x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Married Life: For a working mother, guilt is inescapable

I didn't know whether I'd want to go back to work and continue pursuing my career, or replace that with the fulltime job of being a mother.

The three most popular questions asked of a pregnant woman: "When are you due?" "Is it a boy or girl?" And the cherry on top: "Have you picked out a name yet?"

The fourth most popular question, if she is working, is a combination of: "Are you going back to work?" and "What are you going to do when you go back to work?"

I'd always shrug when faced with the question: "I don't know, yet." And for a while, I truly didn't.

I didn't know whether I'd want to go back to work and continue pursuing my career, or replace that with the full-time job of being a mother. I didn't know whether I would continue being me without the job that has defined who I am my entire adult life. I didn't know if my relationship with my husband would continue to prosper if I didn't retain the independence of a separate income and the sense of worth that comes every time my name is published or a colleague is appreciative of my work.

I didn't even know if I'd love my daughter enough to want to be with her 24 hours a day or if I'd be desperate for the escape that working would afford.

Now, I am in awe with how naive I was, how ridiculous my thoughts were - as if I could ever quantify this love I have for her or find the words to adequately describe how I feel about her, how she's changed my life, how much I want for her.

I was torn throughout my too-short maternity leave, devastated at the idea of being away from her for eight to nine hours a day.

Mr T could see my anguish and in his usual problem-solving fashion decided to find a solution. Two days and a spreadsheet later, he came to me triumphant.

"We can survive on just one salary, and live well, too. I told you we can," was his declaration, steeped in pride. "You can stay with Baby A. See? I made us a whole budget. It'll just require a few minor lifestyle changes. You don't have to go back to work."

And that's when it hit me. I was secretly excited to go back to work. It was never a question of whether or not I'd go back; that wasn't the crux of my dilemma. Instead, it was how to swallow the crippling guilt I felt knowing that I could very well choose to be a stay-at-home mother but instead chose to work - and leave my daughter in the care of another.

I am luckier than most. I don't have to hire live-in help or hunt for a daytime nanny whom I may never trust or spend more than half my salary on a mediocre day care. I get to drop her off with her loving grandmother every day, knowing she is receiving nurturing care and loving attention second only to her mother's.

But the guilt is still there. I cannot help feeling selfish. I still wonder if I am doing the right thing by doing the job I love, and I am still racked by guilt as I head home every afternoon, when I realise that not only did I survive the day away from her but I enjoyed it as well. I miss her intensely when we are apart; it is an actual, physical ache deep in my belly. And yet I cannot seem to find the strength to give up the job I love to be with the daughter I adore.

Hala Khalaf is the deputy editor of Arts&Life

hkhalaf@thenational.ae