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Taking Back the Power

When COVID hit, I was eight months pregnant renting in a high-rise alone in the city. My siblings encouraged me to move back in with my parents, who were still living in my suburban childhood home. I’d have more help when the baby arrived, they said, and it’d be safer to be away from the crowds. So I listened, even though I was fearful I’d fall into a depression being a single mom at 43 living with my parents in the home where I grew up; not quite the life I imagined.

But I didn’t have to worry, because having my parents around to help with my daughter, Autumn, now 16 months, has been amazing. I have learned how to be a better mom from my own mother and watched my father-turned-grandpa morph from a sports fan to an Autumn fan, so protective and tender with my daughter it melts my heart daily. And on top of all that, I get to eat my mom’s chicken and onions every Shabbat dinner.

Sometimes the anticipation of things is worse than the reality. And while moving home was for sure one of those times, going back to work after having my baby proved the exact opposite.

It has without a doubt been more unpleasant than I ever imagined.

The first few mornings of my return to work, I got up early and gave Autumn breakfast. On those days, she would be happily eating blueberries as my mom entered the kitchen at 6:30AM because it was time for her to take over and for me to leave. My daughter’s giggling and babbling would turn to silence. She’d stare at me and sigh as Grandma sat down and I got up. Then she’d look down, digesting the fact that I was leaving. She understood too well, and I couldn’t handle it.

“Mommy got something in her eyes,” I’d say in a chipper voice wiping away my tears.

“So does Grandma,” my mom added, wiping away hers.

It was all too heavy too early in the morning.

Over the summer, I had seen the principal of my school. She had two small kids at home, and in anticipation of my return in the fall, I asked her how hard it had been for her to leave them.

“I get out of the house before they wake up,” she said.

“Sounds good!” I said, half thinking it actually did and half horrified at the thought of having my child go to sleep cradled by her loving mom, and then waking up with Mom having vanished.

And then, after three mornings of pulling myself away from her at breakfast, I changed my routine. I, too, became the disappearing mom, tucking my baby in at 7:15 pm, not to be seen until 4:15 the next afternoon.

And I still can’t decide whether it’s better to be seen and leave than to never be seen at all, but one thing I do know for sure -- it’s easier to get out of the house without the reality of who I’m leaving staring at me from behind her soggy Cheerios. It feels mean, like I’m cheating, getting away with something, but it also feels like survival.

The work days are long. I’ve developed a greater appreciation for doctors, who have been wearing face coverings all day since before COVID. Even with a comfortable one, it still feels suffocating. Trying to teach 4th graders while dealing with their social, emotional, and behavioral issues has always been a challenge; doing it while trying to keep them masked, their desks sanitized, and their hands clean adds yet another layer.

Once in a while, in between teaching place value and taking the kids for a mask break -- because that’s a thing, too -- I check my phone to find that my dad has sent a picture of Autumn. She has taken her poncho out of the drawer, laid it on the floor, and is cuddled up smiling. And all I want is to jump into the photo, or at the very least, be the one taking it.

When I get home, I hear about the day’s antics from Mom and Dad. Autumn cracked up as my dad pushed her on her bike, chasing our dog down the street. They went to a farm and she shared her feeding hay with another little girl. And at the park, she no longer loves the baby swing, but would rather run around, exploring the wood chips. Everything they tell me instantly makes me laugh, and then, on second thought, makes me cry at having missed it all.

One of my single mom friends, who returned to work when her daughter was four months old, told me the week before my first day back that at least I was home for a long time, and so was better able to prepare for my return. It didn’t make sense to me then, and it still doesn’t now, because while I am fortunate to have had a full 16 months at home, I think it makes leaving her even harder. She’s not a baby, she’s a toddler, and she’s aware enough to know I’m going away, but not old enough to understand why it’s necessary, or when I’ll be home.

Everyone says it gets easier, and maybe it does for them. But for me, every day feels harder, because the list of Autumn moments I’m missing continues to grow. And I wonder, if I must have two full-time jobs, why the one that fills my wallet takes up over ten hours of my day, while the one that fills my heart gets only three.

I see stay-at-home moms on-line talking about how they decided with their husbands to budget better so they can survive on just one income, but when you’re a single mom, there’s always budgeting, and always just one income.

And then I remember back to when I was graduating college and feeling pressured to figure out what to do next. I could’ve gone to law school or applied for jobs or internships like most people, but instead I got a work and travel visa to Australia and took off on an adventure by myself for a year. The first week I was there, I went for a run and stopped high on a cliff to look out over the ocean, and I remember thinking something along the lines of this:

“I could be anywhere in the entire world right now, because I can make any decisions I want. I don’t have to follow what most people do. My choices brought me right here, to this gorgeous country on this awesome adventure, and I will always have this power.”

Of course, things are a little more complicated now that I’m 44 with a baby and not 21 and childless, but not so much that I can’t take back control over where I want to be and what I want to be doing.

I have to believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

And I also have to…

Mommy On.

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