We’ve all heard the saying; “Mothers are expected to work like they don’t have children and have children like they don’t work.” In a time where feminism and equality is making such headway, it would be easy to say this is no longer as true, but with women striding out in the workplace, it in fact makes this statement even truer. And it’s bloody hard work.
When I went on maternity leave with Molly, I made the decision to leave the London agency life behind having spent 11 years in the big smoke. A few years ago I did actually have a small interlude where I worked at a local agency out in the suburbs, but at this point in my life I simply wasn’t ready. I was chomping at the bit to get back into London. I missed the buzz, the people, the smog and the unpredictability. The freedom to agree to one drink with a friend, then ending up dancing in G.A.Y. or doing hip hop karaoke until 1am and making ‘new friends’ on the last train home. Also, and dare I say it, I missed the hangovers. The camaraderie on the Friday morning train into London, knowing full well at least half of the passengers were suffering in silence alongside me. Vowing never to do it again but totally accepting the fact that we’ll all be here next week, in the same boat, feeling just as tired and emotional. And if you’re really lucky – you’ll bump into those ‘friends’ again from last night. This morning you are decidedly less chatty though - keeping your head down, avoiding eye contact. Worst case you lock eyes - but just a nod and a grimace will suffice.
So as much as this was all fun and games, when I found out I was pregnant, I had to be honest with myself. I understood the fact that PB (post baby), this just wasn’t going to work. I am well known in my circle of friends to suffer from a serious case of FOMO. The thought of dragging myself back on a train straight from work every day and leaving my friends to their cocktails was just not something I relished the thought of. To clarify, I’m in no way suggesting that it can’t be done, and I seriously admire the women who do it, but for me, I had the option of finding somewhere more local, more convenient and somewhere where I could gain a sense of balance between work life and mother life. So that was my choice. And in February 2017, the time came for me to pick up my last Metro, say goodbye to the smog, wave bon voyage to my commuting companions and stick two fingers up at the insanely overpriced Thameslink train service which had devoured my money and my time for over a decade. Just thinking…if I added it up, I wonder how long I would have actually stood waiting for a delayed/cancelled train. It’s got to be weeks surely? Terrifying.
I loved my year off with Molly – she is my entire world (for now…not long until she has to share it with another bundle). I could find myself wiling away hours just staring at her. I Facetime my Mum most days – but while on mat leave it was every day, sometimes twice - and the two of us would just stare at her in silence. Dad would come on for a split second and try and talk. He’d get shushed immediately. “Shhhhh – just look at her. Look at her little face! Ahhh look at what she just did!” The fact is, she will have done nothing. Maybe a little nose wrinkle or opened her eye for a millisecond. Enough to send me and Mum giddy. Enough to send Dad back to reading the paper.
I was incredibly lucky to find a job in my industry that would take me on part time – one of the other reasons for leaving London. So after a life changing 16 months, I had secured a job, 3 days a week at an agency which was a 25 minute drive from my house and I begrudgingly handed my most precious thing in the whole world over to, for want of a better description, a total stranger. A hideous pang of guilt as I drove off, like a punch in the stomach. The thought of sending this tiny person who hasn’t left your side since the day they were born, with their bottom lip wobbling, into an environment you just pray you did sufficient research on. I then crossed everything and told myself the lie every mother tells themselves - that they will love my child more than any of the other children (I mean, why wouldn’t they?!) and she will of course be their number one priority.
Most mothers I have spoken to who were coming to the end of their maternity leave were in an all-too familiar emotional turmoil. The two most common phrases split evenly among them…
”I’m actually really looking forward to going back and being able to be a grown up again” and “Ohhhhh I’m dreading going back, I’m really going to miss my baby!” I remember saying both of these. Often in the same day. Sometimes within the same hour. Or in the same breath - depending on the type of day we were having.
Here’s the thing – we have to work (well, most of us do). But the point is, for a huge number of us, we actually want to work. Even if we don’t think we do. And sure, it takes a few days/weeks for the guilt to subside, but emerging from the clouds, comes this unexpected enjoyment. The rediscovery of the old you – the part that is back in business. As you find your feet and your confidence, it’s like you never left. The vocab/jargon of the industry slowly returning, but this time you have this newly added boss-ness. You are a mother. A parent. A parent who is juggling home life and work life. And you actually feel incredibly grown up. “I can say what I want in this meeting. People will listen to me now. I am responsible for another human being. This presentation is nothing compared to that.”
Then the three (or four or five) days are up and you are at home. Taking on a whole new job. This one is physically and mentally exhausting, but it’s definitely my favourite of the two. It’s the one that has my whole heart. The other one has my brain…most of it. These may be your ‘days off’ but there are emails pinging into your inbox and you can’t help but read them. Some you action, some you forward. You then feel like everyone at work hates you and are talking about you when people inevitably have to pick up your work.
And so a new turmoil – the mum guilt vs the work guilt.
If I take a step back, it’s ridiculous. I am being paid 3/5 of my previous salary. Why should I feel bad? Why should I feel obligated to reply? But I do and I do. Because you’re not the only one who wants to keep a sense of your old self. The one who didn’t have the pressure of leaving bang on time for fear of a fine. You feel it weighing down on you from your work. Those glances as you pack up your bag and switch off your computer. Shuffling towards the door if someone tries to initiate a conversation with you at 5.32.
At the end of the day, I cannot wait to see my girl. I miss her hugely on the days I’m not with her. That constant feeling of ‘what’s the point’? Three days of childcare plus a weekly food shop and all of a sudden the bank balance is looking rather sorry for itself and those much needed (/wanted) new trainers aren’t looking too hopeful. But the thing is (and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this), some days when we are home all day together, there are times when I feel like it would be easier to go work.
So how can we master this balancing act? Is there a way to negate the guilt?
Perhaps we just need to stop for a minute and see the positives on both sides of this. Remember why you wanted to go back to work. Everything you missed about it. Any split second when you wished you could have finished that cup of coffee. That moment at 4pm when you realised you hadn’t spoken to anyone other than a baby today and you craved the thought of having a joke with a colleague. And on your 10th nappy change of the day, the thought of that sense of pride you used to get at work at the end of a big project or task. Even if we don’t feel it every day, it’s the reminder we need to give ourselves to help us power through.
And in those moments we spend with our children and are ready to pull our hair out, think about that feeling you had when you really didn’t want to leave them at the childminder that day. That gut-punch as they gripped onto your hand with all their tiny might to stop you from leaving. That time you were sitting in a meeting and just wished you were curled up watching Moana with your baby for the 900th time.
So often I battle the guilt on both sides and so once a day, no matter which job I am at, I will try and do something that I couldn’t do (or wanted to do) when I was at my other job. However small and insignificant that may seem, it might just give you the boost you need to vanquish that moment of guilt.
Enjoy it. Enjoy both. Never feel bad for feeling the way you do during those emotionally conflicting moments. This balancing act is about survival. We have to do what we need to do to get through. And if that means putting your child in front of Peppa so you can answer a few emails, or leaving work at 5.30 on the dot to do the pick-up, well that’s just what we need to do. Remember why you are doing it. And remember that even though today might be a tough day, you are only a day or so away from being back at home or back at work.