Predictability and a well-executed plan–these are the things I crave as much as strong coffee after an all-nighter with my teething baby.
In the fall of 2019, I felt anxious about returning to my job in school psychology after an extended maternity leave, so it was no surprise I went into hyper-planning mode in the weeks leading up to my return.
Armed with weekly meal plans, a family calendar, and personalized charts to build my four-year-old’s independence with morning routines, I was determined to prove to myself and my family I could handle this transition with grace and ease.
A couple of months into my return to work, my one-year-old was still waking up throughout the night, rendering me exhausted and irritable. My husband was commuting from our quiet suburb into a bustling downtown office, pulling 13-hour work days, five days a week.
I was staying up far too late trying to keep up with the demands of our home life and my caseload at work.
One evening, after an emotionally heavy work day, I rushed to pick up our kids from their daycare and afterschool programs. Before I could buckle them into their car seats, they were sobbing. My four-year-old was upset with me for picking him up in the dark again, and I accidentally pinched my one-year-old while zipping up his coat to go home. It could be worse, I reminded myself. But it was a hard day, a hard week, a hard month.
I wanted to join my kids in their tears.
I drove out of the daycare parking lot with a weary heart and two wailing children in the backseat. I checked the clock on the dashboard: 5:15 p.m. They’re probably hungry, too. With The Wiggles playing in the background, I tried to soothe my kids with affirmations, apologies, and the promise of a Paw Patrol episode before dinner.
I pulled into our driveway, and my phone buzzed. I parked the car, held my breath, and glanced down at the screen. It was a text from my husband:
Sorry. Meetings running late. Home by 7:30.
I couldn’t stop the tears from pooling in my eyes. This wasn’t just one more thing on an already hard day. This was our new normal. My husband left before the sun came up and, most days, the kids only saw him to say good night.
It’s not supposed to be like this, I thought as I picked up my phone. It was too much to unpack in a text.
Okay. See you in a bit. Xo
I was 36 weeks pregnant with our third child in the winter of 2021, and my husband offered to take some maternity photos of me in our home. We were in the throes of another COVID pandemic lockdown. Schools were closed again, and we were navigating remote work, remote Kindergarten, and the supervision of an active toddler at home. Our local hospital’s COVID protocols seemed to change weekly, and I was on edge, trying to prepare myself for the possibility I’d have to deliver our baby alone.
But on this day, I wanted to take a few minutes to honor the miracle growing inside me. I put on a flowy blue maternity dress, styled my hair for the first time that week, and accepted my husband’s loving offer. I stood by the foot of our freshly made white bed. The afternoon sun peeked through the blinds, casting soft beams of light into the room. With my hands on my belly, I feigned a look of tranquility while my husband snapped photos with his phone.
He sweetly suggested poses (“try gazing out the window”) while I became lost in my thoughts. What if one of us gets sick? What if I have to deliver alone? I could hear my two and five-year-old laughing and bouncing on the bed in the room next to ours. I thought the pandemic would be over by now. Was I selfish to want this baby? I looked up at my husband and tried to force a smile.
It’s not supposed to be like this, I thought. Then covered my face and sobbed into my hands.
After a two-year hiatus from his daily commute, my husband returned to his downtown office. Working from home came with some challenges for our family, but I loved that he was only footsteps away from us every day.
The first morning of his return to the office, I woke up with a pounding headache and racing heart. I had been up all night with our baby, and the exhaustion was already wreaking havoc on my nervous system.
It’s going to be different this time, I reminded myself.
With a hybrid work schedule for him and a few months left of maternity leave for me, we had a solid plan for more family time and shared responsibilities at home. However, the bodily sensations felt too familiar, and fear took over before I could roll out of bed. What if the plan doesn’t work? In my sleep-deprived state, I feared this was the beginning of an inevitable slide into our pre-COVID patterns where I felt so alone parenting our little ones.
When my husband kissed me goodbye in the kitchen that morning, I blinked back tears. He reassured me he would catch an earlier train home that night, but we both knew he wouldn’t be home in time for dinner.
It’s not supposed to – I started to think, but then I cut my thought short. I actually have no idea how it’s all supposed to be.
I couldn’t have predicted all the complexities of balancing work and family life. There was no manual for navigating a pandemic with young children at home and a baby on the way. I only know the stories I tell myself of how I want things to be: More family time, fewer hours in the office, a feeling of security and confidence about bringing a new baby into the world. And I know they are all valid wants.
I popped some frozen waffles in the toaster and sliced blueberries in half for our baby. Glancing at my kids, I realized how easily these stories of wanting can prevent me from noticing what is good and what is working–especially when life feels hard.
That morning, I walked the older boys to school, with their baby brother bundled up in the stroller. My three-year-old excitedly pointed out signs of Spring (“A bird’s nest!”). My six-year-old recapped his favorite LEGO Ninjago episodes. Despite the dueling dialogues of my boys, the walk and crisp morning air seemed to calm my headache and my heart. The boys joined their friends in the schoolyard. I made my way home and the baby drifted to sleep. Mindful of the fact my maternity leave would soon be over, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity for a long morning walk.
With the bright blue sky overhead, I strolled up and down the tree-lined streets of our suburban neighborhood. I reflected on those days as a burned-out mom of two, and an anxious, soon-to-be mom of three. With the sun shining on my face, I didn’t ruminate on how things should have been. I thought about the late-night conversations with my husband where we held space for each other’s struggles and found ways to hold each other up. Instead of berating myself for the stories I clung to during those days, I gave myself grace.
It was okay that I wanted some things to be different, those seasons were hard.
That night, with the baby on my hip, I watched my husband, the “sludge monster,” chase our boys around the room. With a grateful heart, I realized I had no idea how this transition would play out for our family.
But this time, I’d try to tell myself a different story.
Sera lives in Ontario, Canada, with her husband and three children. She works in the field of school psychology, and writes in the margins of work and family life. Fuelled by strong coffee, kitchen dance parties, and good books, Sera believes writing keeps her attuned to what is good and beautiful in the world.