I turned up to my final mothers' group meeting at the community centre feeling completely exhausted. It wasn't because my baby had kept me up all night. She was sleeping great. It was me that wasn't sleeping.
Even though I was tired, I was looking forward to that day's discussion on childcare. My baby was due to start at family day care the following month and I wanted to know if other mums were feeling as guilty about returning to work as I was. From the moment I had completed Oliva's enrolment at Marrickville council in Sydney, I had been unable to sleep. I'd lie in bed for hours imagining the moment I handed over my precious little girl to someone I'd met precisely twice. The insomnia got so bad that I had to see my GP about it.
However I was in for a surprise that afternoon. None of the 13 other mums were even close to thinking about putting their child in care. That wouldn't happen until the nine-month mark or later, whereas my baby would be just four months and eight days old when I left her with Fernanda. The session was focused on explaining the different care options we had, and not so much our feelings about them. By the end of it I was feeling worse than ever.
As I fumbled with the pram, the midwife came up to me and asked what I do for a living. I told her that I'm a self-employed journalist, so the Centrelink payments are all I get, and that they stop after 18 weeks. And that's when my husband and I agreed I'd go back to work, albeit for 3.5 days a week. The problem was, when we had that conversation last year, I hadn't yet met and fallen in love with Olivia. I hadn't understood that I would find it traumatising to hand my baby over to a virtual stranger, no matter how well trained that stranger was. I also felt guilty that I was looking forward to working again because I love my work and I'd missed it.
"How are you feeling about going back to work?" the midwife asked me.
"Really bad and guilty," I said. "I'm going to cry when I drop her off."
"Oh, you'll cry all day long," she said. "I did when my daughter started school."
"I actually thought I'd knuckle down because I know that I'll be paying childcare fees."
"Oh no," the midwife said as she patted my back. "You will cry all day."
I kind of felt like crying then.
But the thing was, I didn't want to cry when I dropped Olivia off. I had read that this would make things worse for her, because she would see me upset and wonder what was so bad. It was important for her sake that I held it together.
So I decided to try learning what it would be like to be a working mum. No better place to start than by watching the Canadian Netflix series Working Moms. Just seeing other women try to navigate their sometimes complex lives was comforting. There was also a scene that I knew would come in handy if ever I felt judged by other mums.
The main character Kate is driving to work when she sees a group of mums she knows. They are standing there with their prams and a couple throw judgey looks her way.
"Eat a bag of dicks," she mutters as she presses her foot down on the accelerator.
Similarly, on an Harvard Business Review podcast called The Upside of Working Motherhood, one of the speakers cautions that judgement is inevitable, and sometimes it will come from those closest to you. But you have to shake it off, because parenting can enrich your career and vice versa.
It sounds corny, but I also cultivated gratitude. My mum didn't have the option of putting my sisters and I into childcare, as such arrangements were rare in the 1980s. She didn't return to work until I, the youngest, was at school.
I also felt grateful not to be an American mum. I read posts on the American website whattoexpect.com and realised that most women were back at work after just six weeks because there is no paid maternity leave. To them, the four months I had would have seemed incredibly generous. Taking a year off would probably be unfathomable.
I found myself sleeping better as 8 April rolled around, even though I was still completely obsessed with the moment I would hand Olivia over to her carer.
We brought her into bed with us on Saturday morning, but when my husband pulled back the curtains, I saw that her nose was streaming with snot.
It was a reprieve!
I told the doctor from the Home GP service that Olivia was meant to start day care on Monday.
"Oh, she'll get sick every week when she starts," said the doctor matter-of-factly. "You'll have to get used to it."
I felt awful.
When Tuesday morning came, I wept as Olivia smiled up at me from the change table. I'd also had a cry the night before when I'd packed her bag – putting her favourite bunny toy in had set me off.
And yet, something I did must have worked because I found myself closing the day care gate behind me with dry eyes. I had smiled at Olivia, kissed her forehead, and left calmly. I was proud of myself.
I looked at the empty baby seat in the back of the car and could scarcely believe she wasn't there. I bought myself a coffee and went home and I worked.
A temporary setback
However by week two I was regressing into being a wimp. I dreaded the drop-off and when I was meant to be working I found myself scrolling through pictures of her on my phone.
I decided to try and read my way out of the problem – and it actually worked.8
I devoured Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and it made me embrace the positives. The book also has some funny quips, such as that from the founder of the White House Project, Marie Wilson: "Show me a woman without guilt and I'll show you a man."
And there were some pleasant surprises about returning to work, such as my self-esteem going up. It felt good to be able to put money in our joint account, and working made me feel more like myself.
I also found that when I'm with Olivia, I am completely present. I value the time we have together because it isn't unlimited.
Then there are the benefits for Olivia, such as learning from other children. When I see photos of her on the Keptme app, I know that she's having a wonderful time. I wouldn't want to deprive her of that.
That said, if I'm having a crappy day at work, it's easy to fall back into the trap of fantasising about being a SAHM.
I know that I will always have conflicted feelings about dropping my child off at day care. As she gets older, it may even get harder.
But these feelings are manageable, and I am not alone in having to face them.