September is my favourite month of the year. As a child I loved the first leaves changing colour, choosing new school shoes, and the obligatory trip to Woolworths to select a shiny new pencil case complete with hologram stickers and scented rubbers.
As an adult and teacher, I love having two starts to the year: 1) New Year’s Day and 2) the optimistic second-chance glow of Autumn Term. Therefore, it was with an empty dread that I prepared for the end of my second maternity leave, straight after the cosiness of Christmas. My return to work was to be the first week in January. Black mornings. Frozen windscreens. Heart-wrenching sorrow at waking a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old from the marshmallow softness of their bedrooms (to be shipped to separate childcare providers, several miles apart). Admittedly, I did look forward to hot cups of tea, adult conversation and prolonged periods of sitting down, while guilt and regret echoed around my head like boxers taunting each other in a ring.
This was going to be so much harder than I imagined it would be.
My first day back at work was an ordeal. It was also my 3-year-old’s first full day at nursery. We were both crying in the cloakroom as he clung to my leg with a strength at odds with his size and stature. I managed to gulp something barely comprehensible about him ‘not knowing any of the teachers’ names’ and was gently cajoled out of the door, red-faced and whimpering.
At work, sympathetic faces smiled and nodded as I made it through the car park, past reception and upstairs to my room. I broke down when I saw my work bestie, my old form class and even my school mug. I threw my arms around the Assistant Head when he came to conduct an equipment check, leaving salty smears of foundation on his lapel. Confused, he looked at my GCSE class for answers, and a Year 11 boy explained, “It’s ok sir, she’s just upset about coming back. We’re looking after her”. And they did. There was no awkwardness about my random bursts of sobbing, or snorts into 2 ply tissues, or choked silences when the sentiment of a poem hit a maternal chord. Everyone was great.
My 3-year-old was inconsolable when I collected him. He was under the impression I’d be picking him up after lunch as I had done during his ‘settling-in’ visits. His little face looked sore from crying as his chest convulsed in bewildered abandonment. His ‘key worker’ produced a picture he’d made, ‘For Mummy’s classroom’. When I went to pick up my 1-year old from my mother’s, she was all fluffy golden ringlets and her skin smelled like dolly mixtures. I was ready to throw the towel in.
The next day I showed my form class my little boy’s picture. I had fewer breakdowns that day. I was met with more encouragement from pupils and colleagues, but the work-load was incredible. In the weeks that followed I tried working later than usual to avoid bringing work home. Sometimes I was annoyed I couldn’t come in as early or stay as late as I used to. Other times I was able to sail out of the door, leaving my ‘to do’ list on my newly polished desk without the merest suggestion of remorse. (This was an unexpected consequence of my return to work; I had to have a spotless work space and would regularly clean and tidy as a way to self-soothe).
Now, six months into the working-mother-of-two routine, I am managing. I do get to drink hot cups of tea, have adult conversations and regularly enjoy prolonged periods of sitting down. This September heralds another new start; working three days one week and four days the next. It is, like many aspects of motherhood, a compromise. But mostly, I am really looking forward to that shiny new pencil case!
Victoria Ribbands is a teacher, mother and lover of the great outdoors. Wannabe gardener, part-time runner. Spends far too long reading information boards in museums.