Monday, April 14, 2008

Working Mom

As I walked across the bridge on the Seine on my way from the train station, I saw my office building and a lump formed in my throat. I wasn't too worried about le Petit, or far less than I had been the two previous weeks; I was confident that he would be okay with the nanny, even if he would not be perfectly happy. No, something different but oddly familiar was bugging me. Inexplicable, irrational and plainly stupid worries assailed me. Will I still remember how to do my job? Will they like me? What will I say when I see so-and-so again? And what will they all think of my new haircut?

Then suddenly I understood what was wrong with me. It felt just like the first day of school. As a teenager, I relished summer vacation when I could escape from my geeky, misfit persona of the pimply girl that no one talked to unless they needed help with their math homework. An exaggeration perhaps, but the worries of "Oh no, what will they think of me this year?" and "What if I'm no longer even all that smart, where does that leave me?" were very real. Fifteen years, a continent and an ocean away they were still tailing me. Mixed with that anxiety was the excitement of a new beginning and the chance to reinvent myself.

So to my surprise the first day back at work felt like Day One of sophomore year in high school at first, but that odd feeling faded quickly, the familiar grind set in, and all went fairly well.

The hardest part of my day was not going out the door this morning, although in retrospect, I felt that as I did I betrayed le Petit just a little. He clearly had no idea where I was going and gleefully waved his arms up and down and smiled at me from his father's arms as I said goodbye. But I knew that I had to be as confident and cheerful as possible as I left, for all three of us.

The hardest part of my day was not winding my way through the Métro, and I was surprised how automatic the commute was after almost a year's break. I instinctively knew where to stand on the platform to grab the best seat and be the first to jump out and head down the hallway to catch the commuter train. Without skipping a beat I remembered to glance up at the television screens and check the train status. A l'approche flashed; my train was arriving, so I hurried my step, swung my purse by the Navigo card reader at the turnstile, pushed my way through, and ran down the escalator to hop inside the train just before the doors closed.

The hardest part of my day was not the awkward greetings when I reached the office. There were a lot of new faces. We've acquired a long-haired Linux geek on the team, as well as (yes!) another woman. (On our almost all-male team it was getting to be ever-so-slightly Lord of the Flies before I left.) I stumbled through the introductions as poorly as I usually do, and then spent most of the day wondering to whom I had forgotten to say hello. But I was pleasantly surprised at how warmly I was welcomed back. People went out of their way to talk to me, ask for news of le Petit and wish me bon courage for the hard transition to working motherhood. And only one person -- a man, of course -- asked me if I was well rested after my break.

The hardest part of my day was not finding a discreet way to pump milk at the office. At three o'clock I slipped away and locked myself in the individual shower and changing room that I know so well from my days of running at lunch. I sat down on the bench, took out my wonderful new Medela Harmony breast pump, and twenty minutes later I was finished. No one noticed I was gone, and the only colleague who mentioned my little backpack cooler asked me if it had le Petit's food in it. "Yes," I answered with a smile, knowing he thought I was carrying strained peas or puréed carrots.

What was hard were the awkward phone conversations with la nounou, when I realized that she was immersed in the day-to-day care of le Petit and I, so far away, had little advice to give. His morning went well. He only cried for five minutes after my husband dropped him off. The afternoon was harder, for by three o'clock he was exhausted and any small thing made him melt into tears, but he characteristically refused to nap. The nanny was clearly upset by this, and at my guess also worried that I would think less of her for being unsuccessful at getting him to sleep. My husband picked le Petit up at five-thirty and he immediately fell asleep in the stroller halfway through the five-minute walk home.

All in all, it was a successful beginning. It will take some time for it all to be familiar, and le Petit will need more time to adjust, that is clear. But I do not regret my decision to go back to work. It feels like the right first steps at the right time.

Stay tuned, for one day is still hardly anything. A suivre...

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