Some mothers are happy going back to work, but I was not one of them. I had waited years to have this baby; it felt Kafkaesque to simply walk out the door at the end of my six-month leave, pretending to be okay. There is a surreal disconnect required to resume the role of the competent professional when your breasts are leaking. Perhaps there is no more potent metaphor for the dilemmas of postmodern motherhood than milk. Supply and demand are well-known concepts to the nursing mother.
My son was getting formula during the day, yet I still hoped that he would be waiting famished at night in his father's arms, his little legs pumping with excitement, his drooling toothless smile aimed at my chest.
We both tried. But he had never been a strong nurser, and I was not a letdown queen. There is nothing more crushing than having a small human tear himself off your nipple in howling fury because he isn't getting enough. But he wouldn't take a bedtime bottle from me, because I had followed the advice of the baby books and scrupulously avoided giving him one while I was nursing. Even months later, when I tried to give him one, he would arch and shriek for Daggy!
Daddy was the bottle man. So what was I?
There is a term from horticulture: hardening off. You put a plant outside during the day, and you bring it into the nursery at night. Eventually you leave it out all the time. It gets used to the conditions. It gets used to the cold. When I try to explain to myself how I became my father, that is the term that comes to mind. I was hardened off.
After my second mat leave, I missed the children with what was at times a physical pain. Sometimes, on a long night, I would cry over my keyboard. Other times I would creep into the baby's room when I got home late and lie on his floor and cry.
But there was no way around our separation, and they were in good hands. That's what I told people who asked, and not always sympathetically, what about the children? Didn't they miss me? The answer to the question is this: they miss you, but not as much as women want to believe.
Once, when I told my older son that I loved him, he said he loved me too, "but only on weekends." He was 2. Then, possibly sensing my disappointment, he added that he was "starting" to love me all the time.
"That's okay," I said brightly, swallowing the lump in my throat. "I love you all the time."
The point is, you don't want them to miss you. You want them to be happy with the person at home, whoever it is: Daddy, Mom, Nanny, Grandma. Oh, but this is a hard, hard lesson for women who have been conditioned their whole lives to be Number One to their children.
However absent my father had been in my childhood, I still loved him passionately. That gave me hope that I could forge a similar bond between myself and my boys. My father knew how to choose his moments. He would blow in with cold, whiskery cheeks and hug us hard, and that would answer a week's worth of longing.
What my father never admitted, and what I believe is one of the most closely guarded secrets of his gender, is that it is hard for men to be Number Two. I started thinking about that when a colleague let slip how "upset" her husband was when the children would not cuddle with him but wanted her. In their house, he was not even Number Two, but Number Three, because the nanny was Number One. This was not a sensitive New Age guy, either; this was a hard-ass corporate lawyer. And I thought, That's why they had to be hard. They have always been hurt by the turning away.