Why Doesn’t Anyone Talk About the Grieving Process Stay-at-Home Moms Go Through When Returning to Work?

The moment after I dropped my youngest child at her ballet class, the familiar feeling of grief that had been creeping into my daily emotional roller coaster plunged me down again.

A stay-at-home mom for the past four years, my return to work has been a mixture of anticipation for something new—and utter, complete sadness. The decision to go back was largely spurred by financial needs, but also in part by my own ambitions to further my career. Still, I never anticipated starting the job interview process with a mixture of anxiety and guilt.

After having my second child four years ago, I left a decently paid job with good prospects for moving up. My husband and I knew we wanted three children, and the full-time work I’d gone back to with a 10-month-old had nearly sent me into a breakdown. The thought of doing it with three young ones in tow was almost unbearable.

So, like so many other young families, we’d made the decision to scale back our finances so I could stay at home. Now we have three children under 6 and have reached our financial limit—among other limits.

I’m tired. And getting my children to listen every morning as my youngest, now 3, discovers her voice, becomes an endless battle. The routine, though well-established, feels monotonous. My mind is eager for another challenge.

We live in London, one of the most expensive cities, so I’m ever aware of the unconscious burden my partner carries in supporting our family. I’ve never been the sort of mom who sat back and cleaned. I’ve tried all sorts of projects, but none has paid the bills in a way that we can feel comfortable. The symbolism of my three daughters seeing their mom go off to work and dad stay at home isn’t lost on me. It’s what I’ve been holding on to as I embark on my “return to work” mission.

I thought I was ready. I thought it would be a seamless transition. Except there was one thing that I didn’t factor—loss. I have to constantly remind myself that the feeling of loss is NOT synonymous with death. I am not going away forever. I am simply returning to a 9-5 job like so many other mothers before me.

As I prepare to return, I watch each of my children at their after-school activities, grateful for the time we’ve had and blessed that I’ve been with them for so much of their early lives. After every interview, I wonder if this school pick-up or this holiday will be my last with the girls? I seem to forget in the moment that if it’s the right job, I’ll be able to take time off or enjoy the holidays with them.

I guess it’s the idea of being confined to 25 days leave every year that scares me. I’ve spent seven summers with my children, always making the most of our time like we’re on a six-week-long holiday in the city we call home.

Fountains in King’s Cross, walks in Hampstead Heath and picnics in Regent’s Park have featured prominently throughout our summer vacations. But, I’ve always had this feeling that it wouldn’t last. Maybe it’s because I knew eventually I’d go back to being employed or because I knew my girls would grow up and no longer want to spend summers with their family. I’ve always felt like we were on a countdown and now have six, maybe seven summers left at most.

The more I read about “having it all,” the more it seems impossible. My fears range from not feeling needed by my children to them not wanting to talk about their day. I wonder how I’ll stay relevant and if they’ll miss me?

I’ve never been the fun, entertaining parent. My role has been firmly fixed as the caregiver, a carefully carved out role that reflects my love of routine, organization and detail. I wonder, what will my role be when I’m one step removed? Will they be happy to see me? Will my partner do all of these things better?

And I wonder if I’m alone in feeling this way? Countless women head back to work after just months of staying home. Surely I should feel grateful for having spent a glorious four years at home, right?

Well, what I’ve realized is that I’m definitely not alone. Mothers I’ve spoken to, plagued by the same sense of loss, silently battle this feeling. Articles on the subject hardly prepare women for the emotional turmoil. They merely address the practicalities of staying on top of things—as if that should be our primary concern.

Curious, I asked around my network of moms to find out what others went through in their return-to-work transition. One mother described “uncontrollable sobs” the first time dropping her 9-month-old at daycare. Other working moms described a never-ending search for flexibility so they’d still be able to spend time with their kids.

It’s made me think about what exactly are we grieving over? Is it the loss of freedom and ability to spend time with our children whenever we choose? The fear of becoming redundant in our children’s lives? Or is it a fear that we’ll lose a part of our identity? An identity that’s been so carefully etched into who we are, the places we go to, the friends we choose and the activities we enroll in.

I started a new exercise class last year and at first I felt like a stranger amongst all of the women.They were all either career go-getters or single women. It was only after I’d opened up about my daughters and my journey to get my body back in shape after having birthed them that I felt completely seen

In so many ways, my daughters are so much of who I am. My days revolve completely around their schedules. So, perhaps I’ve lost a part of who I was before they were born.

Sitting in job interviews, I’m rediscovering lost passions and intellectual capabilities that I haven’t used in years. Being asked to recount what I’d done in previous jobs made me think about all that I’d accomplished in my “lost” career. I managed a five-person team! I spearheaded big governmental projects! Perhaps there’s more to me than I’ve been giving myself credit for?

But it’s uncomfortable and, God, it’s f***ing scary. Maybe it’s exciting for the brave and fearless, but for someone who is comfortably sitting in the c-zone? It’s terrifying. I’m terrified.

My oldest daughter wanted to role-play job interviews after hearing all about my recent experiences. My other two played dress up in my new “work” wardrobe, laughing that I’ll look so ‘fancy’ (as if my school drop-off attire isn’t noteworthy)!

I’m grateful for the time I’ve had with them and I’m sorry it passed so quickly.

While I grieve leaving behind the role of primary caregiver in my children’s lives, I’m happily stretching out into this new role of working mom. If I’m lucky, that role will also include fashionista—and perhaps to my daughters, an updated version of Supermom too.

Fariba Soetan is a mom of three in London and blogs about her mixed heritage family at mixedracefamily.com.