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One year later: What it was like going back to work after mat leave

Melanie Ng | posted Monday, Apr 17th, 2017

When I went on maternity leave, I set my out-of-office email at work to say that I’d be returning February 2017. At the time, those 12 months felt like an eternity. I figured once I got a handle on the whole baby thing, I’d have plenty of extra time to do all the things I’d been meaning to get around to for years—like finally organize the junk drawer and clean my home computer. Little did I know how far down “organizing” would fall on my list of priorities. I was far busier—and also having way more fun—than I ever imagined. The way my son, Josh, smiled at me after a nap, the strolls I’d take with other moms—all of it really—made me feel anxious and a little sad about returning to work.

One month left of mat leave
Somehow here I am, with only a month left. It’s really starting to hit me: This world I know and love is about to change, whether I’m ready or not. My baby is no longer a baby. He’s a walking, climbing, talking little boy, and it makes leaving him excruciatingly hard.

I’ve caught myself tearing up over the smallest things—when he giggles, when he comes in for a hug, even when he’s just sitting by himself playing with toys. This is easily the most emotional I’ve ever been, and the intensity has caught me completely off-guard. I know the clock is ticking and, even though we’ll have time together at the end of each day, it won’t be the same. I will no longer be his “person,” and that kills me.

One week until I return
Everything is an emotional trigger. There’s even a certain diaper commercial that makes me cry. Every. Single. Time. I don’t consider myself an emotional person, but I can’t seem to control it—at least when it comes to my little guy. I keeping thinking about all the “last times”: the last time I get to say “good morning” to his smiling face, the last time I get to chase him around the house after lunch, the last time we get to meet up with other moms for playdates.

Going back to a job I love is the only thing that’s holding me together. I know how lucky I am. I’ve plugged myself back in, touching base with my boss and answering work emails. I can’t wait to have adult talk again and be able to think about more than just naps and feeding schedules. Part of me is excited to have a piece of my old self back, but the other part is feeling overwhelmingly guilty.

Our nanny started this week. (Between my work hours and my husband’s travel for work, having a live-out nanny really is our only choice. But, thankfully, we found a wonderful woman who seemed to bond instantly with Josh during the interview.) I wanted a full week to show her around, walk her through Josh’s routine and, of course, go through my very detailed instructions.

Once we both feel comfortable, I decide it’s time to walk away and leave them together for a few hours. It sounds like a great idea—after all, I need new work clothes. But as I head for the door, I hear them upstairs in his nursery, giggling. It hits me: Soon, his love will be spread among more people. My share might not feel like enough. As I close the door behind me, tears stream down my face. At the mall, it feels like part of me is missing. I see mom after mom with their babies. I remember how I used to think “It’ll be nice when I don’t have to navigate through stores with this cumbersome stroller,” but all I want to do is look down and see my little sidekick.

First day back at work
Everyone told me that this would be the toughest day. They were right, but no one warned me of how gut-wrenching the night before would be. Just as I’m about to put Josh down in his crib, I realize that, for the first time in a year, I won’t be there when he wakes up. I squeeze him and whisper in his ear, “Mommy won’t be here in the morning, but it’ll be OK. We’ll be OK.” (I think I need to say those words out loud more for me than for him.) As expected, my sleep is horrible. I can’t stop thinking about how everything is about to change. I question if I am truly ready for it.  

It’s probably a good thing my work hours mean that I’m at the office well before most people’s alarm clocks go off. Leaving at 4 a.m., I don’t have to say goodbye to Josh this morning, which I know would be impossible. Doing my makeup and hair—a daily ritual that I was more than happy to part with this past year— feels like I am putting on a disguise. Walking back into the newsroom is overwhelming because, even though everything is so familiar, it feels foreign. I forget passwords and need reminders about how to use certain programs. I question myself a lot. Will I be able to pick up where I left off or will my year set me back in my career?

I spend a lot of time making the rounds, getting hugs and answering questions about how I am feeling. With a smile, I give the generic “It’s good to be back, but it’s hard leaving Josh” answer to most people. But when someone really looks me in the eye and asks how I am honestly feeling, that’s when I well up and speak the truth. My cry count for the day is about five. I thought I’d have one good one and be done with it, but it’s hard being away from Josh. My mind wanders often as I think about what he might be doing. Is he OK? Is he wondering where I am? I find solace in other moms at work. As my day comes to an end, one co-worker says to me, “You did it, Mama. It only gets easier from here.” I hope she’s right.

The end of my first week back
It’s Friday, and I survived. That has to be a good sign. I can honestly say that I am feeling more confident each day—confident in my ability to get back into “work mode” and that my sweet little boy will be fine without me.

I’m not going to lie: I’m tired. There is no downtime in my job—which is actually a blessing—but going from my full-time job to my other job of parenting an energetic one-year-old is exhausting. The juggle is well worth it but totally tiring. I wasn’t quite prepared for that part, and I’m in awe of all the other parents who make it look so easy. It’s great being back: collaborating with creative minds, learning new things, feeling that incredible adrenaline rush of doing live television. But the best part of my day, hands down, is coming home and hearing the sweetest word: mama.

Melanie Ng is an anchor and a reporter for Breakfast Television.

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