I sit clutching a book, trying to breathe calmly as I wait outside the door of my daughter’s classroom. It is her first morning at daycare, and I can still smell the faint scent of bleach on my hands from the past few hours spent zealously cleaning my house, as though a sponge wielded correctly might have erased the pain of separation.
I stare at the sign posted on the classroom door. Out for a walk! Be back soon, it says.
Just come back already, I think. I am all for fresh air and walks, but after four hours, I want my baby in my arms.
A man who looks like John Cusack approaches me. "Are you here for the AA meeting?" he asks.
I gape at him open-mouthed, attempting to process the question. They hold AA meetings in this building? I add this fact to my ever-growing list of anxieties about my daughter being in daycare.
I think about the glass of wine I drank at a wedding a few weeks ago, the only alcohol I have consumed over the past 15 months. I stammer out a curt "No!" and explain that I’m just waiting for my daughter. He nods, then crosses to the other side of the room and helps himself to coffee.
The daycare, located in a church in downtown Burlington, has a five-star rating, the highest possible in the state of Vermont. There is a long waiting list, and I have been told several times over the last couple of weeks how lucky I am that my daughter has gotten in. Right now, though, I feel anything but lucky.
The large open meeting room begins filling up quickly. These people are clearly not here to pick up children, and I try not to make eye contact with anyone, my anxiety growing with each second. What if the daycare staff lost her? I worry as I wait. What if one of those people that hangs out on Church Street with the sandwich board signs about the end of the world snatched her out of the stroller as they walked by? I feel my breathing becoming shallow and my shirt, clammy with perspiration, clings to my skin.
Suddenly, a mega stroller comes into the room, propelled by a smiling young woman, and relief washes over me. My baby is here; she is okay. Only a few tears escape my eyes as I scoop up my daughter into a big hug. Inside the classroom, I try to tune out her teacher’s enthusiastic chirping about "all the fun she had with her new friends."
I sit down on the floor and nurse my daughter, thankful that my exposed breast seems to scare away any adults intent on further cheery conversation. With a mix of curiosity and disdain, I think about the meeting in the next room. A church is a logical place to hold a support group meeting, and a practical venue for a childcare center. But must these activities occur simultaneously, side-by-side? I add the AA attendees to my list of potential baby-snatchers, right behind the sandwich board people.
After she finishes nursing, I gather up my daughter’s things and sail out the door with a silent prayer of thanks: tomorrow I won’t have to bring her back. Tomorrow, it will just be the two of us. I don’t have to return to work for a few more weeks, so I can pretend I’m not really going to make a habit of leaving my child in the care of strangers.
The autumn days pass too quickly. I wish for a way to freeze time, but I am a teacher, and my leave is ending, and I really do have to put my daughter into daycare. I attempt to negotiate with my husband. I promise to be a good housewife if he will just agree to extending my maternity leave for the rest of the school year. He shows me graphs and charts predicting our financial ruin without my income and my health plan. I do, however, manage to secure a compromise: I will go back part-time with a half-day schedule. This will allow us to keep our health insurance, although we’ll now have to pay for a significant portion of it.
I return to my classroom, familiar from thousands of hours spent here, but I feel like a stranger, unsure how to fit back into my old life. My colleagues ask gushing questions about my daughter. "Isn’t motherhood wonderful?" they ask. "Savor these moments!" Their well-intentioned words make me want to scream. I don’t feel wonderful—I feel exhausted, and now torn between my desire to be a good mother and a good teacher. But I nod and agree, the socially acceptable response. When they note how quickly I’ve "lost all that baby weight," I downplay their comments, attributing my new physique to the demands of nursing and trying to keep up with a spirited infant.
That first day back, I try not to wonder how my daughter is faring without me, but I can’t help thinking about her during my morning break, when I lock myself into a bathroom and strap on a breast pump. I leave campus the moment my last class ends. Entering the church, I find myself walking into an AA meeting in full swing. A man is telling the story of his sad childhood: frequent moves, divorcing parents, an abusive father. I walk slowly to the kitchen and place my two small containers of breast milk in the refrigerator for the next day. Behind me, I can still hear the man, now explaining that he’d begun drinking as a teenager and soon spiraled out of control. Others in the crowd murmur words of support. When I open the door to my daughter’s classroom, where I am greeted by a chorus of cheerful babbling and smiling infants, it feels like stepping into another, brighter world.
This routine continues throughout the next few months. At work, I’m on autopilot, numb from lack of sleep and the constant ache of missing my daughter. I keep sidestepping comments about my weight loss, jokingly referring to it as "the breastfeeding diet." But I step on the scale each morning, mentally tracking the numbers. I am shocked one December day when the dial reads 99 pounds, a weight I haven’t seen since high school.
I continue to interrupt the weekly AA meetings when I pick up my daughter from childcare. At first, I try not to eavesdrop as I tiptoe through the large group. But as the weeks pass, I find myself almost looking forward to the stories I hear at pick-up. Sometimes I stand in the open kitchen, taking too long to collect my daughter’s things, just listening to the voices from the next room. A woman tells of contemplating suicide, but deciding to live for her son’s sake. A man describes multiple relapses. Another, telling a funny story about his drinking days, curses in the most creative way I have ever heard. Listening, I smile and almost laugh aloud along with the group in the next room. But I stop myself. This story is not meant for me.
Sometimes, during the darkest moments of that winter, I imagine sitting around that circle and telling my own story. In my head, I speak of the tension that has built up in my marriage since my daughter’s birth: the arguments over finances, my burden of guilt for working part-time and barely contributing to our income. I describe the exhaustion from not sleeping through the night for nine months, and the suspicion that breastfeeding is literally sucking the life out of me. I imagine the nods of understanding, the murmurs of support.
One gray January day, I hit my lowest point. Breast pump slung over one shoulder, I’m walking through the hallway at school, preparing to pump. A bake sale is set up in the hall, manned by two freshmen. I smile as I walk past, and one of the boys calls out, "Hey, want to buy a cookie?"
"They do look delicious," I tell him, pausing for a moment. "But no thanks."
As I walk away, I hear the boy say to his friend, "Ugh, she needs a cookie or two. She’s like a walking skeleton."
"Dude, that’s so mean!" the other replies, laughing.
Quickening my pace, I feel my face flush as I nearly run to the bathroom, where I slam the door behind me and lock it. I look into the full-length mirror, noting the way my clothes hang loosely on my body. I am all sharp angles and bones; somehow, in my transition to motherhood, I have lost my curves.
Later that afternoon, at the pediatrician’s office with my daughter for a routine checkup, I learn that I’m not the only one who has lost weight; my daughter’s numbers on the scale have dipped as well.
"How’s breastfeeding going?" asks the doctor, and I burst into tears. Words pour out as I describe the exhaustion, the endless night feedings, the daily pumping sessions that only produce an ounce from each breast.
"It looks like you’ve lost quite a bit of weight," she says gently. "You probably aren’t producing enough fat in your milk." She asks me how many calories I’m taking in, but I honestly don’t know. I admit that I don’t always eat three meals a day. I’ve been so tired, and sometimes I’m just not hungry. The doctor launches into an explanation about the nutritional content of breast milk and suggests I visit a nutritionist.
Grateful to have found someone to talk to, I feel another five pounds lighter as I leave the office. But the thought of dealing with health insurance and co-pays is exhausting. Instead of making an appointment, I promise myself that if the numbers on the scale don’t begin reversing their course soon, I will see a professional.
For the first time in weeks, I start paying attention to how much I eat throughout the day. No longer do I skip breakfast or lunch, and I make sure to bring snacks to work with me each day. Whole milk enters my diet, along with old favorites like peanut butter and full fat cheese, avocados, bagels, and the occasional hamburger. Sometimes, I even eat a cookie for dessert.
Slowly, my weight begins creeping up. I pass 100 pounds on the scale, and my pre-pregnancy clothes begin to fit a little better. I take my daughter to visit her doctor for checkups, relieved when the pediatrician is pleased with her weight gain.
Spring comes and my daughter turns one. I give my breast pump a thorough cleaning and pack it away in a closet without remorse. My daughter is learning to love table food.
For both of us, the school year ends in early June. I give the required two-week notice at the daycare, preferring to take our chances with a new provider in the fall, rather than pay $200 a week all summer to hold her place. I feel like a giddy teenager as I leave school on the last day, happy and carefree. At the church, I am unable to wipe the smile from my face as I tiptoe through a meeting on the way to the classroom. Pausing in the kitchen, I listen briefly as a woman describes her daily struggle to stay sober. I feel a twinge of sadness, suddenly aware that this will be the last time I hear the now-familiar stories of these strangers.
I gather my empty food containers from the refrigerator and say a silent prayer for the woman speaking, then enter the classroom and collect my daughter’s belongings. Somehow I manage to stuff extra sheets, clothes, and a portfolio bursting with multicolored finger paintings into one bag. I sling it over my shoulder, pick up my daughter, and exchange goodbyes with the daycare staff. Mine are polite and routine, but my daughter, just learning to say "bye-bye," waves extravagantly to everyone in the classroom as we leave. On our way out I am forced to parade through the AA meeting, schlepping the overflowing bag and a smiling, waving toddler who acknowledges everyone in her line of vision. The speaker stops and smiles in return, and for the first time I make eye contact with several members of the group. Many of them smile and wave back.
As I meet their eyes, it occurs to me that, without realizing it, I have relied upon this group over the past several months, almost as though I were an honorary member. Struggling through fatigue and anxiety, and attempting to maintain the appearance of a mother who "has it all," I have found comfort in the raw emotions on display in this room, in the knowledge that we all experience adversity. Looking into their eyes now, I remember my foolish fears that one of these people might be a danger to my daughter. Blinded by my own prejudice, I was unable to see then what is so clear now: these people, with their stories of loss and pain, are not so different from myself.
I smile and give a final wave. Then I walk out the door and step into the sunshine.