I had a Masters degree in Plant Sciences and was working part-time when I got pregnant. My husband and I were ecstatic about the imminent event and quite happy about the timing, too. I had a great time being pregnant, eating and sleeping for two, and, back labor not withstanding, had a normal delivery. Our daughter was a happy baby, and with the exception of a couple of minor problems, quite healthy also. I stayed with her the first year, and we had a ball together. However, as she neared her first birthday, I began to get nervous. How hard would it be to go back to work?
I consulted some friends.
“It’s like driving a car. Once you learn, you never forget.” I didn’t drive, and I said so. They all looked at me like I was from outer space, and then tried again.
“It’s like swimming …” I shook my head again.
“Falling off a bike?” laughed one, and I resolved never to speak to her again.
“Piece of cake?” Ah, that I understood.
We had just been approved for a green card, so getting a job wasn’t hard. Next step: daycare. We found a good one, which, of course, charged an arm and a leg. My paycheck would just about cover the monthly fee. Still, a career in scientific research beckoned, one that might peak at an awards ceremony in Stockholm. The wee one didn’t care, however. She was losing her chief slave, and she wouldn’t stand for it. The first time I left her at daycare, she cried the entire hour, and whimpered pathetically in my arms the rest of the day. But I had tasted freedom, and daycare was the key.
I was all excited, getting ready for the first day of work, until I saw my daughter’s bright little face beaming up at me.
“So where are we going today?” she seemed to ask. “The park maybe? Perhaps the library? How about the coffee shop? Or wait a minute. I’m in a good mood, so surprise me!” Oh boy, was she ever surprised!
They had to peel her off me after 20 minutes. At first, she bawled her lungs out, but when she figured out that it was no dice, she settled into giving me the you-mean-woman-you-betrayed-me look as she howled. That was when I began to cry too. And in a room full of babies and toddlers being dropped off by other betraying women, i.e. mothers, it was only a matter of time before a chorus joined us. I was escorted out by two motherly types who could have nannied for both little Genghis and baby Attila.
“Your little girl will be all right. Go on, enjoy your first day at work.” As if I could, I had just been hit with working mother guilt, my cross to bear for the rest of my life. Still, she had a point. It was the first day of the rest of my career.
I met my co-workers and signed papers, feeling very important. Then they showed me my workbench.
My first thought was, “This is all the room I’ll have? Why, I can hardly change a diaper here!” From there, the day sloped gently south. I couldn’t concentrate on a thing, after having entertained someone who made 10 rounds of the playground in 15 minutes. I tried using music to focus, but none of the radio stations played “Mary had a little lamb,” which had been my theme song for the last year. And I had grown so used to my “rockie chair” that I kept rocking in my work chair. Then I called the daycare.
“She is playing? Really? Oh, that’s precious! But remember, you have to feed her lunch carefully, not more than half a spoonful at a time, she’ll spit if you give her more. But if you give her less than half a spoon, she will get very upset. Yes, I did say very upset! Don’t forget, half a spoon of soup exactly. It is on my list of important instructions.”
The voice at the other end told me that she got it, in a very dry tone that implied that she had been there, done that, and had the scars to prove it. Being a first-time mom, I called again after lunch.
“She had a … uh … good lunch. She’s asleep.”
The tears came again; it was our favorite time together. Looking back, however, my lachrymose-ness might have been due to the fact that they wouldn’t let me nap at work.
Somehow, I got through the rest of the day, and then it was time to pick up the little darling. When my husband and I arrived at the facility, we saw her through the window. She was playing happily with a little boy. Then she saw us, and all hell was let loose. She cried as though she was auditioning for the part of the waif in Les Miserables. Through the caterwauling, I heard about a problem at lunch. Apparently, our pure-vegetarian child had eaten the hot dog meant for her new friend Danny’s lunch.
“No, she doesn’t like hot dogs,” I shouted, trying to make myself heard above the din. It ceased at my words.
“Aw da!” our little princess repeated reverently. Then the screaming began again, only it was “Aw da … aw da … aw da,” over and over again, like a demented culinary Hallelujah chorus.
“But she doesn’t eat meat!” I tried in a gamely fashion to hang on to my right to pass the baton of vegetarianism to my first-born, only to have the chant change to “Aw da … mee … aw da, mee.” The writing was on the wall.
My husband, who will eat anything, looked at me compassionately. “You can always talk to her when she is grown up.” All right, I would sucker her into loving baby animals and then guilt her into shunning meat. “You can give her meat from tomorrow onward!”
The next few days passed in a haze of which, I am thankful to say, I have no memory. I do remember that I got through them primarily because I loaded up on caffeine. For, while artists tend to drink, and rock stars use drugs as a crutch, the rest of us common mortals use coffee to prop ourselves up.
On the fifth day, we had a breakthrough. As soon as we got to the playroom, the little traitor made a beeline for the teacher without so much as a glance in my direction. 15 hours of labor, 20 permanent pounds, and this was all I got? I suggested that, maybe, I should stay with her, to help her adjust, you know. I was once again escorted out.
Then the ear-infections struck. Our little girl had gone through all the immune protection she had acquired over her first year in her first week at Infection Central. Consequently, the next month or two was spent mostly in the waiting room of our pediatrician, as she ran the gamut of childhood diseases that she could not be vaccinated for. Cold, coughs, fever, croup, and, of course, otitis media or ear infection, the nemesis of the knee-nipper crowd. She had them all. And I had a personal visit from the boss.
“Did you know that your position is full-time, not part-time?”
My husband began taking time off.
The fun did not end there. We got sick with everything that was coming home with our tyke, only we got sicker than she did.
Eventually, we all did get better. And our little girl realized that now she had more slaves than ever, and reconciled herself to being read to, played with, fed and changed, all for an exorbitant fee. She became less clingy, more confident, and better able to deal with new situations.
When her little sister came along, it was more or less a repeat of the same scenario. Maybe we were a tad more confident the second time around, but the initial pangs of separation and period of slow adjustment were the same.
Now, my career path is on a completely different interstate, and my little ones (both of them meat-lovers, by the way) are in elementary school. The speed bumps along the way have enriched my life immensely, and looking back, I can laugh at the experiences. I remember asking about my list of “important” instructions to the daycare, a year later.
“We read it,” the director smiled. “And then … poof! Somehow it just disappeared.”
|Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com|