A few months after the birth of my daughter, the nagging guilt of leaving her with a nanny was still a ghost that incessantly whispered in my ear, informing me with glee that I was a terrible mother and an even worse human. I felt like I was falling apart.
Ten weeks postpartum was not my best look. My eye circles were heavy, my hair was beginning to fall out, my belly was soft and languid and my legs seemed almost atrophied. Even so, I had decided that it would be best for me to return to my job as a Pilates instructor.
I tried to avoid looking at what I considered the Cubism version of myself. I kept catching glimpses of my reflection in the fully mirrored Pilates studio, a funhouse version that followed me everywhere with its strange, new, blurred features. I had half-expected my body to be perfectly placed back into its pre-baby arrangement like a real-life version of Operation. I hadn’t anticipated incontinence and hip pain.
Adding insult to injury, my teaching rhythm was off and my baby brain made me forget complex anatomical terms, such as “arm” and “hamstring.” I’d begin cueing moves that I’ve taught literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times before and I’d suddenly find myself dreamily staring into space, my bloodshot eyes wide and vacant.
It’s safe to say I was in a delicate place, mentally and physically. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I almost lost it when a coworker, who found out I was a new mother, innocently asked, “So, who’s watching the baby right now?”
It was a stake in my heart, a verbal reminder that I had left my sweet angel in the cold hands of a stranger in order to go back to work. I fumbled with my response, articulating that yes, she was with a nanny, but the nanny wasn’t a full-time nanny, and I was home by 3:00 p.m. and wasn’t the baby happier with the nanny anyway?
My coworker watched my soliloquy with mild disinterest, clearly regretting her question.
I thought about the interaction for the next few days. Why had that question bothered me so much? Why had I responded so oddly, my response rife with defensiveness and self-justification?
A few days later, it happened again. While joking around with my class attendees about the joys of my child’s 2:00 a.m. feeding time, one woman turned to me and sweetly inquired, “Who watches the baby while you’re here?”
I think my head rotated a full 360 degrees. Again, I stammered out words. “Baby, nanny, happy, me work.”
Later that night, I asked my husband if his coworkers ever asked him who was watching the baby. His blank look of confusion was confirmation that no, of course not. How often do men get grilled about their choice of childcare?
Once the number of inquiries reached the double digits, I started to think of smart and funny ways I could respond. “The dog’s got it covered,” was one. “She’s very mature for 10 weeks,” was another. Or maybe no response at all. Just a panic-stricken look and a dash out the door.
The multitudes of very nice women who asked me about my baby were probably doing it either out of genuine curiosity or simply as a banal conversation starter. You know: How’s the weather? Where’s the baby?
But underneath it, I felt tiny barbed accusations. “You’re her mother. You’re doing this job instead of watching her? You’re entrusting her to a nanny or daycare instead of caring for her during these fleeting moments of her youth?” The inquiries broke a levee of insecurity in me that came flooding out each time the question was posited. As someone keenly aware of her maternal shortcomings, I didn’t have the armor of self-confidence to deflect these mundane inquiries.
This isn’t the 1950’s—people aren’t doing double takes as I head off to my job, the image of a working woman as incongruous as seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. I shouldn’t be asked this inane, loaded question that has no right answer. My baby is fine, thank you, and has not been left to her own devices. It would be easier if motherhood took place in a vacuum; it’s harder with a prism of judgment constantly being reflected on my choices.
I already think my flaws are prominently displayed. Subtle judgment calls like these make me also believe they’re in technicolor. But I’m doing what is best for me, and what’s best for me is also best for my baby.