The Fears of Going Back
Two and a half months ago, I had my second baby.
I am one of the lucky ones. I work at Facebook, where I can take up to four months off for my parental leave. Many women in America get no paid time off. Of those that do, it’s usually just a few weeks, which isn’t even enough time to let your body fully heal, let alone adjust to life with a little one. As a nation, we need to follow in the footsteps of our European brethren with paid time off for all parents. As companies, we need to realize that supporting parents is good for business.
In these two and a half months, I’ve gotten to snuggle with my new son in the waning and waxing hours of the day, our hearts beating together. I’ve taken him on plane rides over palm trees and peach orchards and rugged rockies. I’ve brought my toddler daughter to dozens of local playgrounds and cheered her on as she climbed to new heights. There have been ice cream dates with my mom, dinners with my dad, and many, many wonderful conversations with friends. And I’ve been able to invest in myself as well: a book a week, a 30-minute run here and there, a few hundred words of reflection a day.
I am refreshed and grateful. Despite the heartbreak of the recent election, I wake up most days optimistic, curious, and fired up about the road ahead. This time off with my family feels like biting into ripe fruit in the last days of summer, the whole of it made sweeter by the fact that it doesn’t last forever.
In less than two weeks, I return to a job with people I love whose mission I believe in dearly.
But I want to tell the truth here: I am afraid.
I am afraid to miss these rare and precious moments of childhood. We always said we wanted two kids, and now that we have our second, I am seized by the fear of lasts. My last moments marveling at tiny toes. My last few times cradling an infant of this utter smallness. My last few times hearing my daughter demand “you want this dried mango!” because she hasn’t quite figured out her pronouns.
I am afraid that when I return, there will be too many fires to fight, and inevitably the question will arise: Why didn’t I set things up better before I left?
And I will come home with a hundred things to do, like, RIGHT NOW, and the ability to focus on the simple pleasures of dinner and playing with trains will vanish.
And in the rush and excitement of my work, there will be anxiety and guilt. And I will feel overwhelmed by all the things I want to make better while simultaneously berating myself for not being able to get a better handle on them.
I am afraid my kids will resent me and my phone and computer.
I am afraid that when I return, everything at work will have gone so smoothly in my absence that inevitably the question will arise: What value am I really adding anyway?
And my friends and colleagues will have forgotten me.
And my brain will have dulled during these months, my context-switching slow, my ability to grasp new facts and ideas stunted, like some piece of rusted equipment.
And I’ll come home each night quiet, empty of stories about how I did anything meaningful that day.
I am afraid of the highs and lows of the postpartum brain, of chemistry I don’t understand conspiring to make me think in all sorts of illogical ways, as they did the last time I returned from parental leave. I am afraid that all these fears I listed above are products of that postpartum brain.
I am afraid of going through another identity crisis, of feeling untethered and unsure of myself and what I should do. I am afraid of crying in meetings and crying in bathrooms and crying myself to sleep as I did the last time. I am afraid of expressing that kind of vulnerability and burdening others with that kind of negativity.
I am afraid of having these stupid self-indulgent thoughts when there are much bigger problems in the world, when so many other people are hurting and the fight for understanding and justice and equality matter more ever.
I am afraid of how long it will take for me to settle into the new normal.
I admit my fears here because I know, ultimately, I will be fine. I will look back in six months, in a year, and these fears will look ridiculous. I’ll probably feel embarrassed to have shared them.
But this is what I believe:
That if you can be honest with yourself and others about what you are afraid of, those fears lose some of their power over you.
That my friends and my colleagues at Facebook are incredible, kind and compassionate people, and like they’ve done in the past, that they will help and support me every step of the way.
That I am not the first nor the last person to have thought these things. As personal as they seem to me when they invade my mind in the middle of the night, I know many others must feel similarly in the midst of a big life transition, whether they’ve been away from the workplace to care for children, tend to illness, deal with family issues, find a new job, or take some time off to recharge.
If we cannot admit these fears, how can we ask for help? How will others know? How will anything change?
Thanks for listening.