I don't know how you do it.Usually the context of this phrase is when a mother who normally stays home with her children has had to leave town without them for a few days. She is struck by how much she misses her children and how happy she is to be reunited and then the fatal phrase is uttered:
I don't know how you working mothers do it. I missed my children so much. I could not do this everyday.It stabs. The intent is almost never malicious. It is an innocent wonder at how such a burden could consistently be borne. The problem with voicing such a thought is not that it isn't reasonable or true. The problem is that it very reasonable and terribly true.
Other working mothers might have a different perspective, but here is my response to those who might wonder.
First of all, I leave every day because I have to do it. You could do it too if you had to do it. There isn't anything special about me that makes it possible for me to leave which you might lack. The truth is that I experience the same pain that you do from being separated. I am not inured from it; I just get used to it.
When I first have to leave an infant, the pain is overwhelming. It is stabbing and constant. Every day is a battle and it takes every fiber of my being to make myself go where I have to go. The first few weeks are the worst because I feel like I am being ripped in half. Leaving every day opens the wound again. It stings. It does get easier but it doesn't get better. Over time, after poking open the wound day after day, the pain subsides not because the wound is healing but because scar tissue forms. The scar tissue is numb. It isn't that it doesn't feel, but that it can't.
I function in this state of numbness until something interrupts the daily routine. An illness, a few days off, anything at all breaks open the wound anew. Returning to work after such an interruption is hard, almost as hard as it is in the beginning. All of that scar tissue gets rips away and it takes time to build that newly hardened layer again.
This alternating state between raw pain and numb scar tissue lasts for the first year or so of baby's life. It is so intense, I think, because of the hormonal dance between mother and baby and because the baby is so dependent. I cannot kid myself into believing the baby is happy with our separation because each night brings a baby desperately clinging to me. The baby may not be directly unhappy while I am gone, but her behavior after our nightly reunion clearly indicates that my absence is disruptive. Her behavior isn't even one of distress, but of needing to be close all the time. Happily wanting to be held and nursed and toted by me all evening. I cannot pretend she does not notice my absence because I know she does.
After the first year of separation is over, the acuteness of the pain mellows into a hollowness. The baby is growing up and needs you less and less. This isn't to say that a toddler doesn't need his mother, but only to say the desperation of the need is less. He is happy with others and plays more independently. As the baby grows through toddlerhood and preschool and begins elementary school, the routine of leaving is just part of life. It is not like I am being ripped in half to leave anymore, but this easing of the acuity of the pain also comes with the aching hollowness in the realization of how much I miss.
This pain is a different kind of pain. It doesn't stab; it only sighs. It sighs at the missed moments and activities, the missed library trips and school parties, the missed outings that mothers do with their children. It sighs as the children get old enough to ask why you have to leave everyday and you have to explain.
Absence is the constant companion of my motherhood. There is a hollow spot where the memories of my children's days should be. Spending too much time examining this spot is counterproductive, but it's there even as I avert my view from it.
So how do I do it? One day at a time, sometimes one moment at a time. I keep my attention fixed on what is required and try not to think about what is preferred. I take comfort in the knowledge that if I was supposed to have been doing something else, I would have been doing it even while I don't understand why this way was best. I work to make the future look less like the past and know, if I do my part, all will be well, whatever 'well' ends up being. Wait. Trust. Hope. Love.
Mostly though I want you to understand there isn't anything special about me that makes it easier or even possible. It's just the way it is. You could do it too, if you had to.