Back Into The Woods: When Maternity Leave Ends

Betty Sweet Atkinson Working Parent

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A friend stopped by this week to borrow our double stroller, darling new baby in tow. They are headed to North Carolina for a Bluegrass Festival, to enjoy a long, soul stirring weekend of music and family. We had the usual conversation about feeding and sleeping until I made the unfortunate mistake of asking when she was going back to work.

If there is ever a time when mothers' faces look exactly the same, it is when they are too near to the end of that precious allotment of time with their newborn. It is an expression that is full of duty and longing, knowledge of what we want and what must be and the difference between them. It moves across our faces and clouds our eyes. And we keep it like a secret because we don’t want to betray ourselves, our gender, by talking about it too much. Because we appreciate our employment, our offices and responsibilities. Our minds being needed elsewhere.

This is not an essay about one or the other, and certainly not one versus the other. It is about the emotions of both and the burden of choice. I have read so many of the former kind- printed only to polarize. It is hard for me to believe any of them were written by mothers, who understand with the rawest of senses what it is to have your mind in one place and your heart in another. This is what it is like for our kind. We are given windowless corners to contemplate the choice between two things, neither of them what we really want.

I remember it so well: how you will dread that slow walk back through the door of your old life, the return to your desk and your files. Your heart will race and sweat will break. Of course it will! You aren't the same in form or function, a stranger within yourself. Your body, your clothes, your posture, your hunger. You won’t shake it: the feeling that you are missing something important.  

Try to be still if you can. Try to see beyond this countdown. Someone has probably told you that it is the quality of the time and not the quantity that matters, and they are right. Your sweet baby will not remember the minutes that ticked by so fast, but she will remember what you did with them when you were together. Glistening bubbles you blew into the wide open of summer, the way you look at her when you sing happy birthday, something as simple as shoes and socks in the morning, inconsequential routines like silver cups you fill with joy, shaping who she becomes.

I have been listening to music myself these days, hearing the voices and reading the words of remarkable women who came before me, mothers and martyrs, philosophers and philanthropists. They all seem to whisper the same refrain: There is only one choice, only one way to be and only one person to be it for: You.

I wish us all the strength to go fearlessly into the woods, the ability to learn what we can from the music and the mountains, and faith in this: there is no right or wrong place to be, no end to whatever amount of minutes we think we have left, no use in worrying, doubting. We are good mothers. We will raise, rear, teach, sacrifice, love deeper and stronger than we ever thought possible and, eventually, we will forgive ourselves for the time we never lost.



About the Author

Betty Sweet Atkinson

Betty Sweet spent most of her teen years watching Melrose Place, so had very different expectations for adulthood. She is the mother of three bright and brilliant children, one of whom has autism. She believes in words and the ability to change the world with them. Follow along on her .

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