’s a normal, human feeling. One we have to cope with throughout life.
Back to the dictionary. The verb “to miss” means to:
- “Feel or notice the absence of”; and
- “Perceive with regret the absence or loss of (something or someone)”.
Now THIS – missing – is what’s happening when you head off to work and wish you were hugging your baby. Or when you board that plan and have an urge to grab any other child for a cuddle. You notice his absence. You regret you’re not there at that exact moment.
Acknowledge that feeling. Hold it. Breathe into it. And it will, over time, move on.
I leave you with the reminder from Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, that so-called “alloparents” have been critical to child rearing for pretty much all of human history. These mamas of old were not abandoning their kiddos when they left them back at camp to go gather food, any more than you are abandoning yours when you head to the office.
At the end of the day, when you arrive at daycare, relieve your nanny, or return home from your work trip, the reunion will be the best thing that happened to you that day. They will scream “MOMMY!” (at least when they can finally talk, and before you become too cool for them). And you will be reminded of how wonderful it is that these precious beings are in your life.
Absence does, indeed, make the heart grow fonder.
If you need more support heading back to work after maternity leave, please join me and other inspiring new working mamas in the next session of Mindful Return.