Jenna Bush Hager on 'nerve-wracking, bittersweet' return from maternity leave
Today is my first day back at work. After a wonderful summer with few work obligations, but mainly pure, sweet Mila time; my maternity leave is over. It is a day I knew was coming. It is a day millions of women across America experience every year. It is however, a day I still find nerve wracking, and bittersweet.
I’m the epitome of the chart of different emotional faces I used as a teacher on the first day of school to help my third-graders figure out how to express their feelings. Although even now, at 31, if someone asked about my emotional state, I couldn't compartmentalize it into a word. And it does feel a bit like the first day of school.
I was extremely lucky to spend four full months on maternity leave. I have learned far too many woman don't have this time, due to loopholes in an outdated federal policy and sheer financial need.
Having Mila in April felt seamless. Spring had arrived in New York and the weather reflected the joy we felt. Although, ask any mom — the first month is a fog of exhaustion and emotions. We spent the summer learning a whole new language of parenting: the pads, pacifiers and pumps. The lack of sleep made us delirious yes, but deliriously happy.
And there were all the wonderful surprises that come with being a first-time parent. I was so in awe of my husband Henry — who quickly jumped into modern dad mode. And of course we were overjoyed with Mila. We took endless photos and videos. And at night, we snuck into her nursery just to stare at her while she slept.
The most treasured surprise was the unbelievable joy I got from watching my family interact with her. My parents spent as much time as they could with us in the city — they wanted to soak up the joy of their first grandchild. My mom and I took Mila on long walks down the Hudson. We would talk endlessly over coffee and she would recall memories of her days as a new mom. She came to help, but she mainly just stared. She texted me after she left: "I now know the meaning of true longing. I'm missing Mila tremendously."
My mom was a teacher and has always been at ease around babes and I loved watching her with Mila. But, my dad — "Jefe" to Mila — needed a little time to learn how to be a grandfather. He clearly loved her — after all, he was the one who pressured us to give him grandkids. Once he even told my husband's boss to stop paying Henry until he produced a grandbaby.
When Mila was a newborn, she of course didn't really engage. And he didn't know what to do with such a small baby. When he held her and she would cry he would exclaim, half-kidding: "Someone take this baby!" Or he would say with sarcasm, "Mila, come see me when you can talk."
But when Mila was almost four months old, he changed his tune entirely. We were on vacation in Maine with my family. One day we had just finished lunch, and Mila was in my lap. My dad made a little noise which, to our shock made Mila laugh for the very first time. He started making faces and she kept laughing. Over and over again she laughed only at him. That was all he needed. He was instantly in love.
Another unexpected moment that I will treasure forever was when my grandfather held Mila. It was a moment we didn't know for sure would happen. When I was pregnant, my grandfather was very sick and we weren't sure he would live. We visited him in the ICU, not sure if we were saying goodbye. When it was my turn to hug him, he touched my stomach and said: "The circle of life. I can't wait to meet your beautiful baby." I was so overcome with tears, devastated that this may never happen.
But this June right before his 89th birthday, he met his new great-granddaughter. It was a moment Henry and I will carry with us forever. We are grateful that Mila got to meet such a great man, one who we so adore.
But today it is 6:45 a.m. and fall is in the air. In this new life, which my husband affectionately calls, BOB (baby on board), I am up, showered and desperately gulping down a cup of coffee. Mila up wakes around 7. During the last 30 minutes, I've hurriedly taken care of the human basics like brushing my teeth and applying deodorant, so when she wakes I can be dedicated only to her for a few precious minutes.
Then it is time to kiss Mila goodbye and head to work for the first time. I am missing her already and filled with the countless emotions that I've learned come with being a mother. I think about the enormous love I feel for her, and how she has changed our world in the short time she has been in it. I am ready to return to work, but know the first summer I spent with my Mila will be the most precious of my life.