I started my maternity leave almost exactly nine months ago. At the time it seemed like an endless, beautiful stretch of time streaming out in front of me – time to give birth, time to get to know this tiny stranger, time to spend with the other two. I couldn’t remember with any degree of precision my other two maternity leaves (well, one actually: one period of maternity leave began immediately the first one ended- that’s what happens when your second child is born almost exactly a year after the first), only that they were a haze of sleeplessness and small, flailing limbs and soft hair and screaming and crawling and boredom and occasional despair and feeding and cleaning and meal producing and kisses and smiles and, mostly, the sweetest of loves.
This maternity leave has been all this, but it has felt different. Perhaps because I’m so aware that this, this most unexpected and perfect of gifts, is the last. Perhaps because, by comparison to the others, it’s been so short. Perhaps simply because I’ve done it all before. I’ve known this time disappears in the blink of an eye, time rushing away like the tide, and the next time I look up he’ll be a toddler, a little boy on his first day at school. My first maternity leave was a lovely whirl of NCT and lots of babies and coffee and cake. This time around it’s just been me and him, bookended by school runs. My time with him alone has been short, and I have guarded it jealously. We spent mornings pottering, and afternoons asleep, his little face turned into my neck, his soft breaths huffing against my skin, his tiny hand in mine, fingers intertwined. Every morning we took child 1 to school and I listened to spellings and times tables and Minecraft monologues and saw his intent, sweet face in the rear view mirror. ‘I love your face,’ I said every morning to child 1 and every morning he ducked his head and laughed and I stored up these few precious minutes for when I return to work. And every afternoon we would walk up to child 2’s school and wait for her to come flying out of the classroom, hair everywhere, a beaming smile for both of us. Those moments morning and afternoon with the older two have been another lovely, unexpected gift. I will miss them.
And now maternity leave is almost at an end. It seems it has flashed by, those months in which he turned from a fragile, tiny newborn into this, my gorgeous, blue eyed, endlessly smiling boy. He is the loveliest of babies, my sweet third child, with his huge smile and reaching arms and chuckling laugh. The thought of leaving him every day is an impossible one. Leaving him at nursery, watching his face crumple and having to ignore his little arms stretched up towards me, felt as though I was tearing my heart from my chest. I’ve spent eight months making him happy. My every instinct is to protect him, after all, not walk away from him. The gradual detachment process that I know parenting is made up of did not begin so early with the other two- in fact, full time work did not begin for me until they were much older – and my heart, imprinted indelibly as it is with his tiny fingerprints, objects to being apart from him even for a few hours. I’m obsessed with his little face, besotted by his smile, captivated by his soft head beneath my chin. The thought of the majority of my waking hours being spent without him threatens to split me in two.
And yet. I love work. I have missed it. All my adult life work has been a huge part of my identity. Not like being a mother – not like that. Motherhood will always be the greatest part of my self. But being a teacher is a joy and a privilege that I have always been grateful for. Watching a child’s face light up as they grasp a previously seemingly insurmountable concept – that’s wholly worth going to school for. Its the best job in the world. On days when my heart threatens to break over leaving him, my little love, I remind myself that I can be both. Being a mother doesn’t stop me being a good teacher, and being a teacher doesn’t stop me being a good mother. I am fortunate to be able to have both, and to be going back to a new job in a school I love.
And so this time next week when I will have returned to work, and he will have spent the longest period he ever has without me, I will remind myself of this. My maternity leave has been a gift. It has given me the greatest of joy. I have been fortunate every day to have those hours with him. And now it’s time for the next chapter.
Thank you, my littlest one. It’s been the greatest and most wonderful of adventures, suffused at every stage with joy and love. I’ll never forget it.