Maternity leave is over and there you are back at your desk. You have spent many hours in this place, and yet now the environment seems surreal…

Your baby stares back at you from the picture frame to the right of your monitor.  That face is so darling it brings tears to your eyes.  Your heart aches as you think about the time you used to have together.  But you know that you are giving her wings as she is out in the world making new friends and discovering herself.  So you take a deep breath and swallow the lump in your throat.

Your diplomas hang on the wall above you.  A reminder of that fresh-faced, power-hungry twenty-something who still lives somewhere deep inside you.  Many moons ago you were up all night writing essays and drinking coffee by the pot cramming for finals.  Then after graduation you overcame even greater obstacles: making an impression, dealing with unconstructive criticism, living in airports, taking on responsibilities far above your pay scale.  You’ve worked hard to get here.

Your phone is silent.  A year is a long time to be away from an office environment and the players have changed.  No one is running to you desperate for a fix to their last-minute emergency because they’ve forgotten how thrilled you are to be a part of the solution.  No one is calling you for the inside scoop because you just don’t have it anymore.  The world doesn’t stand still, but you’re back in it now and in time you will once again be an indispensable member of the team.

Your paycheck waits in your inbox.  How novel it seems to bring in an income.  You are sharing the load in your relationship and providing yourself and your baby with security in case the unthinkable happens.  You will be able to empower her with education and see her down the aisle.  You will retire in time to be there when she becomes a mother.

Your coffee steams and lets off a delicious aroma.  For the first time in a year you will enjoy the entire cup before it gets cold.  This is your time to remind yourself that, though your life will never be the same as it was, you are still your own person.  And this sense of self makes you a better mother.

So turn on our computer, make a few calls and sift through your inbox.  But when the work day is over, hold your baby, kiss your husband and congratulate yourself for keeping it together.

Last week the dreaded but inevitable milestone came to be when I dropped Tess off at daycare for the first time. I told myself it wouldn’t be as terrible as I anticipated, but when I handed Tess over and her lower lip started quivering and tears welled up in her eyes I was terrified to turn and leave.  I made my way down the front steps and turned back to see the confused and frightened look in her beautiful eyes.  It was an image I knew I would never forget and I immediately started sobbing as I walked away.

I did everything I could to make the experience easier on us.  I selected a great daycare hosted by a loving family in a fantastic neighbourhood not far from work and home.  I took her there for visits to acclimatize to the new environment.  I spelled out the standard “helicopter mom” list of emergency contacts, schedules, and instructions that I’m sure would have any care provider questioning their decision to take me on as a client.  I’ve done everything by the book…. so why is it that I’ve had to take frequent breaks from my keyboard as I write this post because recalling the experience sends tears streaming down my cheeks?

In the instant I handed Tess to our daycare provider, I immediately understood why women decide to leave their office to stay home with their children.  I admire and respect their courage and dedication to their families.  But, as much as I want to spend every minute with Tess for the rest of my days, I know that a stay-at-home-mom is not who I am.  As maternity leave comes to an end, I find myself searching for every tidbit of information to give me insights into what is happening at work.  I’m absolutely certain that the place is falling to pieces without me there to provide recommendations for the past twelve months.  And I secretly relish this thought, ready to return rejuvenated with the fresh perspectives I attained during my leave…. if only I could overcome the misery of spending my days without Tess.

My afternoon away from Tess was excruciating.  I sobbed to my dental hygienist, cell phone clutched to my close to my chest, and babbled as my teeth were scraped and polished.  I resisted the urge to rush back after only an hour and opted to go for a swim, hoping that plunging into the cold water would rinse away the lump in my throat and the pit in my stomach.  When that didn’t work I stood in a steaming hot shower and cried unabashedly hoping, but not really caring, that the sound of the running water would render my sobs inaudible to others in the change room.

When I finally returned to daycare, our reunion was uneasy.  She was overtired and adjusting to a new experience and I was completely overcome with guilt.  Thankfully, I was invited to stay for a visit and observe her new environment.

What she had learned in a single afternoon amazed me.  She saw that little people her size can walk, all by themselves, without the aid of furniture or mommy.  She saw the consequences of her actions, such as denying another child the pleasure of a special toy or overexcitedly grabbing hands or locks of hair.  She was exposed to new routines, new menus and new friends.  These were experiences and life lessons that I was not capable of providing her at home.

Later that evening Tess looked directly into my eyes and recalled an animated, if incoherent, account of the day’s events.  It occurred to me that our bond could grow stronger by spending time apart.  All this time I have been rationalizing my need for a life of my own and never stopped to think that Tess might also like a life outside the home.

Yesterday I dropped Tess of at daycare for the second time.  This time I arrived early to help her get settled before I had to leave and thankfully my departure was tearless.  I kissed her good-bye, took a deep breath and walked out the door.  I told myself this was the best thing for both of us and allowed myself to enjoy an afternoon on my own.  When I returned I heard the unmistakable sound of Tess’ laugh coming form the backyard.  I peered in and was delighted to see her interacting with the other children and having a wonderful time.  When she saw me she smiled and reached out for a hug.  It was wonderful.

Tess made three new friends yesterday.  She ate a rice cake at snack time.  She won an award for being a friend to the environment.  Even at 11 months, she is her own person with her own goals and agendas.  And once she finished telling me about her day I promised her that I would try my best to never, ever hold her back.