Outside of Kidz Rezort, Liz tries to force herself to drive away, but she can’t work up the nerve to do so. She thinks critically of the spelling of the daycare center’s name—“that voluntary illiteracy”—and watches as other mothers act totally unaffected by dropping their children off at daycare. These mothers are either chatting easily amongst themselves or glued to their cell phones, ready to handle the next thing on their to-do lists. None of these mothers look “guilty,” and certainly none of them are “eating themselves alive” the way Liz is, fighting the urge to run back into the daycare center and take her child right back home.
Liz’s concerns about her child’s well-being at Kidz Rezort and her overwhelming sense of guilt suggest that she is not ready to be away from him. There is no sense of excitement about the day ahead, only hand-wringing about leaving her child and bewilderment that the staff and other working parents don’t appear to share her anxiety and grief. In fact, the playful spelling of the daycare center’s name coupled with the casual attitudes of the other mothers only heighten Liz’s anxiety and make her feel disconnected from other mothers. Rather than feeling a sense of solidarity with her fellow working parents, she feels isolated and out of place. Liz is not mentally prepared to handle the day ahead.
Liz imagines what would happen if she did run back into the daycare center to rescue Daniel: she’d burst through the soundproof doors of the “under-twos room”—doors that are meant to muffle the screams of distraught toddlers crying out desperately for their parents. Her son would be crouched in a corner, face flushed from crying and clutching a plastic toy. She imagines Daniel being surrounded by “big, chunky, runny-nosed buzz-cut boys in miniature camouflage gear, already seasoned commanders of the play equipment and the puzzles.” Even the jungle gym is “guerilla warfare.”
Liz’s overactive imagination about the conditions in the daycare stem from her own guilt and aren’t realistic fears. The misery she conjures in the building is a projection of the feeling that she has “abandoned” her son. She also feels guilty and embarrassed about her desire to run back inside to rescue him, which only adds to her misery.
Liz feels like she should be prepared for this moment—Daniel’s name has been on this daycare center’s waitlist for months, and he’s already gone through the three “accompanied play” sessions to acclimate him to the new environment. And yet, Liz still struggles to leave him behind for her first day back at work. She thinks that leaving Daniel behind for eight hours is a “long time” for a boy of only 18 months.
Liz feels as though she has already failed to meet expectations of a perfect working mother—although she has been preparing for months, she still feels overwhelmed at the prospect of leaving Daniel behind while she goes to work. She questions her negative feelings but also questions her decision to leave him, thinking that it is too long for him to go without her.
Liz arrives at her office and notices how little has changed since she went on maternity leave. The plants are so unchanged she wonders whether they’re made of plastic, and the space still smells of “cardboard and carpet vacuum powder.” Her coworkers welcome her back to “the land of the living.” Liz’s female coworkers, Julie, Stella, and Caroline, ask all about Daniel. Liz shows them pictures of him on the swing and at his swim class, which makes them gush about how cute he is. Nearby, Tim and Dave exchange looks of “Disdain.” Liz’s female coworkers swap stories about how they all couldn’t wait to return to work after having children, but Liz awkwardly admits that she was happy staying at home. She immediately senses that this wasn’t what the women wanted to hear.
The apparent stagnation of the office environment strikes Liz because it does not reflect the immense changes that have taken place in her own life and attitudes since becoming a mother. Her coworkers’ reference to the office as “the land of the living,” contrasts with Liz’s impression of lifelessness and sluggishness. Her peers’ response to her stories about her son are highly gendered—the men make it clear that they think her stories are frivolous and the women want to hear stories that speak to their own experiences of motherhood. Liz feels awkward and isolated once again when she realizes she and her coworkers are not meeting each other’s expectations for her re-entry into the office.
Everyone returns to their desks, and Liz anticipates the cake that will be served at the morning tea. Before she went on maternity leave, sickly sweet store-bought cake was used to mark all kinds of celebrations in the office. She disliked the “fur of sugar” they left on her teeth and would always throw them away when no one was looking. Later that morning, Liz’s coworkers present her with a card but explain that they are now limiting cake celebrations to once a month. Liz insists they don’t need to get her a cake, but they tell her they’ll provide one anyway to celebrate Dave’s upcoming birthday. Liz’s boss, Frank, reminds her about the meeting they have to attend in the afternoon. He jokes that he must “crack the whip” now that she has returned.
Liz’s associations of office celebrations with unappealing, overly sweet cakes emphasizes the forced nature of these work celebrations, when her enthusiasm (or lack thereof) did not match other people’s expectations in the past. Now that she has returned from maternity leave, her attempt to politely refuse cake reveals she feels even less enthusiastic about the prospect of celebrating her return. Julie informs her that there will be a cake regardless of whether she wants one or not because there are multiple celebrations taking place, which pressures Liz into partaking even though she doesn’t want to and further strips the celebration of meaning.
Liz calls Kidz Rezort to check on Daniel. A staff member assures her that he is fine and riding a scooter, but Liz knows they are obviously looking at the wrong child because Daniel is only 18 months old and can’t even ride a tricycle yet. Frustrated and embarrassed, Liz presses the delete key on her computer over and over again. For comfort, she reads an informational pamphlet about going back to work after having maternity leave. The cover features a young woman who looks happy, fit, and glossy. The pamphlet assures her that most women find returning to work and socializing with other adults to be a relief after the “mundane” time at home with their children.
Liz’s repeated pressing of the delete key after the guilt-ridden call reflects her embarrassment, but it also highlights her regret now that she realizes how much she enjoyed staying at home compared to working. She feels she cannot relate to the pamphlet’s depiction of working motherhood and feels it contains unrealistic expectations, both in the physical perfection of the cover model and the idealization of work itself. Her inability to meet yet another set of expectations about working motherhood intensifies her sense of isolation and frustration with herself.
Liz is asked to contribute money for the celebratory morning tea. She takes a five-dollar note out of her purse and wills herself not to look at the photo of Daniel she has in there. She thinks of his smile “like a boobytrap.” She is overcome with longing to hold him and feels “unbalanced” without bearing his weight, thinking fondly of all the times he would cling to her leg while she tried to do laundry or cook dinner. She resists the urge to call Kidz Rezort again and continues to press the delete key when she is embarrassed by her thoughts.
Liz’s contribution of the five-dollar note represents the costs of her job. In addition to spending money on an event she does not want to partake in, it brings her attention back to Daniel and the time she is unable to spend with him because of her dependence on her salary. Her sense of being “unbalanced” without Daniel mirrors her general sense of discomfort at being back in the office. This scene illustrates what capitalism costs workers in terms of time, money, and personal relationships.
Liz finds the note that she left to her replacement and recalls the days before she left the office, when she was “breathless and uncomfortable” from pregnancy. The handwritten note stresses the importance of photocopying invoices and formatting spreadsheets. Liz is struck by how meaningless her job feels, although it seemed important before she gave birth. She looks at the informational pamphlet again and finds she cannot relate to the comments about the satisfaction of working. The work has not changed, but her attitude towards her job has.
Liz’s discovery of the note she left her replacement further emphasizes how dramatically she has changed in the last several months even as the surroundings of the office stayed the same. Work now seems like a series of redundant and mundane tasks. Motherhood has altered her priorities and sense of purpose, which she now derives mainly from her son instead of her job.
In the afternoon, Julie, Stella, and Caroline take Liz out to lunch at an Italian restaurant. Liz fights the urge to run over to the daycare center to check on Daniel. When her food arrives, she tries her lasagna and feels cheated—it is made with the same cheap, store-bought ingredients she ate so often at home on a budget while she was away from work. During lunch, Liz tries to entertain her coworkers with stories about Daniel’s antics and mimics him reacting to his favorite song, “sticking out her tongue, pointing to the sky.” After a few seconds, she can tell by her coworkers’ expressions that they are disappointed and bored. Liz believes she has disappointed the other women and reminds herself of a lackluster comedian she once went to see with friends.
Liz wants to contact Kidz Rezort again out of guilt but also because she craves an escape from social interaction with Julie, Stella, and Caroline, which once again highlights how out of place she feels now that she’s back in the fold of her workplace. The meal is a series of letdowns—first she recognizes the lasagna is made from cheap, store-brand ingredients and feels duped. Then, she feels that she is herself a disappointment when her imitation of Daniel fails to entertain Julie, Stella, and Caroline. The lasagna represents Liz’s frustration at being pressured to pursue a version of motherhood that doesn’t feel right to her, and her failure to meet her peers’ expectations of entertainment makes her feel even more isolated.
The conversation turns to breastfeeding. Julie, Stella, and Caroline all agree on the importance of early weaning, because children shouldn’t be “dictating” their mothers’ lives. Liz feels indignant because she has enjoyed breastfeeding for a year and a half. Daniel wants to continue and she doesn’t feel as if he has been “dictating” anything. She becomes angry when her coworkers begin to discuss ordering the cake on the dessert menu, fuming privately, “if anyone else mentions fucking cake today I’m going to burst a blood vessel.” She directs her negative emotions towards herself, thinking furiously, “Put your phone with its two hundred pictures away, back in your ridiculous cavernous mummy-bag, and agree to orange poppyseed.”
Breastfeeding is a notoriously fraught subject among mothers, especially those who work. Julie, Stella, and Caroline all felt limited and trapped by the initial need to breastfeed, but they fail to consider that Liz may feel differently. Liz cherishes the connection that breastfeeding fosters between her and Daniel and had no desire to give it up other than financial pressure to return to work. When her coworkers start discussing having cake for dessert, Liz is reminded again of the pressure to celebrate things—work, weaning, leaving Daniel at childcare—that actually make her miserable. Her angry inner dialogue reveals that she blames herself for harboring these feelings rather than considering the aspects of her environment that make her unhappy.
Later that day, Liz heads to an important meeting and her boss, Frank, asks her if she is feeling well about the “hard adjustment” of entering a room full of “competitive strangers” Liz assumes he’s referring to leaving her son at childcare and returning to work, and she has an emotional outburst about her difficulties, “shoving him in there and expecting him to cope, when he’s just a little baby.” Frank awkwardly explains that he was just asking about her readiness for the meeting. Deeply embarrassed, Liz and tries to get through the rest of the day as quickly as possible. She can’t believe how slowly the time passes or how leisurely her coworkers behave, “like they’ve all been drugged.” She stays motivated by reminding herself about the importance of her salary.
Liz’s maternal guilt colors every aspect of her day, preventing her from focusing and engaging with her tasks at work. Even though Frank and some of her other coworkers have children, they do not indicate that they can relate to what she is feeling. Their experiences as parents seem to involve total separation between family and daily work, which Liz is not sure that she can cope with. Her focus on the salary as her sole motivation shows that the financial pressures of capitalism force workers to stay in jobs where they are not happy.
At the end of the day, Liz leaves work and picks up Daniel. She talks to him using an “inanely cheerful voice” that seems forced. She feels intensely relieved at their reunion and goes home to her husband, Andrew. She is shocked at “how casually” Andrew interacts with Daniel after being apart from him all day and realizes that he is accustomed to leaving Daniel every day for work. When Andrew asks her about her day, Liz admits that she felt miserable, and he chastises her about how she needs to go to work so that they can pay off their mortgage. She notices the physical impact work and commuting have had on his body, making him appear soft and slumped. He also presents her with cake that he bought to celebrate her first day back.
Liz’s altered voice is reminiscent of the overly enthusiastic demeanor she feels expected to adopt at work, and also feels reminiscent of the overly sweet taste of the cakes pressed on her during office celebrations. It is part of the performance she feels pressured to act out, that of the perfectly balanced working mother. She feels pressure from Andrew to be more positive about work as well, since he reacts to her story about her day by immediately reminding her of the importance of her salary rather than empathizing with her pain. Her amazement at the casualness with which he greets Daniel mirrors her amazement at the casualness of the parents dropping off their children at Kidz Rezort earlier in the day. Liz is even more disheartened when he presents her with cake—performative celebration follows her even when she isn’t at the office.
Later, Liz takes Daniel to the bedroom to feed him his bottle, but he reaches for her shirt. She tries to resist but feels overwhelmed by guilt and exhaustion. She experiences a sense of release when she gives in and breastfeeds him, even though she knows it will make returning to work harder in the long run. She imagines taking off the rest of her work clothes and going to look at the mortgage again to see if there is any way for her to continue to stay at home. She has “full command of her hands,” while feeding Daniel and “carefully, expertly” takes off her watch.
The only time Liz experiences a sense of relief, relaxation, and control during this story is when she breastfeeds Daniel, though it will inevitably interfere with her return to the workforce and disrupt the transition to bottle feeding. She has moved through her day with uncertainty and anxiety, but at this moment she returns to having “full command” and moving “expertly,” highlighting how breastfeeding and being close to her child feels natural to her. Breastfeeding instills a sense of confidence and resolve in her to change her situation, to pursue a version of motherhood that feels right to her even as she must confront the challenges of her financial situation.