The end of maternity leave

When I was about 36 weeks pregnant, one of my seniors introduced me to a female employee within our company. Seeing I had no one in my male centric team to hold DMCs about pregnancy and procreation, I was grateful for a chance to tap into another woman’s maternity leave experience under the same T&Cs.

‘I am planning to take 8 months off.’ I told her, shifting my 25 kilos of extra weight inside a glass cubicle that was more used to business strategies than motherly meetings. ‘My question is, will that be…enough?’

One of my mom friends had said 6 months was too early to return to work. 12 months was too late – I had done the maths, filled in the excel spreadsheets, poured over our finances – and knew this for certain. Perhaps a middle ground of 8 months would work? I really didn’t know. I had no experience about the correlation of a baby’s development with the twelve months of maternity leave allowed in the UK. But I knew that it was around 8-9 months when my salary would cease to exist. Whittled down to statutory pay (roughly £600+ a month), this was then going to become a grand total of £0.00.

She was honest with me. ‘I took a year off with both my kids and loved it. I know you stop getting paid after 9 months. But 9 months is also when motherhood finally starts to make some sense. It’s a tad bit calmer, you feel a bit more in control. Plus you will never get to spend this exclusive time with your child again.’ I knew, even then, that she was right.

Most women around me made it work – they took a year off. When I said I planned to return after 8 months, they seemed surprised which in turn surprised me. My husband and I both contribute towards our household income. I thought the answer was obvious – we could not afford to live on just one salary.

My HR lady advised me to play it wisely. ‘Dont sell yourself short’, she said. ‘Tell your manager you will take a year off. You can return early should you have to but most women tend to drag it out as long as they can.’

And she was right. I ended up stretching my maternity leave from 8 to 10 months. After that? Our finances started looking tighter than pre baby jeans on my postpartum thighs. It was time to go back to work.

On the surface, it might seem that I am selfish. That I am so used to ASOS and Costa that I couldn’t afford to give my baby a whole year of exclusive time. You only need to take a look at daycare costs to realize this could not be further from the truth. At £55 per day, daycare will now be our biggest expense, ahead of rent. Let that sink in for a bit.

As a woman in the STEM club, I would like to think my income is pretty decent. But factor in daycare, and I feel like my salary disappears in a poof of taxes, debits and nursery fees. I automatically move over to the next train of thought: so what about ALL the other moms who earn half of what I do? How do THEY go back to work?

Well, they don’t. The cost of childcare is so high in the UK that it makes more financial sense for many moms to stay at home. While many choose to do so willingly, the rest do so at the expense of their careers. There is only one other option – operating in loss mode where your outgoing costs are greater than your income. One of my friends, a junior doctor whose husband is also in medicine, tells me she is in the negative after her salary and daycare costs level out. She is essentially paying someone to be able to work. For some moms,  it’s the only way to remain in the workforce.

I am a strong believer that a woman is entitled to return to work without the pressures of judgement. Whether she needs the financial benefits or wants the intellectual stimulation is beside the point. In the bigger scheme of things, she is equally likely to live in a perpetual state of anguish no matter what she chooses. Whether you are wiping tears after nursery drop off or losing your mind over the relentless cycle of SAHM life, mum guilt will find you, settle on your shoulders, and crush you. It’s almost like part of the job – there is no escaping it.

As though timed by fate, my current bedtime read ‘Why French children don’t throw food’ has emerged as the ultimate comfort food for a much-needed end-of-maternity-leave carb binge. I feel some knots in my heart loosen as I turn the pages. According to the author, French moms raise markedly better behaved children and one of the reasons seems to be a more forgiving attitude towards their parenting skills. French moms do not agonize over the common issues that mom guilt thrives upon. They unapologetically wean off their babies onto formula, and return to work without feeling burdened by guilt, confident that the state-run crèche (daycare) will take good care of their children. They believe that self-reliance and the ability to enjoy one’s own company is a crucial lesson for a child. In my mind, this aligns very well with the new routine that my son and I will soon be embarking upon. His independence will help him, my salary will help us all.

Mom guilt comes in various shapes and forms but juggling a career alongside it is perhaps one of the hardest ones to contend with. It’s a constant mental battle to justify working mom life and it feels like I have spent all of my maternity leave doing just that. For every mom guilt ridden thought that rears its ugly head, I have sets of counter replies that I go down like a well-rehearsed script.

I will be a part-time parent. Slipping from full-time mom to ‘part-time’ mom feels like a selfish, self-imposed demotion. But I have decided to stop dwelling on what I cannot be for my son and focus on what I have been. Over the last ten months, I have lived exclusively for him, even when I could have had a little break in Dhaka. I did not do this to be a martyr or to gain a badge of honour. I did it because I wanted to, for my own blood. I would have loved to take the whole twelve months off (and a bit more) but I recognize that eventually we will have to establish our own routines.

Daycare is not good for children. I wish I had family around to raise Aryan. I really do. But I have stopped focusing on that as well. And you know what helped? Visiting the nurseries. Meeting the amazing people who have built careers around taking care of little children (one damn difficult, underpaid job despite the crippling childcare costs). I walked away from each visit, and I made many, feeling stronger and more confident. They allayed my concerns and reassured me that my bm obsessed baby will yield to other means of being fed. Or that I need not wallow in worry – he will be happily playing, feeding, sleeping and getting help reaching his milestones while I was away at work. Daycare is the only village I have in my immigrant life and I am grateful for it.

My child will always have one bug or the other. This seems to be an inevitable side effect of daycare. But you know what ELSE my child will be exposed to? He will grow up around other adults and kids while learning how to share, play and communicate with babies his age. He will be able to expand his world and build a relationship of trust with his parents. Mum and Dad might drop him off at daycare to go to work but they will eventually return to get him. Always.

My baby is too small. Of course he is. He will always be, no matter how old he gets. Ten months is a sensitive age. And yet it’s a lot older than 2 months which is when I first dropped Aryan off at a friend’s place to attend my driving lessons. THAT was hard, very hard. He was still a newborn and needed to be fed every few hours. Ten month old Aryan eats solids, can play by himself, can sit and stand up, and busy himself with distractions. Small children are adaptable – I believe in him. Also, ten months is a LOT more than what a lot of women get with their babies. Two American mom bloggers I follow each spent only 13 weeks of maternity leave before returning to work. That seems to be the norm for most of America. Compared to that, 10 months feels like a blessing.

I will miss his firsts. This one hurts. A lot. Having spent all our waking moments together, I was able to cherish the first time he turned, the first time he sat up, the first time he realised Dad’s console and the TV had some magic connection. I will now have to learn about such milestones – especially his first steps – from a picture message on my phone. It hurts, it does, but I know both my husband and I will do everything in our power to celebrate each and every new milestone in our own sweet time.

It will be a very difficult work-life balance. There is no denying that all of my waking hours will be a blur of moving from one job to the next. I will probably be a jittery employee after so much time off work while also feeling like a poorer parent to my child. I know coming home exhausted will make mothering difficult but staying home all day drove me mad too and I often felt like I couldn’t be mentally there for my child 100%. I know I will cherish our limited time more than ever and make the most of it.

Parenting is hard work, whether one chooses to stay at home or return to the working world. Navigating emotional and financial challenges while juggling a full-time job will require perseverance. I have a proven track record of perseverance but this is new territory and truth be told, I am nervous. To feel a bit more in control, I have gotten in touch with my team and discussed how my first week will look like. Knowing what projects I will be getting into gives me an idea of the landscape at work and how I can fit in. I won’t hide the facts that I am also fantasizing about sitting at my desk with a steaming cup of Costa and going to the loo without worrying about my little wingman. Motherhood is a strange one – one moment you are begging for a little break from the relentless service to your child, the next moment you want to scoop him up and smoosh him.

For me, maternity leave has been largely about unshackling myself from rushing woman syndrome and settling into a slower pace of living. At first I struggled, then I gave in, and finally I embraced it. I lost whole days staring at my baby’s sleeping face, learning to distinguish between his I-am-tired and I-am-hungry cries and changing more nappies than I care to count. I am not ready to let go of this messy but wonderful life we have had over the past ten months. It’s not always been easy, I have often felt forgotten and lonely, but now that it’s coming to an end, I am happy and grateful for all the precious time I spent with my son. Instead of choosing to be sad, I choose to prep, to plan, to hone my coping mechanism till I am on my A game. As one of my mom friends put it, it’s time to transition back to old and improved Samira v2.0. Hi-vis and hard hats, I am coming for ya!

 

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