My reflections on being a mum
Firstly combining motherhood with paid work and now having a break from paid work
First child, first maternity leave
Our daughter C was born unexpectedly at home with the last minute and hugely valued assistance of four paramedics. That wasn’t in my birth plan, which fortunately had included keeping an open mind.
Our experience as new parents was largely positive and happy. I had prepared for total lack of sleep, so was pleased to get generous sprinkles of that particular gold dust. I had prepared for post-natal depression, having seen friends suffer, so was relieved not to be afflicted. Preparing for the worst was paying off. C was a good natured baby and reflux was her only health problem – or as the medical profession put it, not so much a health problem as a laundry problem. But a laundry problem should not be underestimated in the early days of motherhood.
My husband and I had joined an NCT (National Childbirth Trust) antenatal group during my pregnancy, as advised by friends who already had their first child. It certainly brought the instant network of soon-to-be parents which its marketing promised. The NCT charity thrives on a common feeling of apprehension about the unknown and a fear of isolation in the early months of motherhood at an exciting, yet vulnerable, time. An easy routine developed of weekly “coffee through to sandwich lunch through to early afternoon tea” sessions, monthly country walks and even occasional dads’ nights out. This was accompanied by an element of unavoidable comparison of our children and parenting approaches which was difficult for me at times.
After Christmas our attention turned to looking for childcare for my return to work. I had fundamentally disagreed with researching this whilst pregnant but it felt just as wrong looking at childcare options with our small baby in the pram. I had already extended my maternity leave to the maximum, so would return to work just after C’s first birthday. We both worked in the south east of England and living on one salary was not an option, even if I went back to work as the higher earner. So it was not a question of whether I would go back to work but how we would organise our childcare. We did not have any family nearby, so we needed to choose between a child-minder or nursery. We were relatively new to the area and knew very few parents of older children from whom to seek advice. We had no recommendations of child-minders so looking for a good one was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Then there was the general consensus amongst our fellow rookie parents that a child minder would just stick your children in front of the television and take them round the supermarket anyway. I visited the two day-nurseries which would be feasible in light of our commute from the station. I hated one of them and liked the other one. I then sought reassurance from my NCT friends and signed C up for three days per week from her first birthday. I would work four days a week and my husband negotiated compressed hours so we would each have a day with our daughter. The cost made me feel physically sick but there really was no other option and we agreed that we would just have to make it work.
The rest of my maternity leave passed happily. We made friends and found enjoyable activities. There was a stressful period around the weaning stage when I was convinced that C would never get onto solid food. Of course all the other NCT babies seemed to be eating anything and everything which made me feel vulnerable. Sleep “problems” were also often on the agenda of our meetings with friends.
Becoming a working mum
The time settling C into nursery was one of the hardest periods of my life. I sat in the coffee lounge of the nursery and gym complex, pretending to enjoy reading the paper and drinking a coffee in peace whilst C had her first settling in session. After a short while the nursery nurse came to tell me that she was very upset and not calming down so they thought it was best that I took her home. I was so upset. The baby unit supervisor was sympathetic and reassuring but it broke my heart. The clock was ticking for my first day back at work and we had a just a few more “settling in sessions” before I would head off to work over an hour away.
When the day came for me to go to work the positive side was that it was good to get my handbag and smart clothes out and feel like a professional person again. I enjoyed the train journey: being able to read a newspaper and have no responsibility. I returned to a different job which seemed like a backward step – not in pay, but responsibility. My management was aiming to “ease me back in”. Instead of feeling grateful for this I felt quite disheartened – reluctantly leaving our daughter in nursery I felt strongly that I wanted to be doing something worthwhile. Fortunately, within a few months I managed to agree a more interesting, more responsible job.
Days after I started work, as is often the case, C got ill with conjunctivitis and I had to dash home feeling awful that she was ill and guilty that I had to have time off so soon after I had resumed work. Soon after, very bad snow came and with it the stress of whether nursery would be open, whether we would be able to get to work and if we did get C to nursery and get to work, would we get home. I felt so far away from my baby, it felt so wrong and stressful. A day of this would have been manageable but it went on for a long time.
Therein lay the dilemma for me for this period of my working life. Of course our child was more important than work but I took my work responsibilities and commitments seriously and disliked the thought of anyone thinking or saying that I didn’t care about work now that I had C. I was wrestling with how to reconcile my professional and family life. Essentially the two became completely separate.
The vast majority of my colleagues did not have children, so could stay late if they needed or wanted to and rarely missed out on social events. Just like me, before I had a child. At work I felt uncomfortable being in the minority but as soon as I was on my way home to collect C I was delighted that I was going home to be mummy. Unfortunately putting her to bed after a long day at nursery was rarely as blissful as I wanted it to be. In fact sometimes it made me want to cry that this was “my time” with her and it was sometimes pretty miserable. Thank goodness for my day off and the weekends. I took C to her swimming lesson in the morning of my day off and we often met up with a friend in the afternoon, but with the majority of my mum friends working at least part time, it was impossible to develop all the friendships started on maternity leave. I remember enjoying taking her to feed the ducks, going to the park and introducing her to the great wide world in contrast to the closed environment of nursery. But the day went so quickly and I soon realised that plenty of the things I had enjoyed whilst on maternity leave would have to stop: five days into one just did not go! I also cherished the day when my husband was in charge. I was glad that the timetable was not so pressured and loved coming home to them both at the end of the day.
One of the lowlights of this period was jumping on the wrong train of two at adjoining platforms and finding that I was on a fast train to a place significantly beyond where I was supposed to be going. I was a sobbing sight in smart clothes and it seemed to signify everything that was so hard about being a working mother under the pressure of time.
A second child – a luxury we couldn’t afford?
By the time I left work to start my second maternity leave I did feel satisfied with what I had achieved at work. C had settled in nursery and we were very happy with the care the nursery gave her. She had her independent life there, talked about the other children there and was confident, funny and happy. Having childcare had some practical advantages for me: occasionally I could take a day off work and do something for myself; if I was ill on a work day I did not have to look after a toddler at the same time; and three days a week nursery took care of C’s meals.
Work offered to get maternity cover for my job so that I could return to that job but I was hoping beyond hope that a rabbit would come out of the hat as I had no idea how we would afford nursery care for two children. Having one child even with two working parents was the most financially stressful period of our life to date. Despite this it wasn’t enough to put off the decision to have a second child. Maybe we were just not prepared to accept that having two children was a luxury we could not afford.
Ironically our son, A, was born in hospital rather than the home birth we had opted for. This was especially difficult when I arrived in labour as it was the hospital where my mum died suddenly when I was 4 months pregnant. Fortunately nature has a way of making sure giving birth takes over anything else and the support from the excellent midwife – a new experience for me – compensated for the traumatic memories.
The rabbit which sprang out of the hat in the nick of time was a change in my husband’s job requiring us to move away from the south east, with the cost of our accommodation covered. Moving house with a toddler and a two month old baby was not ideal but the advantages far outweighed the difficulties.
Mum of two children, no paid job
The move has enabled us to live a life which was impossible before. I have taken a career break and my husband works five days a week with a short walk to work. We soon found a lovely playgroup (for children to go to independently) a very short walk from our house and C started there before the summer break. I will never forget the happy feeling in my gut when I was able to take C to toddler groups (where the parents stay) as a two and a half year old, with A in the baby carrier. It was lovely to see her at play with lots of other children, something which I rarely saw when I was working. By the time we had been here six months she was going to playgroup from 9.30 to 2.30 three days a week, all paid for from the government’s voucher scheme. I look after our son 24-7 for the time being and hope that he will be able to start at the same playgroup for a couple of sessions when he is two and a half and increase this once he gets the government’s vouchers. I take him to a toddler group twice a week and both children to a gymnastics class once a week. We have one day which at first I feared but now I treasure: we have no fixed activity and tend to take a trip somewhere or meet friends.
I feel very lucky to be able to take life at the children’s pace now. Before I had my own children I did not know how long getting ready in the morning with two pre-schoolers would take, especially as they travel the essential journey towards independence. I wonder at amazing working parents of more than one child who can all leave the house by 8am or earlier. We managed it with one child and could do it with two children: I imagine it would take a high degree of organisation, powerful negotiating skills, a large dose of bribery and the odd bit of brute force. For me the liberating thing is that we now have the choice to take the slower option. We can for example walk at their pace, take the time to look at what we see, listen to C recounting her stories in her own time. We have learnt to be happily at home as a three together and I feel that C and A are developing a strong bond together through spending more time together in their formative years than would have been possible under our old system. I feel very happy that A is able to sleep in his cot as a norm for his day time sleep – and it is my decision if I want us to deviate from that. We are able to eat our main meal together as a whole family most days and my repertoire of family meals now extends beyond spaghetti bolognaise and chilli con carne. At the end of the day I feel grateful that the bath and bedtime routine is generally a happy time because the children are not exhausted.
Other days when I feel grateful that work is temporarily out of the equation are the ones when the children are not 100% well, but would be well enough to go to their child care. When they were too ill to go to childcare it was clear cut so this was simple in some ways. On the “borderline days” they need extra attention, comfort and in my opinion quiet motherly love to make a speedy recovery. I do not have to agonise under the pressure of time very early in the morning about whether I can afford the annual leave to stay at home, whether it matters about me missing “that meeting”, whether people will think I am not committed to my job anymore. I am able to be there without inconvenience to anyone. In fact since I have not been working there has been less illness which in itself is a blessing.
For those who do not feel trapped in the welfare system, it appears to me to be a luxury to have time to live life and learn together as a young family. That is not to say that it does not sometimes feel frustrating and repetitive but I believe that our children benefit from the care I am able to give them at home and from not being on a tight timetable. For the most part I am able to offer them a calm environment in which to grow.
As a working mum I was grateful to share the responsibility of looking after our daughter with my husband and with the nursery staff. I was reassured that C was spending time with nursery staff who had studied child development and had creative ideas of what to do with them. In contrast I now sometimes feel overwhelmed with having sole responsibility for my son and being a role model 24-7. I have also worried that he is missing out on the advantages of being in a nursery, mainly having his own independent life and spending more time with his peers. By the time he was two I stopped worrying about this as it was clear he was a very sociable and confident little boy. I worry about whether I “do” enough with him. I feel that the role of full time mum sometimes gets confused with that of a private tutor. I fall short of this. On a playgroup day I manage to get C to playgroup more or less on time, take A to his activity, make sure he gets some fresh air, feed the family and clear up after us, put A down for a sleep and pick up C more or less on time. After playgroup there is time to have something to eat, then be at home with toys and or a dose of television, take the children out on their bikes, meet friends, go to the library or something else low key before it is time to make our meal, eat, give the children their bath and put them to bed. Whilst objectively this seems more than adequate in caring for our children I still feel inadequate that I never get round to doing any of the ideas that I collect from magazines or CBeebies – I have yet to organise our children ever making Mr Maker’s creations or baking Katie’s recipes and every time we watch the programmes I feel I fall short of what I should be doing, but know that I am doing what I can whilst staying relatively sane.
It took me quite a long time to realise that the feeling that I could not quite put my finger on was loneliness. It should not really have been a surprise since the core of caring for young children is quite a solitary job with bursts of socialising. Having two children, at least in the early phase, is more than double the work of having one child and it is very hard work, physically and emotionally. I was grieving deeply for my mum. I had moved away from the friends I had made as a new mum and the other longer standing friends I had in the surrounding area. My nearest family was over two hours away. I knew a handful of people in locally but essentially I had to set about building a new life in a context where many people have family locally and already have a group of “mum friends”. Sustaining friendships takes time and some people simply don’t have the time and or inclination to make new ones. Despite this I feel I have made a good job of making some lovely friends and our family gets a good balance of doing things with friends and having the confidence, which was lacking to start with, to just enjoy being at home together or go to places the three of us.
I know very few people who have not gone back to work (outside the south east child care is less expensive although it still takes a big proportion of the pay packet) and this brought a new realisation for me. As a working mum the one thing I never had enough of was time – either with my children or on my own. As a full time mum I sometimes feel I have too much time and need to be creative to fill the day. I am under a different pressure from most other mums I know and don’t have the strong network of other mums in the same situation which was probably more common in the previous generation. I am sure that having such a network would make life easier and more pleasurable. We all need support around us but this has been difficult for me to generate at a time when life has often felt overwhelming. Friendships take time to develop and time is at a premium nowadays.
The value of mothering in 21st century Britain
It would make a big difference to me if I felt that motherhood and parenthood was more valued and recognised within our broader society. The very fact that having children these days is seen as a lifestyle choice means that it is difficult to get a discussion going about the difficulties of family life in the 21st century without the comeback of “well, you decided to have children”. If those involved in child rearing get it right we will have a generation of emotionally well balanced people ready to take their place in the workforce and the wider society. If we get it wrong the opposite is likely. My suspicion is that we are unlikely to be praised for the former, but likely to be criticised for the latter. As a mum who does not have a paid job, I have learnt that I need to have a ready response to the frequent question of “When are you going back to work?” Surprisingly it is often other mums who make me feel awkward about my decision to have a career break. “I don’t know how you do it” does not normally give me a boost; instead it can make me feel I must be mad. The fact that child care is a very low paid job contributes to a feeling that the work of bringing up the next generation is undervalued. We often used to bump into the nursery staff working in shops at the weekend to top up their salary which made me feel bad. Firstly it reminded me that despite the high nursery fees the carers were still often paid the minimum wage; secondly after a week working with pre-schoolers I thought they should be able to afford a weekend; thirdly it put childcare on the same level as shop work. If the work of mothers was understood more and valued more highly, employers might look more favourably on mothers wanting to re-enter the work place. Equally if women felt that there was more social support for the work of mothers more people might be prepared to risk a career break to care for small children.
Two books have helped bring clarity to my own feelings and affirmed me in my role as a mother: both by Naomi Stadlen called “What Mothers Do – especially when it looks like nothing” and “How Mothers Love and how relationships are born.”
The emotive nature of the social debate
How to be a mum and earn enough money to live a desired life style is nearly always an emotive topic as it cuts to the heart of our financial situation and feelings about motherhood. It is misleading to talk about it as a choice or decision because for many people there is no choice. When I was working four days a week with a toddler I could not join in conversations about the merits of not going out to work as a mum or the advantages or disadvantages of child care because it upset me too much. In my heart, despite my strident feelings about gender equality in the workplace, I wanted to be able to be more active in my child’s upbringing but this was not possible without getting into more debt. It seems to me that once a couple have made up their mind about what they need or want to do regarding their child’s upbringing many need to reassure themselves by justifying themselves and in them doing so I have sometimes felt vulnerable. As every one’s situation is so different there is, in my experience, little solidarity amongst mums and people can be quick to judge.
Reverting for a time to traditional gender roles has affected the relationship between me and my husband. When we were both working we were both under too much pressure, especially my husband who was working four long days and looking after C on his “day off”. However this was a pressure we shared and we understood for the most part the pressure each other felt. This is no longer the case and we sometimes find it difficult. We have been able to discuss our feelings, despite being permanently exhausted, and adjust to the situation but it is still sometimes a source of tension. What stops this becoming a big problem is the simple fact that we have chosen this arrangement, it is working for us now and that it is not a permanent arrangement. I cannot emphasise enough how grateful I feel to have this choice.
April 27th 2015
A big ‘thank you’ from MAHM for sharing your story with us.