An Under the Table Agreement
A powerful account of one mom’s return to the workplace
whilst her baby slept under her desk
By Tessa Stephenson
Edited by Samantha Gale
I always knew I’d be a mother.
In my teens and early twenties I would dream about this day, and when I was 25, I met a man that I couldn’t wait to spend my life with. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes....infertility.
We spent two years trying to conceive and for me, that meant regular doctor’s visits, acupuncture, MAYA Abdominal Therapy, Clomid, and IUI. Getting pregnant became my second job, and the pay was terrible.
In the most romantic way possible - a long stick being shoved into my uterus - we eventually managed to conceive. When we heard the heartbeat for the first time, I clearly remember thinking, “this isn’t real”. I waited anxiously for the other shoe to drop and months later, it finally did. I was admitted to hospital at 27 weeks with high blood pressure and remained on bedrest until my sweet baby was born at 31 weeks.
I was working in the family business at the time, and had a plan to create a clear handover whilst I was on maternity leave but as it turned out, there wasn’t time to wrap up any of my work. As a result, I found myself processing payroll from my hospital bed and troubleshooting issues, while simultaneously getting IVs inserted. I was reprimanded daily by my well-meaning nurses, who would sit and watch my blood pressure rise with every email I sent.
In total, my husband and I spent 6 weeks in the NICU with our daughter, Coco, who weighed less than 3 pounds at birth. I openly wept for the first week and in secret for the next five (and then some), not fully comprehending why it felt like my soul was now on the outside of my body. Because my husband would take his leave once Coco was strong enough to be discharged, it meant that he had to go back to work right away after her birth. He would work all day and then drive straight to the hospital in the evening; stripping off his shirt when he came into the room so he could hold our girl against his skin. I’ve never had more admiration for any living person than I do for him. How he held it together during those weeks, I’ll never know.
We were living every parent’s worst nightmare. I was privileged to be able to take 5 months of paid maternity leave, but because Coco was so premature, she was in fact only 2 months old when I needed to return to work . Weighing only 8 pounds, she was too underdeveloped to nurse, and there was no way it was safe for her to enter daycare. So, I brought her to my office every day for the first month.
"I made a bed for her under my desk so I could shield her from the fluorescent lights. I whispered all phone conversations so as to not interrupt the sleep she so desperately needed. I contorted my body into unholy positions whilst pace-feeding her bottles and pumping, trying to maximize my output. Breast milk and spit-up covered every surface of my office."
Not without irony, I had made a career out of taking exceptional care of other people’s children and here I was, working with my own baby asleep under my desk.
4 months after my return to work, the decision came to sell the family business: a 28 year old child-development center that I had been running with my sister. While the family dynamic was no longer working, the business sure was and I was hired by the new ownership, a national company, to grow our brand in Oregon.
I have the best option available to working moms: a fulfilling career and child care onsite. Since that time, my job has grown and morphed several times over. I’m now a regional leader for four private schools; one of which I spent 12 months building. I manage new school builds around the country and support the amazing work being done by early childhood educators. My job includes long hours, travel, enough stress to fill the ocean, but I love it. I have the great honor of watching children develop in their most formative years. I get to be both creative and a little bit silly.
The two years I spent dealing with infertility were consumed with imagining unreal expectations of the type of mother I was going to be. I was going to make baby food out of my organic CSA box and I was going to sing lullabies in Spanish and only buy fair-trade everything. I was going to work full time and kick ass in my career and also be the best goddamn mom on the planet, because if I just cared enough it would be easy! It really was the most perfect delusion.
I often work 50-60 hour weeks. I come home brain dead, sometimes defeated, sometimes feeling like I made the tiniest bit of headway on my never ending to-do list. I am most definitely that mom. I shove an iPhone into my two-year-old daughter’s hand every morning when she wakes up too fucking early and I check my email when I should be engaging with her. I let her eat cookies for breakfast sometimes and I swear like a sailor in front of her. I know about brain development, and the importance of this time period to set healthy patterns for life, and yet the information sometimes feels like a noose. I’m locked in a battle between just surviving the day and giving every last ounce of myself to her, leaving absolutely nothing for me or anyone else. I am searching for balance and coming up empty handed every single time.
I was sitting in a hotel room in Florida a few months ago, scanning social media for beautiful posts on International Women’s Day, expecting to feel empowered and proud. Instead, looking at photos of mothers with their daughters just left me feeling immense grief. It cemented the fact that I wasn’t with my daughter and the pain was overwhelming.
"As a reaction, I posted an old photo of her on Instagram with some bullshit quote about how I was working hard to break down walls for her. I projected the fake reality that I wished so much was real because I couldn’t find the words to admit the truth."
The truth being that I missed her so much I could barely breathe. I have weeks when I think I’m doing pretty OK, and weeks when I feel like I’m failing at every important job I have. I used to think that balance would come if I just waited long enough and got through the thick of it, but now I’m really not sure. I made a terrible joke a few days ago when I was asked for the millionth time if I was going to have another baby.
“My career is my second baby!” I felt sick as soon as the words left my mouth because it’s an incredibly accurate statement. I love my career, but I love my baby more. I’m not afraid to admit that there are days when that ratio feels flipped and I know with certainty that having another child wouldn’t be the right choice for me, or my family. Other days, this choice seems like a cruel punishment for being successful.
Bottom line: the journey to achieving balance is damn hard. But it’s also beautiful. Maybe that’s what balance is about. A little bit of both.
Tessa is the Regional Director of Operations for Endeavor Schools and lives in NE Portland with her husband and 2.5 year-old daughter, Colette.