If someone had suggested before I had kids that I might feel differently about my working life after they were born, I probably would have thought they were patronising and most definitely that they were underestimating the modern, ambitious woman they were talking to.
The reality? I feel like it’s not ok to admit this out loud – but I know that friends have said they felt the same so what the hell – I felt like I was coasting when I returned to work after having kids. Not that I didn’t want to be there or couldn’t do the job, not because I didn’t enjoy having colleagues again, but it just felt different. I was glad to return to something of my ‘old’ life, but some of what made it exciting before was lacking. On my first day back I was shown a structure with a new role in it which in my previous life I would have clambered for. Since finishing University like most people of my age, working life had involved gaining experience, looking at the next role or promotion and all with a goal to keep moving up. I’ve never been ruthlessly ambitious, but I worked hard and wanted to progress and apart from having fun with friends and meeting a couple of men and then the man, work took up a large chunk of my time and I was happy with that.
On seeing this new structure, I immediately knew I wouldn’t even be putting myself forward because I’d come back part-time and it was for a full-time role. I didn’t know (but would soon find out) that I was about to get knocked up again and would only be back in work for nine months. I suppose Sheryl Sandberg would advise that this is where I should ‘Lean In’ – so what if you’re part-time or pregnant? Get involved and then the job you return to will be more fulfilling and you’ll be able to hold your own and sit at the table with, well, whoever is running the show. Except I didn’t have the energy.
It took a few months to adjust to this new work me. The return to work is a steep learning curve; missing your baby of course, and not overlooking the ability to get ready in less than 14 minutes but still complete all basic hygiene requirements and do *something* with your hair. I think many of us have to change our expectations of work, and it can come as a surprise even to ourselves. I’m learning that a lot of women feel guilty or judged for whatever decision they make.
For those that do have a paid job, are they supposed to feel bad about leaving their kids in childcare? When I returned to work again after having Mabel, one of the mums at nursery drop off (noticing I wasn’t wearing slouchy jeans and had washed rather than dry-shampooed my hair) touched my arm and said sympathetically ‘Oh, you’re back at work?’. I replied, ‘It’s ok – I’m genuinely excited about not having to sweep the floor three times a day and to feel a bit like my old self’. She leant in conspiratorially and said ‘you’re so right’. I had a year of maternity leave after both babies and felt some relief to go back to work in that it signalled the end of the start, a return to some sense of ‘normal’ and a rediscovery of the world outside the bubble of our home. Equally, some friends that don’t work apologise for it in an ‘oh I’m just at home’, that just being testament either to how they feel about being a stay at home mum, or they think that’s what others might be thinking so they get in there first. So we’re all feeling a bit judged whatever we do?
I’m worried I’m letting the side down by admitting I felt less driven for a while – women before me have fought for this right and I’m suggesting maybe it was a bit too much pressure?
Maybe though, not everyone wants to Lean In and although women should be able to work and have babies and run the world, the pressure to be the best at these things all at once could send some of us over the edge. For a while, getting my head around kids and their total ability to make or break my day by whether they ate/crapped/smiled was enough. The sheer headspace children take up compared to life before – the domestic change that requires thinking about weekends and food shopping and so-and-so’s birthday – feels massive. Juggling that and kids and work is pretty major when you first do it.
Once I’d accepted this new working life, the juggle was easier. I enjoyed working and being with other adults, I did my hours, I didn’t beat myself up about not being in early or finishing late and I had to accept that I wasn’t at the centre of conversations and decisions. It actually was really enjoyable to work without that pressure and not getting involved in the office politics that can be quite consuming. My salary reflected the fact that I was part-time, so I eventually stopped feeling guilty about not being there five days. Being back at work also helped Doug and I find a bit more of a balance at home. I can’t say the calls from nursery to pick up a poorly child got easier – or knowing that they wouldn’t be allowed back in for the rest of the week due to whatever bug they had. Handling a conference call on mute from the toilet with my three year old and an exploding arse (his, not mine) was not a career highlight. Those things will always happen and apart from in a minority of households, these responsibilities more often fall to the mother. We can save that particular debate for another time…
In a couple of weeks I’m starting my own business*. The drive has come back, although I’m realising that success is going to look a bit different to what I thought was important five years ago. Things that previously didn’t matter – the travel distance to work and flexibility for sickness or holidays – have to feature. I think like many women I’ve also worked out I want to do something I’m really passionate about. For the sacrifices we’ll inevitably make and the juggling we’ll inevitably manage, not to mention the extortionate childcare costs, it feels more important to want to do whatever it is we do.
Many people end up in careers due to circumstance and luck. For those of us still not sure what we should ‘do’ now, rather than seeing becoming mothers as killing our careers, perhaps having kids actually gives us the chance and drive to work out what it is we do want to do. I have friends that are studying, retraining, freelancing, building their own businesses – they are focused and excited and doing something that fits with their life as it is now. It’s not easy, some are struggling financially and I know some wish they’d done this when they were young and carefree. I suppose we didn’t know then what we know now and our choices would have been different anyway. I think it’s ok that it might take a bit of time. We might want to have a lie down rather than lean in for a short while.
After that, then we can get back to running the world.
Thank you for reading – I know this is different for everyone, and would love to hear your thoughts below.
*Business – now up and running – is Don’t Buy Her Flowers, thoughtful gifts for new mums.
Main image by Carolyn Braby; Mute button, gethatched.ca