09.20.139:00 PM ET

The Back-To-Work Guilt Trip

When new mom Katrina Alcorn went back to work full-time, she panicked that she was failing her baby. In her new book, 'Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink," she examines how mothers are internalizing the stress of the work-life balancing act.

The reality of being a full-time working mom was like diving into a cold pool. You can’t prepare for it. The exhilaration of that first week quickly gave way to a deep, numbing ache for the former days with my baby. Leisurely midday grocery-shopping trips were replaced by harried evening trips with a cranky baby in the cart. No more baby yoga, peaceful afternoons at the park, reading The New Yorker while Ruby napped on my chest, or walks around the lake with the moms from my birth class.

I missed my baby.

I was also worried about her. Although she seemed to be doing well, it didn’t seem right that she spent the better part of each waking day with someone other than me. Maybe I would have felt differently if she’d been home with her dad, or a grandparent, but that wasn’t an option. Brian’s parents lived in Detroit, thousands of miles away. My parents were even farther away—my mother in upstate New York, my dad and stepmother in Connecticut. I was still getting to know Thania, and while I trusted her, she wasn’t family. When I added up the hours that Ruby was at Thania’s, the number shocked me. I half expected a social worker to knock on my door. Ma’am, we hear your baby is in day care 45 hours a week . . .

“Keep in mind, hon, you and I are amateurs,” Brian said. “Thania’s a professional.”

He was right. Thania had more experience with children than I did—she’d read more books, she’d taken more classes, and she had two kids of her own—but that wasn’t the point. Mothers are supposed to be with their babies, I thought. How could I be sure that Ruby was bonding with me the way she was supposed to? What if she didn’t know how much I loved her? Was it really okay to be away from her so much?

I searched the Internet at night, when Ruby was asleep in her crib, looking for answers. What I read only made me more confused.

Some studies said that full-time day care could lead to psychological problems for a small percentage of children later in life, while other studies found that the effects of day care were negligible. Around the time I started the job at Dogstar, CBS ran a story called “The Negative Effects of Child Care?” about new research that showed longer stays in day care led to aggressive behavior later for some children. This could happen even if they were in high-quality care. The key to avoiding these behavior problems, one study concluded, was the mother: “The sensitivity of the mother could offset those negative effects.”

In other words, it was up to me—and only me—to make it all right that Ruby was in day care all day. No mention of the father’s role. I had already suspected this; now I had scientific proof. It was as if someone had just squirted an entire can of lighter fluid over the flames of my guilt.

So I did what I assumed any good mother would do in my situation: I tried to compensate for the time I was at work by devoting every extra moment to my daughter. I gave up exercise. I gave up seeing friends on the weekends. I continued to sacrifice sleep. At night, after Ruby was safely tucked in her crib, and before I started in on the laundry, I steamed and mashed and jarred fresh organic vegetables for her lunch the next day.

“You know they sell organic baby food now,” Brian chided meone evening as I scraped puréed carrots from the blender with a tablespoon.

“You don’t have to do all this.”

“I want to do it,” I said stubbornly.

This was not entirely true. The truth was, my back ached from sitting at the computer and bending over a nursing baby, and I longed to collapse into bed. But the food I made—more nutritious than anything I could buy—was a way to care for Ruby when I wasn’t with her.

When Ruby woke up to nurse at 1:00 or 2:00 am, I continued to bring her to bed and keep her with us until morning. I wanted to squeeze in every extra opportunity for togetherness.

“When do you want to talk about sleep training?” Brian asked groggily one morning as he filled the kettle from the kitchen sink.

I felt myself tense up immediately. Sleep training, in my mind,was a nice, clinical term for “Let your baby cry alone in her crib.” It was bad enough that I had abandoned my baby during the day. Now I was supposed to be away from her at night, too? I dismissedthe idea with a frown and a vigorous shake of my head. “She’s too little still.”

Technically, this wasn’t entirely true. According to a book some friends had given us, Ruby had surpassed the “magic weight” of 11 pounds, which meant her body didn’t need a nighttime feeding. Physically she was capable of sleeping through the night. Brian knew this. After all, he told me that Martha was only four months old when she started sleeping through the night in her own crib. But Brian knew how bad I felt about being away from Ruby. Out of kindness,he let the subject drop. For a week.

“Hon, you can’t keep bringing her to bed,” Brian rubbed his eyes and slumped against the kitchen counter one morning. “We’ve got to start sleeping better.”

I poured boiling water into the coffee filter over my mug, too tired to respond.

“Katrina, are you listening to me?”

“Yes, but I don’t want to,” I sighed. “Stop bringing her to bed, I mean.” I breathed in the steamy aroma of Italian roast, willing the caffeine to enter my nose and go directly to my brain.

If I’d been thinking clearly, I would have seen that Brian and I both desperately needed to sleep, by any means necessary. If I’d been thinking clearly, I would have seen that the only way to function was to give up the thing I cherished. But sleep deprivationis a circular problem. I wasn’t thinking clearly because I desperately needed to sleep.

“Look at you!” Brian snapped.

I jumped, startled at the abrupt anger in his voice.

“You have circles under your eyes. You’ve only been at this job for a month and you’re running yourself ragged!”

“Thanks.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “I really needed to hear how shitty I look.”

“You know what I mean,” Brian said, his voice softening. “I’m just worried about you.” He put his hand on my arm, but I shrugged it away.

I had a feeling he was right—we had to do something—but I was so tightly cocooned in my own guilt, I had no room for compassion or understanding, neither his nor my own. The only other feeling I had room for was rage. How could Brian possibly understand what this was like? I fumed silently. He was the dad. The bar was so low for dads. Dads were like clowns at the party. Show up, make everyone laugh, take a bow, then disappear before the mess had to be cleaned up.

This wasn’t fair, of course. Brian worked hard, too. He just knew his limits, and he didn’t obsess over what he couldn’t do. Once a week, he took a night off to see a movie or hang out at a sports bar with a friend. He didn’t feel bad about it. And maybe that’s what pissed meoff. Because while I could have done those things, I couldn’t have enjoyed them. Meanwhile, no matter what I did or didn’t do, it seemed as if every day I was failing my child.

“Sugar, you’re not taking any time for yourself. You need to take care of yourself . . . Go to a yoga class tonight. I’ll watch Ruby.”

“I don’t want to be away from my baby.” My voice came out lowand quiet, almost a growl. To my own ears I sounded like some wild woodland creature.

“Listen, I know it’s different for me . . . I have Martha . . .” Brian continued in his conciliatory voice. “Ruby’s your first. You worry more with the first one. But you don’t have to do everything perf—”

Yep. He had already been through this before. And that was part of what I was pissed about. He wasn’t worried about Ruby. I was alone.

“Shut up!” I snarled. “I don’t need your f--king advice.”

I looked straight into his eyes as I said that, and immediately wished I could take it back. Brian has the kindest brown Croatian eyes, which turn down at the outer corners. He stands a good six inches taller than me, and most of the time, he’s like a big, strong, warm teddy bear. But when he’s angry, he resembles something closer to a big, strong, actual bear, and although he has never inflicted harm on a creature larger than a house spider, the physical display of his anger always takes me aback. It took about a millisecond for this transformation to take place. Suddenly, I was staring up into hard, cold eyes.

“Fine. F--k you, too!” Brian roared, slamming his mug down and sloshing coffee on the counter.

Ruby, propped up in her high chair, started to cry. Brian stalked out of the kitchen.

And so, in the fine tradition of exhausted, guilt-ridden mothers everywhere, I had alienated the person I most depended on—my husband—and upset the person I most wanted to protect—my child. And all it took was one stupid remark. I was becoming quite efficient.


Excerpted from Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.Copyright 2013.