Re-entering the workforce after having a baby is comparable to getting inducted into an extreme sport. How can a job you did competently and with ease mere months before suddenly seem like alien terrain? How can you feel so guilty about leaving your baby to go to work? And then, how can you feel so guilty about leaving the office to pick up your baby from creche?
In my debut novel Breaking Point one of the main characters, Adelaide, is struggling to balance being a mother with her return to work. She used to love her job as a journalist. It was the place she was most confident and fulfilled in her life. But now she feels out of place, uncertain of herself and her abilities, and afraid of putting a foot wrong in case anyone might think she’s lost her edge.
Since having a baby her life has been turned upside down, but she has to pretend that it hasn’t, has to carry on as if everything is normal, has to somehow find a way of doing all of the work she used to do as well as figuring out how to take care of her baby. The pressure and adrenaline that Adelaide once thrived on has transformed into toxic stress.
After her first day back at work she doesn’t know how she will ever keep up with the twin demands of her job and being a mother. But she keeps saying yes to every request her boss makes because if she keeps saying yes, she tells herself, he can’t accuse her of not being up to the job.
When I was writing this chapter I kept thinking about this Instagram phrase as it seemed to capture the impossible demands of having it all: ‘We expect women to work like they don’t have children and to raise children as if they don’t work’.
THE elevator doors opened onto The New York Times newsroom. Adelaide had forgotten the speed and the noise of the place. Couriers, porters, security guards, receptionists fielding calls, visitors, disgruntled conspiracy theorists, electronic passes swiping and unlocking security doors, turnstiles clicking, the sound of keyboards and people shouting into phones. She took a deep breath and walked through the doors.
Her boss, Max, was standing in the same place he had been when she had last left the office, leaning over some page proofs, his hand placed heavily on the table, taking the brunt of his weight. He looked up and saw her, stood up straight, put his hands on his hips, fingers under his belly and said, ‘Well, there’s a sight for sore eyes.’ His smile was broad and he stretched his arms out as he approached her and pulled her into a bear hug. ‘Boy, am I glad to have you back.’ Adelaide was so unsure of her own worth, this gave her an unreasonable surge of happiness.
‘Let’s get you set up with a desk and your passwords. Editorial is at 10am so we can go grab a coffee before then.’ Adelaide smiled back. She started walking towards her old desk but stopped when she saw the intern, Rachel, was sitting there — was she touch-typing? She didn’t seem to be looking at her keyboard or her screen and yet her fingers were flying over the letters. Adelaide looked around to see where Max had gone and trotted after him, catching up in time to hear the end of his sentence.
‘ … and Heather is in Features now.’ He leaned in and whispered, ‘Family stuff. Current Affairs got too much for her when she had the third kid so I am down a political writer which means I might need you to pick up a bit of slack there too but you’ve always been a good all-rounder so I’m not worried about it, okay?’ Adelaide gulped a little. What about her own ‘family stuff’, she thought. Great, now I just need to brush up on American politics and keep on top of my old brief as culture correspondent and keep my new baby alive.
Max was still talking. ‘… advertising have come up with a weekly magazine on mothers and babies and we thought, you being the expert now, who better to edit it? It’s still in the pipeline but on the horizon.’ Everybody seemed to be speaking on high-speed. Their thoughts didn’t need to undergo the lengthy transition period between thinking and verbalisation that Adelaide’s did.
She felt like her thoughts were being kept captive by her brain, each one had to fight its way out of the quicksand of her hormone-drenched mind.
‘I’ve a few in-depth pieces I want you to pick up from last month. I have a hole in Sunday week’s magazine cover story and I’d like your property developer piece to slot in there if you think you can hit the ground running?’ He saw Adelaide’s surprise. ‘Look, I know this might seem like a lot but I really don’t want it to look like I’m cutting you some slack just because you have a baby. Bad for optics.’ ‘Right,’ she said, and smiled. He stopped, and turned to look at her properly for the first time since they had started walking. The sensor-activated lights in the empty part of the office flickered on.
‘This is you,’ he said gesturing at an empty bank of desks they had stopped at. There were about eight desks, brand new, empty, waiting to be populated. She looked back at him with horror. This was Siberia. The whole point of a news room was you were in the thick of it. She wouldn’t hear anything here. He picked up on her reaction.
‘It’s not permanent, Adelaide. The intern will be finished up next month and you’ll have your old desk back.’ ‘Well, why can’t she move here then, if she’s leaving in a month …?’ ‘Don’t bust my balls about it, Adelaide. She’s young, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, it’s just easier this way.’ He walked away, then pivoted back to her.
‘Oh, also, Ryan is on leave next week, some BS about his wife needing help with the new baby — no offence! — so I need you to edit his section. Everything is commissioned, you just have to make sure it all finds its home.’ He necked the remaining coffee in his cup as if it was a shot of tequila and walked off. ‘See you at the editorial at ten. Really looking forward to hearing your ideas. It is great to have you back, kid.’ It didn’t feel great to be back. Adelaide felt shattered already. Her breasts felt hard and lumpy, she could taste adrenalin in her mouth. Had she ever worked at this pace before? She knew she had. And what’s more she had loved it. Thrived on it. But that was when her sleep was uninterrupted. Even if she had only gotten five hours they were consecutive hours. She didn’t have a single idea to bring to the editorial meeting. She had thought that her first day back might involve a little bit of reorientation, catching up with colleagues, lunch with Max, catching up with news and then figuring out a work plan for the coming week and month. But she was just another body whose finger was needed to plug a hole in the dam.
She stood up. A gush of blood in her pants, a black spot in front of her eyes. She put her hand out and steadied herself on the desk. She kept her eyes closed for a second or two and her equilibrium returned. She needed the bathroom already but there wasn’t time. She went to the papers station instead and picked up a few leftover tabloids for story ideas. Max seemed to be under the impression that she had just had a two-month holiday and was expecting her back revived and chock-full of the new and fresh ideas of a rested mind. He didn’t seem to understand that she was reeling, in shell-shock, pining for her baby and pining for her old self, the one who was able to do this job.
She needn’t have worried. The meeting was delayed, people were too busy, so Max simply assigned the news list, including the property story for Adelaide. At lunchtime she visited Zane and he fed hungrily, sucking her dry on one breast before she swapped him and started him on the second. The physical relief was immense.
Zane started to fall asleep as he fed and she tickled the back of his neck to wake him up and get him nursing again. She didn’t have time to let him nap and nurse and nap and nurse like he normally did at home. She needed to pump him full of as much milk as possible within her window of 30 minutes before running back to work. And she really wasn’t looking forward to seeing Max’s face when she left the office again at 5.45 so she could collect Zane before the daycare shut at six. Most of her colleagues didn’t leave the office until at least seven and even then they usually went to the bar down the street for a kind of informal editorial debrief with added alcohol.
As she finished the final thing on her list for the day, with an enormous sense of achievement, Max sauntered by and dropped a page on her desk.
‘Adelaide, can you follow this one up for tomorrow? Just eight hundred words.’ She looked at him and felt her blood pressure skyrocket. She sneaked a peek at the clock on the wall just beyond his head. Five pm. He caught her hesitating. ‘Is there a problem?’ ‘Oh no, no problem, it’s just, I might have to file from home, if that’s okay? I have to pick Zane up from daycare at six. I’ll make a few calls now and I’ll write it up at home and send it through. It’s no problem.’ ‘I knew I could count on you. It’s really great to have you back again.’ She watched him walk away from her, take his jacket off the coat stand. ‘See ya tomorrow guys,’ he said as he left the building.
She wanted to explode. Or more embarrassingly, she thought she might cry.
She spent the next 45 minutes leaving messages and emails for as many people she could think of to ask for a comment on the piece, a completely vapid item on gluten-free menus proliferating in the city’s restaurants. If even a handful of the people she had left messages for got back to her, the piece would be fine. She left the office at 5.45 pm in panic and despair, her heart pounding in her chest. How was she going to do this all over again tomorrow? And the next day. And the next day.
By the time she got home with Zane, she was exhausted by the adrenalin she had been working off all day, and the stress of worrying about everything going smoothly. It was nearly seven. Curtis had walked in the door just ahead of her and said, ‘Hey, my babies! How was your day?’ He kissed Zane, who gurgled happily to see his dad and kissed Adelaide before asking, ‘What should we eat? I’m starving.’ Her response was not in any way rational. Really, he was just asking what she would like to eat. But what she heard was, ‘Hey, after your 15-hour-day, will you make a decision for me about what I will eat for dinner, and also prepare and cook it?’ She ended her outburst by flinging the Chinese takeaway menu at him. She unstrapped Zane from her chest, shoved him towards Curtis and said, ‘Here, take him. I have to work.’ She could hear Zane’s fright as he began to cry but she had to ignore him and just get her piece filed. At eight, when the doorbell went and the smell of Chinese wafted towards her in her bedroom, she had all the quotes she needed to write her piece and now it was just a case of stitching it all together. Curtis knocked on the door with a plate and a glass of wine.
‘Zane is asleep. I gave him some of the expressed milk in the fridge. I’m guessing work was tough today?’ She burst into tears.
‘I’m so sorry. I just don’t know how I’m going to do this. How am I going to cope? This is impossible already.’ ‘It will get better. Come on, eat. Take 20 minutes and then file the piece.’ By ten o’clock she was done with work.
‘Come to bed,’ said Curtis. ‘You’ll be exhausted tomorrow.’ But she had to prep the entire kit bag, diaper bag, breast milk and laundry for Zane.
‘You go ahead,’ she said. ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’
- Breaking Point by Edel Coffey is published by Sphere in trade paperback