Becoming a Mother seems to go hand-in-hand with being neatly labelled, like rows of veg in a garden. You’re a ‘Stay at home Mum’, a ‘Working Mum’, a ‘Full-time working Mum’ or ‘Part-time working Mum’… Over the last four years I’ve had to fill out a few forms or answer various administrative questions about my ‘occupation’, and I’ve always felt a bit funny about writing ‘stay at home Mum’. The title seems to be heavily loaded; it’s one step away from saying ‘I’m a housewife’ (very un-P.C now) and in our current society where work success and just general business are lauded, choosing to stay at home and look after small children seems to somehow fall short of the mark in terms of society’s expectations of us, or perhaps the expectations we now put upon ourselves as women (the perpetual question: can we have it all?!). It may just be that British society sadly doesn’t seem to value or respect individuals who care for young children, as it should. What are your thoughts? Do you think that other countries seem to value those in childcare roles more highly? I think this is something we should continue to question.
Having children and making the decision of whether or not to go back to work is a tricky one for women. It’s great to see that more people are taking up shared parental leave after having a baby, but I would hazard a guess that the majority of Dad’s go back to work after their two-week (or so) parental leave is up, and that’s that. There are people fighting for flexible working for parents (most notably Anna Whitehouse of Mother Pukka) so hopefully things are starting to move in the right direction in that respect. But I’m not going to go into more detail about that just now. I’ve been thinking about the questions that Mothers get asked, and along with the usual (rather controversial) questions (ie “are you breastfeeding?”, “how is the baby sleeping” etc) , one that crops up from when your baby is between six months and one year old is “So, are you going back to work?”. I think that whatever your answer to this question, it will throw up conflicting feelings and a certain amount of guilt. If you are going back to work (full-time or part-time) it could be for a number of reasons: you want to keep your career going; love your job; need the second salary; have to go back for a certain amount of time to keep your maternity pay etc. I can only imagine the difficulty in returning to a job and juggling everything on very little sleep, not to mention the emotional strain of leaving your baby in someone else’s care. This must be particularly hard if you would rather stay at home with your baby, but need to return to work for financial reasons. I’m sure some Mum’s (and maybe some Dad’s too, but that’s a whole other conversation) struggle with feelings of guilt over this. On the flip side, though, I can completely understand how freeing and wonderful it might be to have time away from the baby where you are pursuing something you (hopefully) enjoy, in an adult space where you can have proper conversations, pee in peace and drink hot tea!
For those Mums, like me, who decide not to return to work, or are unable to for whatever reason, a whole array of conflicting emotions emerge around staying at home to look after the baby. For a start, there is undoubtedly a high level of drudgery and repetition involved in staying at home and keeping small people alive. You don’t get any thanks, or constructive feedback on how you’re doing, and can often feel lonely or bored. Some days the house will feel like a prison and you won’t talk to another adult until your partner gets home. When you become a Mother you change as a person (to a degree), and you lose the freedom you had (that, in hindsight, you sometimes think you didn’t make the most of) and can’t just decide to go on a last-minute mini-break to Paris, or even go on a night out with friends so easily. But being a Mum and staying at home to look after your babies doesn’t render you completely devoid of a personality outside that of ‘Mummy’. You still have interests, ideas and dreams: they might be hidden or suppressed for a while, but are still there. The thing is, with not going out to work, you can lose sight of yourself a bit, and forget about all the other things you’re good at (you’ll probably be especially hard on yourself if you’re having a tough time and don’t feel like you know what you’re doing as a Mother). So, even if you’re quite happy to stay at home long-term with your baby/child, you might not enjoy every minute of it. You may sometimes long for adult company (especially if you’ve been stuck in the house all day and can’t bear to watch another episode of Paw Patrol), or even no company at all! Feeling ‘touched out’, where your senses are overloaded after a day being pawed at by little ones is something most Mums have probably felt at one point or another.
I’ve never regretted my decision to leave my career and be at home with my children, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve not felt somewhat confused over the years about my current ‘role’.
I gave up my career in academic publishing when I went on maternity leave with my daughter in 2013. It was the best decision for me/us for a number of reasons: 1) I was able to take voluntary redundancy as the company was undergoing a major shake-up and office move; 2) I didn’t much fancy doing the busy daily commute into London; 3) I felt ready to have a break from the world of publishing (even though it had been a great, although at times stressful, career); 4) The cost of childcare meant that returning to work, either part-time or full-time wouldn’t make sense financially; 5) It wasn’t a guarantee that I would have been able to go back part-time, or even in the same position (and my job involved a fair bit of travel, which would have been tricky with a young family); 5) My husband works freelance in the film industry: his work is unpredictable, involves long hours and often working abroad (sometimes for months at a time) so it made sense for me to stay at home and be on hand for the children.
I’ve always felt fairly happy and comfortable with this decision but there are times, particularly if someone I don’t know asks me what I ‘do’, when I find it hard to answer; because being a stay-at-home-mum carries a certain degree of stigma, and I battle with the feelings that I might be seen as boring, un-ambitious or ‘un-cool’ because I haven’t kept a career going whilst raising children. These feelings come purely from a place of vanity and ego as it’s all about other people’s perception of me, so it seems silly to give in to those thoughts, but early motherhood is a strange time in your life when your identity, confidence and self-worth are often called into question (sometimes on a daily basis). In a way, you have to reconstruct who you are in relation to your new responsibility of caring for young children.
When asked what I ‘do’, I say ‘I’m at home with the kids’ (I never use the phrase ‘I’m a stay-at-home Mum’), but I always manage to slip into the conversation that ‘I used to work in publishing’ (why do I feel the need to do this?!), just so that the person knows that I did have a career, and used to do something that might be considered ‘interesting’, or even ‘successful’. It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of social aspiration and one-upmanship. Telling people that you spend your days looking after small children seems to quickly shut down any interesting conversation (unless they are a fellow parent), whereas when I was in my old job people would usually say ‘oh that’s interesting – what have you published, do you travel much…’ etc etc. Sometimes I almost have the feeling that I’ve literally shrunk in their eyes to someone who is not really worth investing time in.
But perhaps all these feelings are really inconsequential, and I need to ‘own’ my status as a stay-at-home-mum? Are you bothered about labels? Or what people think about your life choices?
Over the last four years, I’ve often wondered what I might eventually ‘do’ in terms of a job or career, once both children are in school. In truth, I have absolutely no idea. I’ve been out of an office environment for so long that I don’t know if I’d like going back into that sort of setting, and I’m really keen to be flexible so I can be around for Annabelle and Rafe. On the other hand, I would like to do something that I get a lot of satisfaction from, and to be a strong role model for A and R. I sometimes get a bit panicked that I won’t ever find something that I really enjoy doing (that also pays some bills!). Part of the reason I started this blog was to give myself a focus, to do something for me, and to bring in some semblance of ‘work’ (ie by carving out time to sit and write these blog posts) to my days. We’ll just have to see what happens in the future but for now my job description is ‘Mummy’, and that’s OK.