The Up and Down Life of A Working Mother

In the toilets at work there is an unforgiving mirror.

It is in this mirror that I see the cold, hard evidence that life is starting to take its toll.

I sometimes use it to pull out that evidence-the grey hairs I seem to have suddenly acquired-when no one else is around.

Being a working parent is hard. There are days when I feel like those greys are multiplying and not even the strongest dye could mask them. There are days when I leave home in the morning to screams and tears; to a tiny child lifting up his arms as I turn to leave, too young to understand the need for his mother to earn a living. Those are the days when I thank my lucky stars for the presence of my mother to comfort him, and carry to work with me the sinking feeling that nothing I ever do is good enough.

But there are also days that are not like that. Days when I have a good day at work, when I feel as though I’ve made a difference to a child’s future, even if that child isn’t my own.  When I thank my lucky stars that I get to teach other people’s children, albeit in different skills to those I teach my own. After all, at 21 months he’s not quite there yet with Kant’s categorical imperative, although I’m working on it.

There are other things I’m working on too. I’m working on managing my time better, at responding to emails whilst feeding a toddler, at knocking out the bare bones of this blog post on the ten minute commute from work to home, and I’m working on not feeling the guilt quite so much.

We’re all just trying our best.

Would I still work, if I had the choice not to? I can’t answer that question. I worked hard for my career, invested in it, and continue to do so. But if that mythical husband had appeared, swept me off my feet as they do in all good fairy tales, and promised to take care of me forever, to return home on the dot each night at seven and whisk the baby from my arms, as I collapsed, just as exhausted as I am now, onto the sofa each night, would I turn it down?

Or would we find another way through; would I work, while my husband stayed at home, or would I, like most of the other working parents I know, put my career on the back burner for a few years and go part time, even though so often that solution seems to feel like the worst of both worlds.

The question doesn’t matter, of course. The option was never there, and for that perhaps I should be grateful.  I always needed that extra injection of motivation, the extra incentive to get out of bed in the morning and into work, and now I have it.  This little boy, for whom I would go to the ends of the earth.

I’m grateful too, for my mother, who has dutifully sacrificed the last few years of her own career to allow me to pursue mine, so that the childcare bills are somewhat eased. So that I don’t have to go to work every day thinking of that time I had a conversation, at work (where else?) with a nursery manager who confessed that she thought babies at nursery were “institutionalised.” I was five months pregnant and terrified. How would I manage? I cried tears of despair to women I worked with. How had they done it? How would I manage? I was a fool to think I could do it; be the career woman, the single mother, the one who almost left it too late, and then panicked and had a baby alone. Could I really do it? They took me aside, these women, and told me I could; that everything would be fine, as it was for them before me.

As it will be for generations still to come.

I may not always be there at home for my son, every minute of every day, watching his milestones twenty four hours a day and knowing every tiny aspect of his developing personality the way I did on maternity leave, but I am dealing the hand that life has dealt, and doing so the best I can.

Just the same as everyone else.

If you like my posts, or even if you don’t and think I am banging on about an age-old dilemma that has afflicted working mothers since the actual dawn of time, and which, pre-Internet, didn’t seem to require such navel-gazing introspection, as we were all far too busy with more important matters like making sure our offspring weren’t getting their heads trapped in the mangle, or being eaten by a sabre toothed tiger, please consider voting for me in the Mum and Working Awards. 

Mummuddlingthrough
ethannevelyn
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Having it all? Or just being a bit rubbish at it all?

Today, dear readers, I am going to talk about Having It All.

Because that is a topic that doesn’t get much airtime, oh no, no one writes about the Blessed Womanly Curse of Having It All.

For me, Having It All means working full time, parenting and then trying to blog in the evenings after the baby has gone to sleep.  I’m not going to lie.  I’m an amateur at this.  I’m not leading a FTSE 100 company whilst simultaneously raising eight children and fitting in a spot of tennis at 5am to stay trim.  I’ll leave that to Anna Wintour, Sheryl Sandberg and their ilk, for I am no superwoman, but it is still a tricky balancing act, and one where I feel that I am constantly on the brink and if I take my eye off the ball for just a minute I could sink without trace, leaving only my powerwalk-to-work orange trainers poking up out of the mud, adorned with an epitaph.  She tried to Have It All, but she found she was rubbish at everything.  She was Rubbish At It All.

Take my email inbox, for example.  It is literally overflowing with things I need to do that always get shelved because something more urgent crops up.  There is a constant dark cloud of work that is never done hanging over my head.

Do men worry like this, I wonder?  Do they agonise over whether they can have a career, children, a fantastic social life and great hair?  I strongly suspect that most do not.  A quick glance over the Google results for “having it all” reveals a depressing litany of authors-almost invariably women-reflecting and hand-wringing over the classic dichotomy.  We are expected to be all things to all people, supreme mothers and supreme career women, or we will be letting down Emmeline Pankhurst, Gloria Steinem, Wonder Woman and most of all, our own children.

Personally, I just feel exhausted.  I work all the hours God sends but never have any money, and any money I do have seems to get eaten up by debt, coffee and pre-packaged sandwiches that I hate myself for buying.  I sometimes feel as though Piglet barely recognises me, but still I have hope.  I read in Caitlin Moran’s book How To Be A Woman that having children made her care more about her career.  All of a sudden it wasn’t just her anymore, but she owed it to her children to be the best she could be.  I didn’t understand it at the time.  I thought that having children was a way out of the rat race and a shortcut to a life of leisure spent drinking frothy coffees, enjoying play dates with other mothers during lengthy maternity leaves, and possibly writing a novel or finally starting that import-export business selling cans of cherry-blossom flavoured Japanese alcopops you’d been planning since 2001.  What I wasn’t expecting was barely being able to leave the house or wear anything other than a pair of leggings and a milk-stained T-shirt for weeks on end, and developing an unhealthy interest in watching Escape to the Country that at one point had me planning an Escape to the Country-themed drinking game to pass the time.

You wouldn’t get Anna Wintour playing the Escape to the Country drinking game.  She would spurn Escape to the Country, and go and play a pre-dawn game of tennis, get her hair immaculately styled into the trademark power bob and freeze some interns to death with her icy gaze.

You wouldn’t get Sheryl Sandberg wearing a pair of leggings and a milk-stained T-shirt.  She would put on a chic but business-appropriate structured dress, sit in a beanbag-strewn Silicon Valley ideas room with Mark Zuckerberg talking about charity projects, then go and take the patriarchy to task at Davos without so much as chipping a court shoe.

So I find myself saying, as I drag myself out of bed at 6am each day, and as my eyes start to close while I write this blog post, knowing that I have to be up at 7am on a SATURDAY to take Piglet to his swimming class, I must continue, I must prevail, I must HAVE IT ALL.  The career, the being a great mother, the being a world-famous writer (ONE DAY.  Baby steps, people, baby steps).  I will make Piglet proud of his Mummy.

I hope.

ethannevelyn

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