If anyone had asked me 11 months ago if I could see myself returning to work I would, with complete honesty, have responded in the negative. My circle of friends on the whole had given up their careers to raise children as had my sister, and I saw myself choosing that same path. I used to look with envy at these stay-at home mums living their best lives and raising their wonderful children. They made it look easy and enviable. Having had my own child and spent 11 months at home looking after her alone, I know it’s anything but easy. And it takes a special woman to give up her life and identity to stay at home and raise children.
I started work at the age of 16, as soon as I could. I wanted to earn my own money and buy things for myself, without having to justify my spending to my parents. I worked a few hours a week at the chemist opposite my house as my dad knew the pharmacist. My first ‘proper’ job was at C&A in Oxford Street the summer of ’99 before I started college. Since then I’ve always worked in some capacity, weekends, evenings and holidays, before I got my first full time job.
I went on maternity leave at the age of 33 expecting wonderful things from the 12 months ahead. I remember saying to colleagues that I might study part time or travel with all the extra time I’d have on my hands. The mums in the office advised me against making any hasty decisions. How they must have laughed at my nativity! After baby A was born, and my husband returned to work, I was lucky to have a shower forget logging-on to my laptop! Even now at 11 months finding time to do anything for myself when she’s awake is hard. And for all those people who manage to get on with housework and life’s other chores while the baby is sleeping, I commend you, I used that time to sleep.
I didn’t manage to read a single book in all my time off. In truth I’m still making my way through Purity by Jonathan Franzen which I downloaded around month 6. I know other mothers are better at this than I am. I decided to have children later and I had unrealistic expectations of what it would entail. I also didn’t take to motherhood as naturally as some people, or at least not to being the version of the perfect mum, who balances everything while looking great and maintaining all of her social/personal/family commitments. I was an unorganised mess. I didn’t plan anything but took each day as it came. Although I made a point of going out every day (almost) I also watched a load of crap TV and ordered in most of our food.
I returned to work in early April and I practically skipped out of the door to the sound of my crying child. Getting on the bus without a baby for the first time in almost a year was wonderful. To get to work and be seen as myself rather than a mother was something I’d been craving. To think about something other than nappies, nap time, babies, toys etc was liberating, even if it was only for a couple of hours a week (I retuned part-time). I’m also very lucky that my husband agreed to go part-time so our daughter could be at home with him rather than at a nursery or with a childminder, which would probably have been too stressful for her.
I’m sure most mothers struggle with returning to work. There’s so much guilt associated with leaving your child, both internally and from society. For me personally I was going mad at home, fighting with my husband and making a drama of everyday minutiae. Life at home with a baby was nothing like I had expected and returning to work, even for a few hours, made me feel more sane.
I don’t feel the need to explain how much I love my baby, that’s a given. I love being mum but I can only be good at it if I’m in a good place myself mentally. As a mum, I’m responsible for my child, and that is my most important role in life. She is my highest achievement and my goals. But for me that doesn’t mean giving up who I am. In fact it’s important for me that my daughter sees her mum go out to work, to use her brain, to achieve and inspire. I want her to know that she has choices in life and whatever she decides she will be supported just like I’ve been fortunate enough to be.