The first time my one-year-old daughter rejected me made my eyes well up. The tears rose as quickly as my heart thudded to the ground. My daughter didn't want me. She wanted her grandmother.
I'd recently increased my days at work. I was spending more days a week in the office than at home. My daughter was spending those days with my mother. And then, the first rejection came at a time when she was upset. She cried and held out her arms. But she didn't want me.
She wanted her grandmother to wipe her tears, to hold her, to soothe her.
I felt instantly replaced. Cast aside. I felt guilty.
This came just at the time that I thought I'd made my peace with the guilt of returning to work. It made me realise that perhaps the guilt I carried around as a working mother would never go away.
My children were 13 months and two and a half before I returned to the office this time. They'd had me at home for their youngest months, and we had all loved it. But our little family couldn't afford for me to be at home any longer.
So why the guilt? My children are ridiculously happy, content children who don't need for anything. They probably do miss me a little on work days just like they miss their father. I know though that these moments are fleeting - because they're busy and active and distracted and occupied by the important things like having fun at nursery, with their playdates and with their grandparents.
I love work, I love those hours of stretching my brain, of learning new things, of meeting new challenges head on - and of course, I love reading a book on the commute and wearing make-up and drinking coffee while it's hot. I've recently increased from three days in the office to four - and I think it's this that's set off the new wave of guilt.
When it hits me, I try to remember that I hope that I can be a role model for them - a working mother who balances life (sometimes, somehow, with varying success admittedly), I hope that they see one day that I'd achieved things, for them, while always putting them first...
Yet that heaviness in my heart doesn't go away.
I don't doubt that part of this guilt comes from feeling like there's an ideal mother. She's a myth - yes - but she's so deeply buried within my consciousness that I can't help but measure myself up to her. She stayed at home for longer than me in her children's formative years. She returned to work at exactly the right time, straight into the right job, and breezed through the transition. She stocked her freezer with home-cooked lunches for the kids before she went, ironed her clothes for the week on a Sunday night, and folded laundry each night after settling her contented children into bed after their books. She wore heels to work, remembered her packed lunch, and never looked flustered on the nursery run (on the day she did it), and never forgot to return the library books.
She exhausts me, this mythical mother. I don't hate her though - I can't. I created her.
It's unfair to blame 'society', the 'media', or anyone else for that matter for her construction. They might have played some part in building up her traits, but I put them together in my head all by myself.
This mythical mother is - I see now - a figment of my insecurities. The things I worry about the most, the aspects of parenting I feel I'm failing at the most - these are the things she excels at. I wonder if we all have our own version of the perfect mother, the one we measure ourselves up against, the one we despise but want to be, the one we put together ourselves to reflect our greatest worries?
And so, this working mother guilt? Mine comes about because I stand myself up against this mythical figure and come up short. Why? Because, like her, I want to be perfect for my children. That's not so bad, is it?
The guilt might manifest itself when Jasmin doesn't want me to wipe away her tears. It might manifest itself in my heart when I get home and I've missed bath time. But it's there because I'm trying my hardest to be the best mum I can. Sometimes I just need them to need me back as much as I need them. When they choose someone else over me to console them, they've told me in one simple action that I've let them down.
When my one-year-old cries out at night I don't hesitate to put her in our bed. I lie her between us but she squeezes herself against me until there's no bed left for me to roll over onto. I don't sleep so well on these nights, but I savour them. Because I know that at night, it is only me that she needs.
In the smallest hours, when my daughter cries, I get a little chance to make up for those four days I'm not by her side. In the dark of night, while all the world sleeps, I make my peace.
Kiran Chug is a writer and mother of two. She blogs at Mummy Says.Suggest a correction