As he did most mornings of the 117 days of his life, the first thing Karl did that Monday morning in July was to give me a smile like sunlight. He lay in the bed for a while, between his dad and me, looking from one of us to the other, working himself up with gurgles of delight. That morning, which started the same as all his others, would be a little different, however: it was his mommy’s first day back at work.
In comparison with the other new mothers I knew, I felt lucky to have three months’ paid maternity leave after Karl was born. Most of the parents in my community had only weeks before they had to leave their babies to go back to work. But nonetheless, even with three months under our belts and Karl’s neck strong enough to hold himself up, I was uncomfortable with the idea of leaving him. I wanted to be his caregiver longer, until he was a bit bigger. I could see how our time together in this early infancy was of so much value, how being with me every day made him more and more comfortable navigating his new environment. I noticed how he looked to me to learn things and make sense of his world. I could tell how safe and secure he felt. Though it was a hard and tiring time, every minute with Karl felt like an investment in his current and future well-being. Not to mention I was hopelessly tickled with him.
As the end of my leave drew near, I asked my company for more time off, without pay. I was told by the HR department that there was no system in place that allowed for extending maternity leaves. I went higher up the chain. Just two more months? There was nothing that could be done. The only option would be to quit.
I contemplated it. By the time I paid for child care in New York City, I was barely making much take-home pay anyway. But what compounded the financial concern was that if I quit, I would lose our health insurance. Lee, my partner, works freelance and Karl was covered under my work insurance.
We are luckier than many: We sat down and did the math and maybe Lee’s wages could cover rent and food for a few months, but certainly not that as well as the cost of health insurance for a family of three, not to mention the portion we would be on the hook for in the case of a medical emergency. On top of that, I was very concerned about losing my job. I don’t have a degree, and though I’ve managed to carve out a position at a publishing company, the memory of the year I spent unemployed, trying unsuccessfully to get my résumé past the algorithms of online applications, loomed large. If I did it again, it would be with a little child in tow.
Lee’s quitting was out of the question. There was no way we could pay all our bills on my salary, which is lower than his.
So we did the best, most responsible-seeming thing we could think of. After a long search, many waiting lists, interviews and a great deal of angst, we settled on a day care near my workplace. With this day care, I could still go over at lunch and breastfeed Karl, and have a visit with him, so we would never be apart more than a few hours. And the day care was recommended by many moms I knew who had similar circumstances to mine. It felt like a loving, safe space for Karl.
I justified it a million ways, as one justifies when one has run out of alternatives. He is an only child and maybe he would like to play with these other children. There are other babies who have been there since they were 6 weeks old, and Karl is 15 weeks. He is strong and has never been sick a day in his life!. It’s not like he’s going to die!
But no matter how I tried to make myself feel better, it felt bad.
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