On Monday, my office reopened for the new year. Students are returning with their suitcases, faculty are opening up their emails for the first time in weeks, administrative offices are scrambling to meet start of term deadlines and expectations. Everything is getting back in gear, and yet I am gearing down.
I celebrated New Year’s Eve with an unplanned trip to the doctor, hooked up for thirty minutes or so for a non-stress test while my husband distracted my daughter with one of the brand new big girl chapter books that we bought her for Christmas. I had woken up that morning to such severe back pain that I was unable to walk without assistance, and a phone call later I was summoned – apparently sudden low back pain is a symptom of pre-term labor.
I was not in labor, thankfully, though it was another 72 hours before I could walk like some variation of an upright, two-legged animal. I became mobile right around the time I was reaching my deadline to make a decision of whether or not to actually listen to my doctor for once, to do what was prudent by not returning to work.
You see, this is not the first time I’ve been hooked up for a listen or prodded for a measurement in between appointments. If the standard is every four weeks until you hit the home stretch, I’ve managed to find reason for a check-in with twice that frequency, and every time the result has been the same – baby is okay, mom is okay, but really there will come a time when everyone just needs to slow it down. And every time I’m able to rationalize that if baby is okay and mom is okay, then there’s really no good reason to actually slow down anytime soon.
But this time was different. This time it seems the decision was made for me.
At my pre-holiday checkup, my doctor made it clear with more force than usual that I needed to consider taking an early leave from my job. After yet another squeezed in at the last minute sonogram, I finally accepted that it was time to talk to HR. But then came Christmas vacation and more rest and relaxation than I’ve had in years, and lo and behold I was feeling better. So much better that I completely forgot how awful I had felt just ten days earlier. So much better that I completely forgot my good, strong intentions to heed my doctor’s advice. Until out of nowhere I was forced into immobility.
It’s embarrassing now, looking back on all these posts over all these weeks, seeing how I wore my workaholic nature like a full-priced Prada purse or an Olympic gold medal. If you thought I could multi-task before, just see what I can do while also creating life one cell at a time! All those rules about eating and sleeping during trimesters one, two and three? Nothing more than suggestions made by weaklings for weaklings. I’ve been driven by my ambition, by my control-freak nature, by my need for validation. By my fear that if I let up even for one moment everything I’ve worked for will be lost.
But then came this new year’s gift. This little reminder that everything I’ve worked for is actually not at all related to what I’m doing when I’m actually at work. What matters is the daughter sleeping upstairs from my makeshift home office, the husband cleaning the kitchen to make sure I stay off of my feet, the baby boy constantly shifting and searching for the perfect spot inside my not-growing-quite-fast-enough-to-hold-him belly. And with this came also a newfound gratitude that, despite all my self-imposed expectations and delusions of success, I work in an organization that values and trusts me to the extent that all it takes is an email or two and I’m set up to work from home for as long as I need to, even if this means not stepping foot on campus until the end of spring. I moan a lot about my job, but there are a lot of positives that are easy for me to miss in the clutter of all those complaints.
So Monday morning, as my colleagues were lapping up free welcome back coffee in the cafeteria, I was sipping herbal tea in my slippers, logging in remotely, and trying to find appropriate language to let everyone know they would not be seeing me for a while. No more mascara, no more high heeled boots. No more commandeering meetings to get my point across or canceling weekend plans to make time for one more project from the bottomless stack. Not for a while, anyway.
My back still aches. I’m still a little grumpy about not getting to catch up with my work friends or joke around with my favorite faculty. I’m still more than a little overwhelmed when I think it might be June before I get to go back to my normal life. And then I remember that I’m never going back to my normal life – that this is just day two of my transition into the new normal of the life I continue to build, of the life that continues to surprise and transform me. And I spend a few minutes counting kicks and counting the minutes until my daughter will come home from school. I take a few deep breaths, I warm up my tea, and I get back to work.