Last week was my parent-teacher conference at my daughter’s preschool. I didn’t have any concerns heading in to the meeting and was pleased to learn my 3 1/2 year old seems to be on track, even starting to sound out words in beginner books and writing her first name. All great news. But then the teacher made a comment that hit me like a thunderbolt. “Everyday at school she says ‘I miss mommy.’” “Everyday?” I said, trying not to let my eyes well up in her office. “Still? Even though it’s been a year since I went back to work?” “Yes,” the teacher continued, “I usually let her be sad for awhile and she eventually gets past it and is ready to play. This is normal for kids who have been at home with mom or dad until they go back to work. It’s always a big adjustment for them…”
Two weeks earlier, my eldest was in “Creative Camp” for fall break. She was introduced to some really cool art and tinkering projects, including taking apart a rotary phone and typing on an old typewriter. She seemed happy when I picked her up that first day and eager to show me her typewritten page. What did she choose to type? It was an empty page, except for three words: “I miss mom.”
During this tumultuous first year back in the paid workforce, I have wondered many times whether it would have been better to work all along and not have those 5 concentrated years for my children to get used to mommy always being there, the freedom of new and different activities each day, and being in the comfort of home as opposed to school or daycare. My friends whose children have been in outside care since infancy don’t seem to have the same adjustment issues of their kids demonstrably missing them so intensely. Are my kids just somehow less adaptable and less secure than their peers? Will this dramatic point of separation be a source of trauma that my kids take with them as scars into adulthood?
In the first few months of transition, we endured some episodes of intense grief from my youngest where she would scream and wail for me until she fell asleep in exhaustion – sometimes at 9am. As a child of the 1970’s, with a stay-at-home mom, I never had to go through the insecurity and panic of mom leaving on a frequent basis. Such consistent, caregiver stability was a gift my parents were able to give my brother and I in those days. By forcing my children to experience long periods of separation and the care of multiple caregiver arrangements in their formative years, am I robbing them of some of the familial security that provides them with a sense of confidence and independence?
I try to tell myself that I am reading too far in to it. They will be more adaptable because of it and besides, everyone says kids are resilient. Maybe that’s what you are thinking as you read this. And maybe I am looking at it too hard. But when my daughter still cries and whines when I leave in the morning – one year after my going back to work – and her teacher tells me she has to give her a little bit of time each morning to be sad and miss mama, it’s very hard not to wonder.
What could I have done differently? If I had worked all along and never taken a career break, then that would have been the only “normal” they ever knew. Or maybe the transition could have been less dramatic if I had been able to ease back in with a part time arrangement. That was my first choice after all, it just didn’t materialize. In retrospect, I recognize that it wasn’t just my personal preference to work part time, it is what my gut was telling me was best for our family. And so I will always wonder whether if I’d had more flexible work options to choose from, the transition back would have been smoother. I will never know. What I do know is that of the many things I’ve learned and experienced during my first year back, two simple truths have been reaffirmed: 1) Flexible work options are in the best interests of families. 2) Always trust your gut.
Do I have regrets? No, I don’t regret my decision to take this job and go back to paid work full time. I enjoy my job and am doing meaningful work that I hope will ultimately benefit my kids and many other families. What I do regret is that I came up short in landing what my gut told me would be the ideal flexible work arrangement to make this transition as smooth and reassuring as possible for my family. Unfortunately, until such flexibility becomes more accessible and common for working parents, many of us will live with these regrets.