Navigating Our New Normal (As a Working Mom Returning from My Second Maternity Leave)

September 4. That date has been etched in my mind for well over a year, bringing with it a potpourri of emotions. “When do you go back to work?” people ask me. “September 4,” I reply, silently adding that it is the same day my newest baby girl starts daycare and my oldest daughter starts in her 2’s classroom.

“Lots of change happening all at once,” I think to myself.


Photo by li tzuni@itshoobastank

“Oh, wow, 17 weeks off is a good amount of maternity leave,” they say. “It is,” I confirm, thinking to myself that 17 weeks goes by so quickly when you have a newborn and a toddler. But would any length of time ever really be enough?

Life transitions are a funny thing. As a mom, I’m constantly trying to anticipate change, whether it’s developmental milestones, figuring out my toddler’s constantly evolving food preferences, or managing new sleep patterns. On any given day, my emotions can rollercoaster from excitement to anxiety to sadness to wistfulness in a matter of minutes. But regardless of how I feel about it, the change is going to come.

“It’s coming, alright,” I think to myself daily. In a few short weeks, my headstrong, curious, usually-fearless two-and-a-half year old firstborn will transition from the teacher she has had since she started at daycare and move up to her “big girl” classroom. I’ve been amazed at how much she has thrived in the past two years, learning something new each day and joyfully trying new things. She is genuinely excited to see her classmates and teachers every day. But as much as she loves school, she’s a creature of habit who takes time to warm up in new environments and with unfamiliar people. As September nears, I lay awake at night wondering how she will handle the transition to her new class.

Will she like her new teacher as much as Ms. K? Will she cry when we drop her off? What will she think when she’s in a bigger class with new friends? How on earth is it time for her to move up to the 2’s room already? Where has my baby gone?

That same day, I’ll leave my 17 week old with her sister’s former teacher as she starts daycare for the first time. Whenever I think about having to leave her, I am flooded with the memories of dropping my oldest off for the first time. Crying in the parking lot, trying to fix my smeared mascara before begrudgingly going to work. Checking the daycare app repeatedly throughout the day, hoping for any sort of update to reassure me that my baby wasn’t as traumatized as I was to leave her with someone else. Running out of work when my boss told me to leave early that day and praying that D.C. traffic cooperated so I could get home as fast as I could.

I know leaving my new baby will be different. It will be easier having the comfort and familiarity of a teacher who’s loved and cared for our child before. It will help knowing what to expect as I make the working-mom transition for the second time. It will be reassuring knowing that we’ve had a wonderful experience at our daycare, and our youngest will, too. But still…she’s my baby.

Despite being a second-time mom, my heart still aches at the thought of going back to work. I close my eyes and remember the moment that each girl was laid upon my chest in the delivery room. I selfishly remember those moments and milestones I experienced while on maternity leave: their first smiles, feeling so proud as they held their heads up high during tummy time, the long afternoon naps snuggled together on the couch. I remember the sleepless nights when all they wanted was their momma. I can inhale deeply and still smell their baby scent, feeling their little peach-fuzz heads nuzzling under my chin. They are the moments that my heart replays over and over, and cause my eyes to well with tears in reflection.

As an executive leadership coach, I have been trained to be entirely present with my clients. I can honestly say, however, that I did not fully understand what that meant until I had children. These days, I try my very best to soak in the daily moments of motherhood, hoping to preserve the memories of this time in my life. The hard ones, where there are toddler tantrums (just how many times can one child watch The Little Mermaid or Finding Dory, exactly?), mealtime disputes, a lack of sleep and a motherhood wardrobe polka-dotted with spit up and drool. The sweet ones: lazy Sunday morning snuggles, hugs tight around my neck, sister giggles, endless requests to be held and boo-boos to be kissed. The exhausted ones, when both girls are finally asleep, the laundry still hasn’t made its way to its proper home, dinner is sort-of cleaned up and my husband and I try to decompress together before going to sleep. Change may be coming, but I’m not letting go of the here and now, as messy as it may be.

In these last few weeks of maternity leave, I’m preparing myself for the inevitable transition—both mine and theirs. I’m trying to prep my oldest for life without her beloved Ms. K. I try to bring the baby to daycare pick up so it won’t be completely unfamiliar to her when she is there full time. My own defense mechanism during times of change is organizing and planning, and my list-making is on overdrive. Lists of daycare supplies for the girls and of things I want to do with the baby before I go back to work. Lists of mental reminders for how I want to better manage my time once I’m commuting, balancing a demanding job, marriage and motherhood — and some self-care, too. I tell myself all the clichés about working moms, as if to convince myself that it will all be okay.

And do you know what I’ve realized? It will be okay.

September 4 won’t be a terrible day. It might be hard and emotional, but it will also be exciting and the transition to a new normal for our family of four. I have a quote taped to my desk that says “change isn’t supposed to feel good in the moment.” Things might not feel good right away, but I cannot wait to see how much my girls grow and learn as we settle in to our new routine over the next few months. I know that this is only one of many transitions we will experience as a family, and it’s up to me to model for my daughters how to navigate life when it’s uncomfortable. My hope is that one day my girls look back and remember having a mom who gave them courage and reassurance when they needed it, celebrated change rather than feared it and stopped and enjoyed the present. Because ready or not, these precious, ordinary moments will become a memory before I know it.