When the baby was a tiny baby, the toothless, your boobs are my kingdom kind of tiny, I agonized over going back to work. Yes, I was ready to engage in thinking that didn’t purely involve remembering if I shampooed with actual shampoo instead of conditioner, in the off chance I had showered of course, and holding conversations related to things other than nappy and nipple rashes. But I had also spent 8 months mothering this shiny new human who had me working round the clock at my new, unpaid job for life – the CEO of his very own Baby Inc – and the thought of going part time on our special “building society” when we were just getting off the ground filled me with dread and guilt.
But mortgages don’t pay themselves, standing orders don’t gleefully channel funds to blood sucking utility entities without a little help from your labouring self and food doesn’t grow on trees. Well, apparently it does but you still need to pay someone to go and get it, package it and take it to a shop where you can fork out for it at a higher cost because you still haven’t moved to some place that ends in “fordshire” where food grows on your actual trees.
We debated childcare for longer than I care to detail or you would care to read about. In the end we decided a nursery, i.e. many pairs of eyes, would be best suited to ease our paranoid selves. This nursery had been carefully picked, we were certain of it. We had nearly earned FBI badges on the back of our meticulous, scrupulous research and verification efforts. This was the right place. Until settling in day, when dangers appeared to be lurking from every corner, every person looked utterly incapable of ever comprehending the complexities of taking care of my little everything (*even though they were all superstars handling several kids at once and nailing it*) and other children looked either menacing, lost or on to me, the mother about to abandon her baby at the child farm.
We went into the baby “Ducklings” room, I put him down, watching as he crawled and stood up against a play cooker _ he was itching to walk _ and then fell back, into my arms as the nursery worker watched. The blood rushed to my face. What in the world would have happened if I was not there?? Err, he would have fallen back onto a mountain of fluffy pillows, where my butt currently rested, that’s where. Still. STILL! I caught him! You would have let him fall! That’s the difference! This would NEVER work.
The nursery worker sensed my panic. Had this been a Hollywood film she would have rested her hand on my shoulder and whispered sweet reassuring words as our eyes met and our smiles connected in the knowledge my son was going to be their absolute top priority as he was obviously the most important child in the world.
“You can go wait in the coffee shop across the road,” was what I got instead, as an older baby crawled over my son, his snotty nose running all over his lovely curls. My OCD self itched at the thought of the thousands of germs I had so carefully kept at bay in our safe little home bubble, now unleashed onto my baby boy like rabid dogs on the prowl. I had wipes in my bag. I was going to wipe his hair, then wipe the other kid’s nose and then pick up that rogue rice cake left by the skirting boards. Yes, I was going to do that! This place would be as clean as my living room. But sensing the nursery worker’s “what are you still doing here” looks, I stood up and put the wipes back in my bag. I was supposed to have a cup of coffee for a couple of hours, because that’s what you do when you’ve handed the very essence of your being to strangers. You drink coffee.
On my way out the door a little toddler ran over to me with a sheer look of desperation and muttered “mummy”, his eyes looking like those kids in the NSPCC ads. He clearly wanted me to save him from this ordeal as well. Holding my freshly ripped out heart in my hands I fought the urge to pick him up, dry his tears and basically adopt him. I crossed the street and sat myself down at the local cafe as instructed. I drank the coffee, munched on the croissant and cried the tears. Eight months-old. What kind of a mother was I? Who does this? I did. I did this and I had to, I suppose. An hour later I went back to collect him from the
raging fires of hell baby room. He hadn’t shed a tear. I felt happy and crushed at the same time as only mothers who are simultaneously teaching their kids to fly with one wing and pinning them back onto the nest with the other, can.
The next week off to work I went, said boobs still not too sure about where the baby was and furiously wanting to keep making his lunch and defy my bra cup by my own lunchtime. Thoughts raged through my head, anxious morning calls were made to the nursery ‘because he’s really not to have any honey, he’s not 12 months yet, and please no eggs either and absolutely no nuts and he will need his dummy before sleep and will you call me if anything happens’, repeated in the afternoon, followed up by emails. It wasn’t pretty. My mind raced and I caught myself actually writing the words “180 mls of formula to be had mid afternoon” into my TV scripts.
As others will tell you. leaving your baby in nursery in the early days is like a dagger of guilt taking great pleasure in puncturing your undeserving, do-you-actually-call-yourself-a-mother’s heart from the minute you get your baby out of bed in the morning, still half asleep and smiling, probably dreaming of Babybels and ice-cold teething rings, to the moment you put him down at night and have your cold dinner two hours later. But the baby, incidentally, was having a blast. Sure there were the occasional morning tears but nothing that the sweet allure of biscuits at 9am would’t solve. He had a fantastic sensory room, caring staff, actual organic food (I know, right?) and was thriving. Our anxiety peaked at times, like when he moved up to the Penguins room, literally separated from the Ducklings by a small door, but to us it felt like the border between his baby days and the real world of toddlers on the loose, marking territory with pushes and flying lego. Ultimately the nursery was absolutely fine when not filtered through a mum’s bleeding heart and sleep deprived brain. He was not only being cared for but against my wildest expectations, he was loved.
And then, five months later we moved house. Square one doesn’t even begin to describe it, folks.
The new place was now 40 minutes away from the nursery on the bus or up to an hour in traffic. For 8 months I couldn’t bear moving him from his nursery. The nurseries in the new area were dire _ I actually left one of them mid touring as babies were being changed inside a cupboard (!!!) _ and the only one that was acceptable had, you guessed it, a waiting list. So we waited and for seven months, most of it during Winter, I went to work, left work, took the train to the nursery, grabbed the baby, walked 15 minutes to the bus stop, let 3 or more buses pass because buggy space is a commodity more precious than gold, and finally got onto another packed bus for an hour. We were home at 19:00 if we were lucky, with about 10 meltdowns under our belts. But he continued to be so happy in his Penguins room I just bit my lip, got a warmer coat and pushed on.
When he finally left his old nursery, there were tears and sad goodbyes. Staff called themselves his aunties and in a hand made booklet of pictures and collages, a message called him “an integral member of the Penguins community.” My 16-month old. An integral member of a community of babies. It would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so sweet and it was certainly more than I had ever been called. I cried and I laughed, holding on to the booklet and a CD from his key worker’s own choir group that our boy loved listening to.
The new nursery had it all stacked up against them, really. They were all being seen through the “Penguin” lens and it took a while for all of us to adjust, baby included. This was a much bigger place with a fantastic outside space and bright, enormous rooms. But to the parental heart they felt like the Angelina Jolie to our Jennifer Aniston. This leggier version would have to pounce the pavement and really prove itself before it could even come close to the Penguin Hall of Fame. Almost 2 years later we’ve warmed to it but we’re still writing mental letters to our first love.
A few months ago while reorganising my son’s drawer I found a few items he came home from his old nursery in that our collectively drained brains forgot to return. Not designer duds but two very worn out and by now outgrow t-shirts. One of them was a tatty old blue t-shirt with, wait for it, an exhausted looking penguin on the front. This little guy was less Happy Feet and more the kind that has seen the inside of a washing machine more times than you’ve had hot meals. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out or give it away. Because we had been and still were, as I realised in that instant, exhausted penguins too. You see, when penguins are hatching, their mothers
go back to work and then go to Sainsbury’s on the way home brave storms for months to go and get food while the eggs stay with dad. After they hatch both parents take turns feeding the baby penguins while the other is away. At no stage is the penguin alone, cradled by other baby penguins under the watchful eye of adults, in the off chance their parents are not around. The burden is shared, the penguin is fed and grows happy and healthy. At no stage do the parents agonise over their choices _ not least because they are birds after all _but because this is what they have to do to keep the engine running. Holding that t-shirt took me back to the words of his nursery carers. Starting eight months into his life, our little penguin boy had indeed been an integral member of a community, one that included him, but also us, his parents, and the ones who looked after him while we went to work and then to Sainsbury’s on the way home. Because that’s what we had to do to keep the engine running and that was ok.
There is guilt lurking at every corner of the parental journey, all the things we could have done better, differently, all the choices we make doused in a hefty dose of doubt, and the one about leaving your kids to go back to work seems to be at the top of many a mother’s list. But if you’re reading this and you too have made that decision, for whatever reason, and the childcare you’ve arranged for is adequate, take heart in knowing that you’re not a lesser parent, just as the mum who stayed home is not a lesser individual for choosing that path. Don’t allow that to overshadow these golden years, because even at the hardest of times, and we all know how plentiful those are, they are still golden. We all did what we had to do, and that is OK.