Perhaps it was the whirl of an autumn gust or perhaps it was the pinch of wearing grown-up shoes again after months of runners and flip flops, but something made me wince and shiver as I took the first step up to my office building.
I patted down the flyaways from my smoothish hair. Just an hour earlier my hair had been in its untethered “natural” mammy look as I got ready for my first day back after maternity leave. Sitting down at my dressing table I had felt like Clark Kent going into a phone box. Although if only the change from Mammy to Super Working Mammy was as easy as taking off my glasses and putting on a cape.
It felt like I hadn’t given more than a glance in the mirror since giving birth in December (usually to check if there was baby spit on my top). Some eyeliner and mascara to make my tired eyes look bright and a new top without any special slits for nursing completed my transformation from mammy to serious professional.
Walking inside my office I heard the familiar urgently ringing phones, felt the whoosh of the air con overhead and sensed the buzz of the day’s up-and-down rhythm that had continued in my absence. It was as if I’d stumbled on a street where I once lived after many years. Almost out of body as you have the illusion that everything stayed the same.
But it hadn’t. Or at least I hadn’t.
Old me and new me
Becoming a mother for the first time three years ago changed me, but I still attempted to straddle old me and new me. “I won’t go out for that after-work drink tonight, but next time.” “When things settle down I’ll fit in a pilates class before work.”
Perhaps it was denial.
Becoming a mother for the second time embedded this transformation. I may have looked the same , bar some new sneaky grey hairs , but the metamorphosis into Mammy is complete.
At the coffee station on one of my first days back I bumped into some colleagues discussing the latest production they saw in the theatre. Just a few years ago I would have had my own tales with which to regale them. My last encounter with the boards was a sparkling version of The Gruffalo's Child – at which I went full Mammy mode and clapped along with an enthusiasm that would have mortified my pre-baby self. For now, with two smallies, there is little room for more than family life and work life.
You see, the biggest change in going back to the office was not the hard work, managing the pressure and meeting the deadlines – having two kids keeps you well trained in these skills.
The biggest challenge is how overflowing and packed life is. Going back to work when you have small kids is like typing on a keyboard with a broken space bar and no punctuation marks. There are no stops. No in-between. Time becomes a commodity too rare to waste.
Mornings and evenings are full of food-filled tinfoil and Tupperware stacked up on the counter, while a baby’s naps can result in a dozen dinners for freezing. Train journeys are spent over the phone catching up on work and responding to family and friends’ unreplied texts and WhatsApp messages. And last week in the quiet darkness of my baby’s room as I shushed him to sleep with one hand I sneaked in an online supermarket order on my phone with the other.
Time has become my most valued currency as I try to squirrel five minutes away here and there for the boys. Knowing I’ve just a few waking hours with my children in a day makes me carve out a big chunk for pure play. That’s when the housework gets forgotten. My phone gets put down. And we stop. And we play. And we read. And we cuddle.
Whether it's turning the thick pages of The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the baby in the lovely pre-dawn silence of 6am, putting his little fingers through the holes of apples and plums (that won't fit for long). Perhaps it's pretending to be the railway controller from Thomas the Tank Engine with my eldest as we play with his train set and I try out my best Liverpudlian accent. We stop. And we play. I look my boys in the eye knowing there is nowhere else I'd rather be. Not bored. Not distracted.
For I know it’s fleeting and I’ll soon be donning my cape and glasses and turning into Super Working Mammy.