When I was seventeen years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was supposed to get married before I turned 30, have exactly two kids, and go back to work three months after having had each kid, which was the expected maternity leave given to most people in the US, where I lived at the time. I fully expected a husband and kids to fit neatly into my carefully laid out career path.
Thankfully, since Europe has a much more generous and realistic view of parenting, I decided to make sure of the six months maternity leave that was offered to me. So confident was I of returning to work within six months, that I even registered my unborn child at a nursery close to our house. Since I had never been out of work for such a long time, I picked out a series of projects to keep me busy while I was on maternity leave: decorate our new house, learn how to sew, pursue another professional certification.
Reality set in about 72 hours after my daughter’s birth. Every minute my child slept, I had to make Sophie’s Choice and decide what I wanted more: food or sleep. Forget decorating our new house, it took us six months just to unpack all the boxes. The vast majority of my time was spent trading WhatsApp messages with fellow new mums so we could all convince ourselves that we knew what we were doing. I went from being a successful project manager to making weekly collages of baby poop photos. Going back to work was the last thing on my mind. In fact, I was convinced that I would end up spending the next 18 years with a child attached to my hip.
As hard as the first few months were, I never really thought that I would give up working completely and become a stay at home mum, which I found to be one of the hardest jobs in the world. While I had a myriad of reasons for wanting to return to work, the fact of the matter was that some mothers are just not cut out to be stay at home mums, and I was one of them. I still wanted a part of my old life back. Over time, I slowly began to find my rhythm as a parent, and once I felt confident about returning back to work, we began to plan out the nursery settling.
Growing up in India, where a vast majority of my aunts were either stay at home mums, or working ones who had a huge support network, no one would even have dreamed of sending their child to nursery at the tender age of eight months. So, unsurprisingly, we were met with a wide range of emotions about our decision to send our child to nursery. What was surprising was receiving a similar reaction from a few friends even in the West, who I assumed would be more open to the idea of a working mum. “Are you going back to work because of money?” a friend here asked. An aunt just assumed it was and proceeded to let my mother know that “parents in this day and age only care about money and are ruining their children’s lives because of it”, she ominously declared. Another aunt assumed that sending my child to nursery was the same as sending her off to war and prayed to the Lord to have mercy on on my daughter’s soul. But for every person who made us doubt our decision, there were ten who offered us advice and support. Friends who had been through it offered their shoulder to lean on and words of wisdom. Others who would be in the same boat as us vowed to get through this phase together. Older relatives helped us look at the big picture and made us focus on the positive side of this next step of our parenting journey.
As the time to take my daughter in for her first settling session at the nursery drew close, something tugged at me that I didn’t expect – sadness. For the past six months, I was around to notice and record every new thing that my daughter learned. Watching her learning how to roll, how to sit, how to crawl, and how to cruise became more exciting than any project at work ever would. I began to dread missing out on her next set of milestones.
At our first settling session, I masked my sadness with an overly happy and cheerful attitude. But to my surprise, the minute I dropped my daughter off to her session, my eyes immediately began to well up and I proceeded to have a full blown meltdown in a nearby park. I frantically called my husband at work and promptly declared that I was quitting my job and never leaving my daughter ever again. Deciding that I needed edible therapy, I went and got a coffee and some chocolate cake, which helped calm me down. The two hours that I waited in the park for the settling to end were the longest of my life. A thousand questions crossed my mind. How would the staff put my child to sleep? Would they rock her exactly like I do? Would they change her nappy properly? Would they know when she was tired or hungry and the difference between the two? Thankfully, a second piece of chocolate cake was within reach, as were funny YouTube videos that my husband messaged me to stop my downward spiral into insanity. Fortunately for all concerned, the first session was a huge success. Armed with confidence that my child was already ready to attend nursery full time, I booked the next settling.
So of course, the second settling was the perfect maelstrom of disasters. We got to the nursery just after nap time. As soon as I walked into the nursery, my kid burst into tears and let out an anguished cry, unlike anything I had ever heard before. One of the members of staff tried to rock her to sleep, which made her cry even more. I then tried to put her to sleep, but by then she was having none of it. She cried for 45 minutes straight, something she had never ever done before at home. I broke down in tears from seeing her so distraught. Seeing a baby and a grown woman cry probably made a bunch of other babies in the room cry. I’m pretty sure the staff also began to cry at the havoc that we had unleashed. We left the settling as soon as we had both calmed down, and I was suddenly afraid that a nursery would in fact ruin my daughter’s b life forever.
Fortunately for me, my mother in law used to be a nursery manager and came down one day to see how she could help. As soon as she walked in through the door, my daughter took one look at her and burst into tears. She had the same anguished cry upon seeing her that she did at the nursery. While this may have upset my mother in law, it brought me immense joy, because this meant that my child was not upset at being at the nursery, she was afraid of anyone she didn’t immediately recognize. It was one of the few times that I found joy in tears. My mother in law gave me some sage advice (take some of her favorite toys and books along, ask the staff to sing her favorite nursery rhyme) to help my daughter settle in well for her next sessions.
Fast forward a few weeks and after several more settling sessions, my daughter now happily attends the nursery four days a week. The staff could not be more caring, and I learn more and more about my daughter through them. I learn about how she interacts with other babies (she shoves them away if they get too close), about how she shares her toys (she doesn’t), and about how she reacts to the staff (she expects to be left alone unless she explicitly demands otherwise). On the work front, after attending a few meetings, it felt as if I had never left. The flexibility provided by my company and specifically my manager allows me to create a good work-life balance, at least for now. As sad as I am about not spending every minute of every day with my daughter, going back to work has made me get my groove back. The fact that my daughter comes home and still runs around until bed time assures me that she is thriving at the nursery, and that it was the right decision for our family.