Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Harshest Critic

It was that time of year.  Time to get to know the parents of the kids my kid shares a classroom with.

We sat in the sun sipping chai lattes and chatting pleasantly when one of us began asking around the table what we did.  There was a lawyer, a physio, an accountant, the director of a promising start-up – the rest I’m unsure of.  At first I was listening with interest.  What an interesting group of women.  Then my head got fuzzy.  Because I realized soon I would have to say something.  And what would I say?

I’m a stay at home Mum.

I don’t work.

I’m not in paid employment.

I’m a full time Mother.  Can’t say that – because of course, we are all full time mothers.  None of these women stops being a Mum when they clock on at work.

None of these sat right with me.  But all of them are true.

I was the only one at that table who wasn’t working.  And that is becoming more and more common now that my eldest has reached school age.  Back in the day, when the kids were really little many of us were taking a hiatus from work.  But as the kids get older so many of those around me have headed back to the workforce.

The responses to my status were interesting.  And I know none of the women delivering them did so with any judgment.  But of course, my antennae were up and I was sensitive to how they reacted.  Here’s what they said:

“What does your partner do?”

“Oh lucky!”

“Are you thinking about going back to work?”

Like I said, all of the women at that table were simply making conversation with a group of strangers.  I don’t believe any of them was trying to make any hidden implications or assumptions with their responses.

But here’s how it felt to me:

“Your partner must make good money.”

“It must be so great/easy/fun not having to work!”

“You should be thinking about going back to work.”

I can’t reiterate this enough.  It’s not that I think these women were actually implying these things.  It’s just that my own sensitivities made me hear these implications.

Partly I guess because I feel like I should be going back to work.  My eldest is in Grade One, next year my youngest starts Prep.  People are asking me a lot at the moment if I’m thinking about going back to work.  And I am.  Thinking about it.

But it’s not that easy.  Where do I go?  What do I do?  I was a freelancer when I got pregnant.  That meant I had no maternity leave, no employer to go back to.  In some ways this was a good thing.  I was certainly relieved when my kids were tiny that I didn’t have a boss expecting my return to work – especially with my first.

I had no idea what I was doing.  Breastfeeding was intense and sleeping was a nightmare.  In hindsight I also think I had a bit of PND, which I just battled through, not really knowing or understanding the symptoms enough to seek treatment.

Which is why when people told me stories at that time of women going back to work when their babies were six weeks or even six months old I was dumbfounded. 

“I don’t know how they do that!”

I realise that phrase might seem judgmental.  It’s not – not remotely.  It doesn’t mean ‘I don’t know how they can do that?  How can they leave their babies?’  It means, quite literally ‘I don’t understand how they make that happen.’

I was so swamped, so overwhelmed, it was incomprehensible to me that I could have added a return to work to the mix.

I do wonder – what would have happened if I’d had a job that required my return?  Would I have just sucked it up, worked it out, soldiered on, made it work, as I know so many families do?  Or would it have been my tipping point, the point at which I ceased to cope and fell apart?

We’ll never know.  I reckon it’s an each way bet.

The thing is I never thought I’d be not working for this long.  I had a career that I really valued and enjoyed.  I had a job that I was good at.  I always planned to return to it.

Before we had kids a girlfriend and I used to talk about it.  She was always adamant that she wanted to stay home until her kids were school age.  She would lament the fact that she didn’t see how she could afford to do that.

Not me, I’d counter.  No.  I didn’t see myself staying home for more than six months.  I wanted to go back.

Until I didn’t.  Until I felt like I couldn’t.

Being a Mum not in paid employment can be a confidence destroyer.  Since looking after my kids is now my full time job there’s a lot of self inflicted pressure to get it right at all times.  Bake all the things!  Join all the committees!  When things aren’t going well and you feel like your kids are brats you and all you do all day is yell, there’s a feeling of failure.  Like, I only have this one thing to do and I can’t even get that right.

It’s easy to look around at so many other Mums who seem to be able to manage caring for their kids and professional employment and it can make me feel very inadequate.

Also, I feel like my decision not to return to work has been career killer.  That’s a confidence stomper and a shock to the system.  But I need to face that it may be the reality.

It’s been seven years since I’ve worked.  My previous career was media based and so much has changed.  Technology, equipment, positions, budgets.  None of it is the same.  My contacts list is all but irrelevant.  My knowledge all but obsolete.

We’ve done a big spring clean in our house recently.  Sorted through all the cupboards, thrown out trailer loads of stuff.  I came across my storage container of work stuff.  I’ve held onto it all this time, because I never really had a fixed idea that I wasn’t returning to work – it just sort of happened that way.  But I had to admit it was worthless.  All of it.  I threw it in the bin.  I turned to my partner and said, “I feel like I’ve just thrown away my career.”

That’s a harsh reality to face.

I don’t mean to make it sound like it was a situation that was forced on me.  That is not an accurate representation of things.  But there is certainly an aspect of it that crept up on me.  That wasn’t planned.  That perhaps I might have done differently if I’d had a bit more insight and perspective.  Or maybe not.

I never made one clear decision that I wouldn’t return to work.  But along the way I have knowingly made lots of smaller decisions to not prioritise my career.

Even as recently as last year I was offered a job by a former employer that might have been a dream.  A perfect entrée back into the industry.  I said no.  I was torn – very torn.  It was a difficult decision to make and even more difficult to tell him.  And I really do feel like that decision my have closed the book on my former career.

So why did I say no?

Because it would have been a strain.  It would not have been easy.  It would have impacted all of us.  It would have meant doing the juggle that I see so many families struggle with every day.

We could have done it.  But after seven years of making decisions that prioritise the security and continuity of our family unit, saying yes to a job that would have impacted terribly on my daughters return to school and my son starting kinder seemed contradictory to all our previous decisions.

We’ve come this far, in for a penny in for a pound.  My son starts school next year, why rock the boat before then?  And even then?

I can’t see myself not being there for drop off, for pick up.  Taking them to the Museum on curriculum days.  Spending long lazy days with them at home during the holidays.

These are the advantages of being a Mum that doesn’t work.  I’m very lucky to be able to enjoy all these things.  But they do come at a price.  It’s a cost that we have weighed and chosen, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.  Just as the decision to return to work comes with it’s many difficulties and challenges.

We are financially well behind where we would have been had I returned to work sooner.  We rent, don’t own.  We don’t do a lot of travelling.   Our kids won’t be going to private schools.  My partner is self employed, work is sporadic and so is the income.

That’s not a complaint.  We are very lucky that we are in a position where we can make that choice.  We choose to sacrifice the income and live a little simpler.  It is sometimes a difficult decision though.  And sometimes it’s easy to wonder if it’s the right one.

I admit all this by way of saying that what we do in our family is not borne of some strategic grand plan.  It’s more of a complex, confused set of circumstances that align in a certain way.

And what it all boils down to is this; I am far too busy trying to navigate the subtleties of my own situation to be judging anybody else’s.

Because I know that the mothers I shared coffee with might equally have been saying:

“We struggle to pay our mortgage.”

“I’d love to spend more time with my kids.”

“I wish I didn’t have to go back to work just yet.”

Or any variation of those themes that resonated with their personal situations.  There was no judgment in what they were saying to me.  Just as there was no judgment in my responses to hearing about their enviable careers.

Any judgment I construed in their responses came from within, was created by my own fears and insecurities about the decisions we are making for our family.  It’s a good thing to remember when talking with other mums about these things. 

That we are most often our own harshest critics, that we are all just navigating things as best we can.  It might be easy sometimes to assume judgment or a hidden critique, but it’s just better not to.

This article was first posted at The Mummy and The Minx and is republished here with full permission.

Image Licensed Under Creative Commons via Morguefile


  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing your story and feelings. I was blown away, totally loved it! Yes I've struggled to find the words to explain you're at home full time. None of the current 'description words' fit well for various reasons as you know. and it's a bit of a conversation stopper. I once had one of my husband's work colleagues say, "oh so you don't work" I soon enlightened him;)

    Whilst I support women in the workforce, this is what we (well mostly our sisters before us) fought for, freedom of choice. Women who choose (sacrifices abound either choice - work, home- you make) The sad thing is our society is sending a very clear message they no longer value motherhood.

    And yet, your family is the most important 'work' 'role' undertaking you'll ever do.
    Well done, wishing you all the best navigating your new year when your second child begins school.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment Erin. Yes! It's such a tricky one, especially when the path to the point of working or not working is not a straight-forward, clear-cut decision, but rather a more organic, even chaotic accumulation of circumstances. This ambiguity is only increased when we add to the mix the perceived judgements of other.

      I think you make a good point about the undervaluing of motherhood (and in fact many things 'feminine') which perhaps feeds into the uncertainty and insecurity we feel around these decisions - no matter which one we make.

      Quite the struggle! x