Monday, September 26, 2011
Last Monday I set my alarm for 6:30 a.m., got up, showered, dressed, hastily ate breakfast, and took a bus, a train, another train, and another bus. My badge still opened the front door. My computer password, however, had long disappeared from my memory. It turns out that changing it via the VPN in a postpartum haze a month after you've given birth is a good way to ensure you'll forget it. The african violet on my desk was still holding on, barely, a near victim of my colleagues' collective well-intentioned but overzealous watering. People seemed happy to see me. For my part, I was happy to be back. I don't know yet if I'll ever love my job, and there are days I certainly don't like it very much, but last week I absolutely loved being back. I had more energy than I've had in years, and even tales of system bugs and incomplete functional requirements couldn't dampen my uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Irrational exuberance, perhaps? Still, I can't wait to dive back into the project head first. I'll find out soon enough if I'm standing at the shallow end of the pool. I'm just ready, I guess, to turn my thoughts to something other than my children, adorable as they are. To work on a project with other adults. To leave the apartment without pushing a stroller in front of me. Everyone's been asking me if it is hard to be back. I don't know if this is a cultural thing, and I'm curious, do people in the US ask this as well? Or is it just blindly obvious that after the short maternity leave most US mothers have, going back is quite likely to be a challenge? Honestly, I don't know what to think. No, I tell them with a genuine smile, it isn't hard. Nine months at home was just right for me, personally, and I'm happy to be doing something else now. It helps that le Petit is happy to be at school and Mademoiselle seems content with the nanny. She cries a bit when my husband leaves in the morning, but she's far from the wailing wreck her brother was at first when I went back to work when he was the same age. When I pick her up in the afternoon, she's busily, happily playing. (This is usually when my questioner starts to tune out. Yes, I am one of those mothers, who goes on and on about their kids long after everyone's stopped listening.) In my self-analysis, I end up feeling a bit guilty for not feeling guilty, if you know what I mean. But I fundamentally feel that every mother has a different amount of time at home with a baby that feels right to her and it can be long or short. The baby is happiest, the entire family is happiest, when Mom gets to choose; I'm exceptionally lucky to have a country, a culture, a career, and a personal economic situation that allows me this choice. I wonder, why does no one ask a dad -- a dad who, even in France, has to go back to work after only two weeks of leave -- if it is hard to go back to work after the birth of a child? How different is it for men, really? I'm not sure how much of the biological programming argument I'm ready to buy. If you're an involved parent, working and parenting at the same time is hard. It is most often a necessity, too, of course. For many of us, it is also somewhat liberating. I prudishly left one detail of my transition back to work until the very end of the week: mentioning to my boss that I was pumping breast milk so he wouldn't be surprised when I disappeared briefly from my desk twice a day. I told him as matter-of-factly as I could, but I was embarrassed, even though I remembered vaguely that it wasn't so hard last time around. I must have been channeling my inner lactivist back then or something, for I clearly remember proudly explaining that I was pumping to any colleague who happened to ask about the mysterious soft-sided cooler I toted around with me. I also wrote a long blog post detailing how I'd worked out the logistics. My boss' response: "Yeah, of course, I figured you would." And he went on to tell me that another woman in the office did the same for her baby, after first asking him how I'd organized things, so my inadvertent, indiscreet publicity had paid off. This may sound not like much, but I assure you that in France you have to be both exceptionally motivated and impervious to raised eyebrows to dare pump breast milk at work. At the same time attitudes will only change as more women just go ahead and dare, and anyway, as a foreigner, people expect me to be eccentric. I don't know whether it was my daring or my eccentricity or the mere fact that I figured out that the shower/dressing room near the exercise area could serve as a discreet pumping location, but my lactivism helped gain one to the cause. My boss and I went on to talk about how in general it is easier for women in France to combine motherhood and career than it is in many other countries. I expressed for the umpteenth time that week how thankful I was for the time I got to take off, and how happy I was to be back. "Attitudes have changed. Now long maternity leaves are accepted, are even the norm," my boss observed, "But... it isn't easy to have to make due without [Parisienne] for a year. Not easy at all." French bosses are notoriously parsimonious with praise, so that statement totally made my Friday afternoon. Then I had to run. My family was waiting for me. I skipped off to the bus, took a train and then another train, then another bus, picked up Mademoiselle and took her home -- le Petit was later delivered by conspiratorial grandparents -- and met my husband, who poured me a celebratory glass of wine. It's not bad being a working girl again.