The pleasures of returning to work

When I began to tell people that I was returning to work full time in a downtown office after 14 years as a stay-at-home mom, their eyes would widen, and after congratulating me they would inevitably say, “Oh your life is about to change.” Their tone implied that my life was not about to change for the better.

On my optimistic days, I reassured myself that I had once successfully returned to work after a six-month maternity leave and this was just a very long maternity leave. On my less optimistic days, I considered calling to say I’d made a mistake and would not be arriving for my first day of work. I reminded myself that the people who hired me knew about that big hole in my resume and wanted me anyway.

In the days before my official start date, I felt like I was about to bungee jump off a cliff. Would the thrill of the jump overcome my fears?

I put on a brave face, determined not to let my anxiety show to my children. It was time to heed the advice I had always given to my children, now teens, who have faced so many new teachers and new schools with my assurance that all would be well, once they settled in.

Six months later, I can admit, yes, some parts are difficult. As every mom has heard more times than she can count, there is no such thing as having it all, but for me, the pleasures have outweighed the burdens.

As I step off the train in the morning, I weave between people threading in all directions. I lift my face up to the skyscrapers greeting me. Each day a slightly different hue bounces off that hammered glass blue building that it is my current favorite. I soak in the sights that still feel foreign to me after so many years in the suburbs. I want to spin and fling my hat exuberantly into the air like Mary Tyler Moore did in the opening credits of her old television show.

As it turns out, all of those wide-eyed, “life is going to change” people were right. My life has changed since returning to work, but mostly in ways that I love:

1. I feel like a grown up again. I know, it sounds weird. My teenagers don’t get it either. For more than a decade I’ve been living life immersed in theirs, some days feeling like I was stuck in whatever developmental age they were.

2. I actually have less responsibility at home. Now that I’m commuting to downtown, my husband is the closest parent to the children’s schools. Bonus! When I leave the house every morning, I shed my parenting responsibility to a degree that’s not been possible for many years.

3. I feel valued and validated. Mothering may be the most important job in the world, but I sometimes struggled to feel valued. I no longer need to wait for Mother’s Day to get a pat on the back. My colleagues’ praise fills my self-esteem bucket, and I enjoy being on the receiving end after so many years of giving daily encouragement.

4. I earn money. Let’s face it, for many of us, working is about the money. We live in an expensive city, and university is only three years away for my oldest. When I see the bank account growing, I feel as if I can finally relax a little about the future. Every deposit increases my sense of personal power.

5. I have a new wardrobe. Building a wardrobe beyond yoga pants is time-consuming and challenging, but also fun. I still love my yoga pants, but now I also have a professional wardrobe. And who doesn’t love great shoes? My teen daughter, who is usually quick to curl her lip and ask, “Are you wearing that?” now sometimes even gives me a nod of approval. She recently commented, “You are more fashion forward since you went back to work.”

6. I learn something new every day. When my children would moan and complain about homework, or chorus that “school is boring,” I would tell them I wished I could go to school. “Yes, we know you love to learn,” they would say with a heavy sigh and a headshake. Going back to work feels like getting paid to go to school.

7. I have more personal time. When I worked at home, I often felt guilty about sitting down to read. Chores beckoned all day long. Now I have a total of 60 minutes every day on a commuter train where I read guilt free.

8. I have more confidence. I have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly my professional skills and my confidence have returned. In the past, my husband’s work functions picked away at my self-esteem when people slithered away to seek more interesting conversation after hearing I was a stay-at-home mom. Now when people ask what I do, I am excited to tell them.

• • •

As it turns out, all those eyebrow-raisers were right. My life has completely changed — but for the better.

And I was also right during all those years when I coached my kids through tough situations. I told them everything would be fine once they settled in. And as it turns out, this was the best advice of all.

Sue LeBreton is a health and wellness writer and mother to two teens.