I open the door.
My eyes eagerly scan the room. A row of cubbies, a sink, three highchairs. Eight cribs lined up against the back wall, each with a sticker on the front. Noah. Over three months old, the one on the far end reads.
It doesn’t take long to find her. She’s lying on the floor on an activity mat, her eyes focused on a toy hanging just above her head. There’s a boy next to her sucking on a rattle and a girl just a few feet away sleeping in a rocker.
I rush forward.
“Hi, honey,” I say, bending down to kneel on the floor. “How was your day today?”
Her eyes become unfocused from the toy, and she turns her head toward the sound of my voice. She smiles—a gummy, five-month-old grin—and my eyes fill with tears. “I missed you,” I say.
“She ate the full bottle,” the teacher tells me. “And she took a long nap this afternoon. She was tired.”
I am about to reply when I hear it. A whisper in the back of my mind. Just a small poke, really.
A real mom wouldn’t have to ask how many ounces she ate. A real mom would know. A real mom would have been there.
“Great!” I say with a forced enthusiasm I am far from feeling. I turn back to her and reach down to pick her up. “Honey, are you ready to go home? Mama missed you so much today.”
I turn toward the door, her bag over one shoulder, her tiny hands clinging to my scarf, chubby legs wrapped around my waist, and I tug a hat over her baby fuzz.
“You’ll need to bring more diapers tomorrow. She’s almost out.”
I look back at the teacher. “Okay,” I say. “Thank you so much.”
“See you tomorrow.”
I nod, unable to speak. I try to ignore the voice, but all the way home, it pokes me, digging deeper.
What kind of poser mom are you, showing up at the end of the day like this? Where are you when she’s crying in the morning? Where are you when she’s hungry in the afternoon? You know you’re not a real mom.
I tell myself it’s not true, that I am doing the best I can, that she’s cared for and watched over during the day while I’m at work. That she knows I love her.
But still it twists.
She’s going to forget you, you know. You aren’t there, and she won’t remember who you are. She’ll love them more than you.
All the positive self-talk in the world can’t silence the nagging voice in the back of my mind. I blink to force back the tears that threaten to fall and glance in the rearview mirror. I can see her reflection in the mirror we hooked to the back of the seat. Her hat is slipping into her eyes, and she’s starting to fuss. I reach back, twisting my arm awkwardly to pull the hat back off her face.
I pull into the driveway, turn off the car. I open the door and lean into the backseat. She’s fallen asleep. When I unhook the car seat, it makes a loud pop, and her eyes open. She looks confused at first, and her eyes glance around quickly, searching.
They lock onto mine.
“Hi,” I say. “I love you.”
She kicks her legs out in excitement, reaching her arms in my direction. I lean forward, and tiny fingers grab my face. She opens her mouth wide and giggles, and a new voice, louder and bolder than the one that spoke before, prods the back of my mind.
She knows you. She missed you. You’re doing a great job, Mama.
I balance my purse, her diaper bag, and the cooler bag full of milk I pumped that day with one hand, my other arm straining with the weight of the car seat as my heels click across the garage floor.
*I wrote this four weeks ago, during the first week I took R to daycare. As of today I have now been back to work full time for one month. This voice that says I'm not a "real" mom for not being with my daughter all day is still there, although some days it's louder than others. It's hard that my time with her is much shorter than I would like, but I'm trying to make the most of the time I do have. Squeeze in as many kisses and "I love yous" as possible. She can't say it back yet, but I know she loves me too.