An Overachiever Fails At Maternity Leave

I start taking work calls after the first week at home with the baby. It does not occur to me to ask for help.

by Jennifer Romolini

Though I have three months maternity leave, I start taking work calls after the first week, as soon as Alex returns from his trip. I pretend to be aghast at this intrusion, but in truth I welcome it. I schedule check-ins while I am nursing and while I am sterilizing bottles and scrubbing breast pump parts. I want to hear gossip, I want to be needed for advice. The person I’ve chosen to cover my maternity leave is not incompetent but also not good, a strategic placeholder planted so everyone will miss me, so I will be needed, to showcase my comparative value. I don’t think of how it would feel to be a placeholder, to be set up to fail or at best muddle through. In truth, I’m terrified of being replaced. I’m terrified they’ll discover I’m not indispensable, that it’s better without me.

I miss the noise of work, the chaos, the drama, the chatter. I do not yet know how to be quiet and still. Being alone with a new baby is all quiet stillness, more boring than anyone says. I am afraid of being alone with the baby, but I can’t admit this so I make more pineapple upside-down cakes and a complicated recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that involves sugaring pork fat. I redecorate the apartment and invite two of our friends I like best over for pork dinner and pineapple upside-down cake.

In the next few months, even after I return to work, I take on 90% of the childcare and 80% of the domestic work and when people tell me I’m so lucky that my husband does laundry and changes diapers, when they stare at him dreamily while he wears the baby in the baby carrier like they didn’t know a man could do such things, like he is a dog playing the saxophone, a switch flips. I see only red. Everything he does is wrong and bad, everything I do is right and good.

“Why are you expecting your partner to live up to an outdated idea of masculinity?” an old therapist I haven’t seen for years asks when I head in for an emergency session two weeks after I’ve given birth, nursing the baby under a blanket as we talk. I’ve complained that he’s not fixing anything, that I wish he was handier around the house. I’m beginning to see the inefficiencies of our partnership, the problems in a system built for fun. “So what if he can’t fix things? You believe your husband is not hypermasculine like your father, but what I’ve always heard from you is this is largely a good thing.”

On the subway home, I begin to think of the traditional roles of masculinity and femininity. They’d always seemed so boring and restrictive, but when they’re removed there’s no clear delineation of how to balance all the adult tasks, no map to follow. My husband is not expected to bring home the bigger paycheck, or fix the kitchen sink. But I am largely, through biology, still trapped in the role of primary childcare provider. I also bring home the bigger paycheck and am the only one interested in fixing the kitchen sink. In this uncharted terrain we are meant to operate as equals, which somehow, in our equation anyway, means I do everything.

It does not occur to me to say, “Can you help me with this?” I don’t feel like I can ask him to take on more. Early fatherhood is a shock to him. He wasn’t ready. Was I? It doesn’t matter. I am protecting him in a way I’ll never protect myself. I want him to sleep when I don’t sleep, eat when I am not eating. I am at the beginning stages of becoming a woman I hate.

While on maternity leave, I take the baby on hours-long walks through Brooklyn, from the bridge to Sunset Park to the Gowanus Canal, ambling in a postpartum haze. Once I forget to look before crossing the street and a driver almost hits us, screams out the window, “Watch where you’re going, lady! You have a fucking baby!”

I eat lunch alone in cafés, the baby strapped to my chest, drop crumbs atop the baby’s downy head. I fall asleep during the day while breastfeeding, the baby’s and my hearts beating each against the other; sob quietly in the middle of the night as I try and fail to rock the baby to sleep. It is the most intimate of times, nothing like it, the purest, most intense love. The most alone I have ever been.

My boss, the editor in chief of the site I work for within the tech company, announces her departure the day I return from maternity leave. I decide to go for her job, and I land it. With the promise of my new salary and benefits, Alex goes freelance, a decision we do not think out or discuss enough. He’s also fully immersed in — and struggling with — writing a book, a struggle I have little compassion for and instead resent. While Alex wrestles with writer’s block and emotionally checks out, I’m all-systems-go filling in the adult-living gaps.

I wanted to be a mother more than I needed to be a writer. I just hadn’t calculated that I’d be faced with such a stark either-or choice.

In the fall, right before Thanksgiving — which we’re hosting — he decides he needs a week away to fully focus and find the book’s spine. I want to support him, so I agree. He absconds to a friend’s cabin in upstate New York, leaving me alone to not only work and care for a baby but order the turkey, borrow the folding chairs, change the litter boxes, clean the house in preparation for parental scrutiny, tuck away the messiest bits of our lives.

Three days before the holiday, with the baby on my hip and a to-do list in my hand, I break our agreed upon no-contact rule to call and alert him that actually his mother is arriving earlier than he’d told me, tomorrow instead of the following day. I’m exasperated, bubbling with rage. I can’t hide it. It’s obvious that I’m keeping score of every ball he drops and leaves me to pick up. More and more, our relationship is reduced to these petty domestic equations, my deepening bitterness math.

“Why are you calling me about this?” he asks, incredulous. He was right in the middle of writing, he says, his voice tight. He’d finally found some flow. “I fucked up, okay? You don’t have to rub my face in it. What do you expect me to do?”

Looking back, I still don’t know the answer. Why did I call him? What exactly was I hoping to achieve? Was it just to have him bear witness to my struggle? Or was I unconsciously too jealous of his work to leave him be?

We snipe at each other for the next 20 minutes, until I eventually slam down the phone. A year later, when Alex fails to turn in his book, he’ll blame it on this conversation and others like it. If only I’d granted him uninterrupted work time, the project could have succeeded. Without me and my burdensome needs, he could’ve thrived.

For the first year of the baby’s life, my weekday routine is parsed out into 15-minute increments—nurse shower nurse daycare drop-off subway office subway nurse bath nurse bed answer emails sleep for four hours begin again. When I’m away from the baby for too long, my breasts leak, no matter how I try to pump them dry. At the office, I’m often racing to the bathroom before meetings, quickly stuffing my bra with toilet paper so it doesn’t drip.

Once, during a week when I forget to pick up the baby after work and arrive home to an empty apartment only to race the two subway stops back, late to daycare, our baby is the last one there; the same week my post-pregnancy hair begins to fall out and my post-pregnancy body remains unfamiliar enough that I’m still wearing maternity pants to work; I look through Alex’s digital camera. He’s been out with former co-workers. He’s still drinking and smoking, carousing, attending events, his life less fractured than mine. There are pictures of revelry, close-up shots of cocktails, group selfies, contrasting shoes against a bar floor, an ironic cash register sign. There is also a series of five artistically shot photos of him. Smiling, blurry, handsome, at ease. Happy.

When he comes home later that night I ask about the pictures. I attempt to be subtle, but I am incapable of subtlety, so the words come out stabby, strange: “I looked at your camera. Who took those pictures of you last night?”

“Oh, I don’t know. We were all passing around the camera. Maybe Steve.”

“Steve took this picture? Really? Steve who came to Thanksgiving wearing dirty sweatpants?”

“Oh, right. I guess that was Jane. Why?”

“I don’t know. These look like the pictures you take of someone you love.”

I don’t have the right words to tell him that I wish I was going out, I wish we were socializing together, I wish I felt at home in my body, I wish my tits weren’t rocks, I wish I wasn’t tired all the time, that I’m worried he’ll leave me, that I know I’ve stopped being fun and am afraid I’ll never find fun again. That I’m so overwhelmed and anxious, a curtain has dropped over my brain, that I’ve begun thinking dark thoughts. That I’m already sure I’m fucking this all up. That I don’t recognize him, that I don’t recognize myself.

“What are you saying? You’re acting crazy.”

What is marriage if not a thousand abandonments and a thousand returns, until, one day, maybe you don’t. I am not ready for such realities. I know there are women whose Awakenings cause them to walk into rivers with pockets full of rocks. I know I do not feel safe with the people who are supposed to care for me and that I am increasingly incapable of caring for myself. But I don’t have time for therapy, I don’t seek treatment for my depression. I do not address the inequities in my marriage. Instead, I work.

He wasn’t ready. Was I? It doesn’t matter. I am protecting him in a way I’ll never protect myself.

In the winter after the baby’s born, Alex and I lose our rent-controlled apartment when the landlord unexpectedly sells the building. We eventually find a place several subway stops deeper into Brooklyn, but our new rent is more than double what we had paid. One morning, rushing to the office while lugging a heavy laptop and my even heavier breast pump, I slip and fall near the subway stairs, shattering my right elbow, requiring emergency surgery to rebuild the joint. Two metal plates and three bolts later I’m left with a stiff robot arm, a year of physical therapy, and out-of-pocket medical bills topping out over $20K. We’d already drained our savings for the move. Alex makes less as a freelancer than he thought he would, a fraction of what he once did. Daycare costs more than a week’s pay.

Now the walls are closing in. Now I’m driven by fear. My new position is high-pressure with a steep corporate learning curve. Doing it well requires my entire brain. Whatever creative dreams I had for myself now seem indulgent, frivolous, out of place. Attending to my mental health feels selfish and inconvenient, against every working-class doctrine I know.

It’s an immense privilege to consider work as anything beyond basic survival. A life dedicated to creating art of any kind is, for most of us, precarious and unsustainable. A modern-day marriage of two artists is as financially sturdy as sand. I knew intellectually that I wanted to be a mother more than I needed to be a writer. I just hadn’t calculated that I’d land in the role of primary provider and be faced with such a stark either-or choice. Nor had I anticipated the grief I’d feel when I realize that, short of some unforeseen fiscal miracle, I won’t get both.

My blue-collar pragmatism quickly overrides all these flights of fancy. I stuff the bad feelings down. I set a goal to succeed as an executive at the tech company no matter what it takes, to create the kind of stability and security our family had yet to see and I myself had never known. As for most people, my labor becomes, once again, not about a “calling” but a means of getting by. A high-stakes game I need to win.

Excerpted from AMBITION MONSTER by Jennifer Romolini. Copyright 2024 © by Jennifer Romolini. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC.