Photo by Thomas Leth-Olsen
“Mommy—Don’t go to work,” said my two-year-old daughter said, who’d just started speaking in sentences. As I put on my jacket, she began to cry. I kissed her cheek, and said, “I’ll be home later.” The babysitter fed her, and I closed the door. I heard her sobbing as I charged down the hallway. I had 5 minutes to catch the BxM3 Express Bus from Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx to get to 5th Avenue and 84th Street in Manhattan.
When I imagined having a baby, I pictured leisurely days, with lots of snuggles and mouth-wiping. I didn’t have a clue. I used to judge parents who “outsourced” their childcare to a paid stranger—not having any understanding of how modern families really work.
My clan is rather modern, though we’re not on television. I was born in India, raised Hindu, in Poughkeepsie, NY, by a stay-at-home mother and grandmother. My husband is Puerto Rican, Lutheran, born and raised in the Bronx. After we got married at the County Clerk’s office in Brooklyn Heights, I left my decade-long adopted neighborhood of Brooklyn to live in Kingsbridge Heights, or as I call it “Riverdale-adjacent” in the Bronx.
When my two-month maternity leave ended, I returned to work as private tutor in Manhattan. My husband was in the process of going back to school at Lehman College, near our home—decisions we made together. When I was pregnant, this plan was abstract. That first day back in my office, I realized I was the breadwinner, and neither the mother I grew up with nor the one I expected to be.
Back to work, my baby was in my husband’s excellent hands—large, strong, seasoned hands. He had already had a little girl, so he was experienced with things that terrified me: giving newborns baths with their umbilical cords, cutting tiny fingernails, slipping shirts over fragile heads and squishy necks. Two months after I went back to work, he started school, and then we hired our first babysitter.
The one-hour Express Bus ride to work, during which I looked at children, playing in Central Park, in fancier strollers and coats that we couldn’t afford, filled me with angst. More so, I wished to be able to be the mom who could have the time to go to the park, and afford to live in a neighborhood with nicer playgrounds.
A few years before, I lived in Babyville, Brooklyn–on the edge of Park Slope, Fort Greene & Prospect Heights. Yet, motherhood was another planet that I didn’t live on. I may have huffed at a few overly bulky strollers pushed by people who didn’t think anyone else needed the sidewalk. I may have even puffed at some moms who asked patrons at an outdoor beer garden to stop smoking, acknowledging that even as a non-smoker, I wanted adults to be allowed to smoke al fresca. Really—I was jealous. Sitting in a cafe, where I would work or read quietly, I longed to be a parent with a baby in a high chair.
Until I was thirty-two, I suffered from vaginismus—a condition that made intercourse, and hence pregnancy, impossible. My pain and grief was invisible, as was my deep desire to have my own children. I entered treatment, eventually resolved my issue, met my husband, and got pregnant. I was thrilled.
When I was first pregnant, part of me thought that I could go to the cute cafes I would frequent on Vanderbilt or DeKalb Avenues in Brooklyn, but this time, I would be the one with the baby in the high chair. But the reality was my family of four could not fit into the cozy apartment I called my own in Brooklyn.
The Bronx was logical, as we could afford a livable three-bedroom apartment, my in-laws lived there, and my own parents lived just north. But there were no places to sit and have coffee, much less eat crepes, the playground equipment was not as new and developmentally current. But my stepdaughter and baby each had their own bedrooms, and we had a large living room where a dozen kids could play, and even a double guest bed in the nursery. I bought an espresso machine, and made my kitchen my cute café.
As a working mom, I missed many things. A week before my baby turned one, the babysitter sent me a video of my daughter’s first steps. I was in a meeting and missed the video message for an hour. My daughter used to prop herself on furniture, but in this video, she was hands-free, with an expression of pure accomplishment. I was further crushed because the next two days were seasonally busy, and I left before she woke up and arrived after she slept. I didn’t see her walk for another two days. On the fourth day of her walking, I finally saw her steps in person. I beamed.
This past summer, we were guests at a nearby tennis club in Westchester County, the proximity a benefit to living in the Bronx. I felt out of place in the manicured lawn, among mothers who exuded confidence. As I met my friends’ friends, I realized our lives were not so different. One mother had just gone back to work as a pharmaceutical rep, and spoke about her high babysitting bills. I nodded, knowing what that weekly calculation was like, yet wishing I could pay even more than I could. Another was going back to work as a high school teacher, after a four-year hiatus, and was nervous about that transition. One was talking about reentering the workforce after a divorce. We were all insecure. When I told them I went back after two months, they looked at me, and said: “Good. It’s harder to get back to work after too long; some women are having a really hard time.”
The tennis club had a playground with pirate ships, poles, and drawbridge, over soft cork shavings. My daughter loved every inch of that playground. Then, she realized she could explore beyond the perimeter. As she stepped away from the pirate ship, she ran through the shaggy lawn, and down the hill. As she sprinted toward the gate-less pool, she screamed: “I’m going to work, Mommy. I’m going to work.”
I ran to catch her, swooped in, and picked her up. She put her arms around my neck. “I’m going to work,” she laughed. Work was skipping in fields of grass, diving into deep blue pools, and relishing sunny days. Fun, pleasure, independence and joy.
That next Monday, as I took the Express Bus to work, I finally stopped feeling guilty, thinking of all the things my daughter might grow up to be. As I watched the boroughs shift in the window, I imagined her at our local playground with her babysitter, spinning an older-but-still-rotating gigantic yellow wheel, as she pretended to drive.