Back in November, when my maternity leave plan was still hypothetical, I figured I’d return to work part-time at first. I requested a total leave of six months, mostly because everyone seemed to be telling me how quickly my daughter’s infancy would fly by and how fully I needed to commit to enjoying every minute of it. But I also suspected that it would take fewer than six months before I started to miss the daily cerebral exercise of my chosen profession.
So I proposed a gradual return to work, beginning in mid-March with one day a week working from home, and eventually ramping back up to full time at the office. Then I actually had a baby, and all my gauges reset. How was I possibly going to manage even a tithe of my day job? Even if we could locate all-day childcare for only one day a week, I had not yet figured out how to hand Natalie over to anyone outside my immediate family for longer than a few minutes.
Ultimately, we managed it by lucking into a neighborhood nanny share. On Tuesdays, the nanny watched Natalie and a neighbor’s son in my living room while I plugged in the laptop and worked from my bedroom. After a few weeks, the babyfest migrated upstairs to my neighbor’s living room, leaving me to work in peace and quiet until a phone call from the nanny would summon me to the sixth floor to nurse Natalie. And eventually, once we abandoned the exclusive-breastfeeding campaign, the nanny would give Noodles all the formula she wanted, and I would log entire days of telework without interruption.
Tuesdays were working out great for us. But our wonderful nanny, unfortunately, was booked solid on every day other than Tuesday. Now the problem became finding all-day childcare for more than one day a week, and we had no good prospects in sight.
Then came the magical phone call, the DC equivalent of fairy dust: Natalie had gotten into a daycare center.
Professional childcare in the District of Columbia is a waitlist-driven industry. You send out a rash of applications and nonrefundable fifty-dollar deposits as soon as you learn your due date. Then you sit back, wait, and pray that your number comes up before your maternity leave runs out. My employer’s onsite childcare center blithely informed me that the waiting list for the infant room (population 12) was over 60 families long. Other onsite facilities in government buildings will give you preference for being a federal employee, but when everyone else on the waitlist is too, you don’t get very far.
Unless you get lucky.
The Department of Commerce called us on the Thursday afternoon before Easter. They had an infant spot opening on May 9, they told us, and we had until close of business the next day to claim it.
Easter was the weekend of Natalie’s baptism. We had guests in town, plenty of holiday plans, and little time to spend ruminating over the decision. After a quick visit to the Commerce facility (with a grandmother and a godfather in tow, the former freshly picked up from the airport), we put in our deposit and booked the spot.
Roughly five weeks before the scheduled end of my maternity leave, I was suddenly in a position to begin the theoretical “ramping back up to full time” phase of my leave plan. We were paying for day care whether Noodles showed up or not; might as well get used to the process. Build the routine. Get her cleaned up and dressed in different clothes every day. Make up a day’s worth of bottles. Strap her into the Babybjorn and catch the 52 bus. Teach myself to hand her to a semi-stranger, say goodbye and walk out the door. And then…
…go to work?
I thought good and hard about this. The per-month cost of day care approaches a mortgage payment. My one-day-a-week worth of salary did little to offset this. Reactivating myself on the office calendar another day or two per week would go a long way toward…
Oh, hell. I’ve spent my entire life being fiscally responsible. I pay off my credit card every month. Never been in arrears on the mortgage or the bills. Never been unemployed long enough to exhaust my savings. My purse strings are so tight, I have to swat away a swarm of tiny haranguing demons every time I’m inclined to impulse-buy a pair of shoes. Even if they’re for Natalie.
Know what this month is? It’s a gift. A full month where other people are looking after both my baby and my docket for me, leaving me free to budget my days and hours as I please. It’s a real, honest-to-pete vacation. How likely is this ever to happen again? I would be a fool to waste this gift of pure, sweet time by rushing back to work. How important is a few days’ extra salary when instead I can take all the time I need to prepare for the three (3) upcoming programs on the concert calendar, bake cupcakes again, tear through the backlog of home projects, avail myself of the gym membership that was my Mother’s Day gift?
Work, I’ve decided, can wait. I will use this month to attack that baby weight, start getting back in shape, reacquaint myself with my oven, rest as much as I like in between rehearsals (which are numerous enough to count as work). And most importantly I will learn, as gently as possible, how to commend my daughter into a roomful of babies and caregivers for an entire business day at a time.
By the time I do go back to the office, I’ll be good and ready. In the meantime I will enjoy this month without guilt — and buy my daughter all the shoes she wants.