Before child (BC) I knew that my life was going to change but I had no concept at all about what that change would be. The only thing I knew was that I had no idea at all.
I remember chatting with a friend towards the end of my pregnancy about this impending identity crisis (and it is a crisis not knowing what your identity is going to look like in a few months time) and she laughingly told me, ‘you’re going to be a mum, get used to it’.
On the one hand, she was absolutely right, since giving birth I am most definitely a mother; my daughter and my relationship to her is such a massively overwhelming thing that has seeped into all other aspects of my life that I cannot, nor would I want to, deny the truth of what she told me. On the other hand, when you’ve no concept of what being a mum is and you are already panicking about potentially losing yourself in a role that is rapidly about to be thrust upon you, this is perhaps one of the single most unhelpful things you can say to a prospective parent. Seriously.
Knowing you are about to become a mum is like being told you are about to conduct an intergalactic opera in a gala event taking place on the space palace of ultrawegglytron and you realise that a whole lot of pressure is being put upon you to fulfil a role that not even a single element of which makes sense to you.
Anyhoo, as I was gearing up to go on maternity leave I was in full on panic mode. I had spent so long trying to move my career forward to create interesting work opportunities and prospects for myself and here I was about to take, what turned out to be, almost six months off. Clearly, I had no idea what being a mum was going to be like but I also had no idea what kind of work landscape I was going to come back to upon my return.
I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to put in the long nights and weekend work, which is fairly standard practice in NGOs – horrific on so many levels as that is. But I had already started working towards this when I found out I was pregnant by trying what initially seemed to be a very alien concept of just working the hours I was contracted for. To my great surprise I found that sticking to my hours increased my efficiency within those hours so much that I could achieve just as much working my 40 contracted hours as I could trying to work 60 hours. Actually I probably achieved more because I wasn’t permanently running on fumes and perpetually burnt out. Work environments that applaud the staff who sit at their desks longest or send the emails earliest in the morning or latest at night are, frankly, ridiculous.
Anyway, in addition to trying to improve my time management capabilities I also tried to prepare myself for the impending work absence by soliciting the advice and support of various colleagues to basically make sure I wasn’t forgotten about. I knew the world of work, I knew the kind of career goals I had already achieved and those that I was continuing to work towards. I had no idea what motherhood would do to that.
I had planned to keep an eye on work emails and stay in touch with office trends during my maternity leave. But then I had a baby and, as I expected, but was still wholly unprepared for, everything changed. It was like when you are at the opticians and they ask ‘is it better with lens one or two?’, but rather than there being a minor difference you have to almost guess at it was the difference between seeing in black and white and seeing in colour. My entire focus just shifted.
It wasn’t that I no longer cared about work, it was more that I realised that work was just one element in my life and it was no longer the most important. I also discovered hidden superpowers within and all the uncertainty that plagued me BC I seemed to just be able to shrug off. For perhaps the first time in my working life I recognised, without any sense of guilt or shame, that actually I’m awesome at what I do and if the people around me can’t see that then I can always find other people who will.
So I didn’t check work emails, I enjoyed the time off I had with my baby and barely thought about the return to work until the thought of being away from my baby started giving me panic attacks in the weeks prior to my return.
I was lucky in being able to return to work at a traditionally very quiet time of year and in having a supportive boss who enabled me to work from home a couple of days a week so that on those days I can have extra time with my daughter by saving the commute and having lunch/feed breaks with her during the day.
I returned to work and I enjoyed it. In many ways it was a pleasure to return to the office whose values I’m passionately committed to and to once again feel that I am doing my part in contributing to the work I care about. It was also a pleasure to be able to have grown up conversations and to set myself a task list I could actually complete, not to mention the joys of being able to drink a cup of tea while its still hot and to wear dangly earrings.
I love my daughter and I do want to spend all my time with her but I do also want to have a life of my own and a job I enjoy and time to see friends and write and hang out with the beard watching endless episodes of Star Trek. I realise that is contradictory, but parenthood is inherently contradictory. I will always be a mum, and love being one, but being a mum will never be all that I am. And that’s okay.
BC I used to tell people that I wore many different hats at work as my role had expanded into many different areas. This remains true for work but I also wear many different hats in other aspects of my life. I am a mum. I am also a worker, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a reader, a runner, a wife, a writer, a cat lover and three thousand other elements that make up the contradictory whole that is me. Juggling different aspects of your life isn’t a situation unique to parents, I’m just currently super conscious of it since my return to work. Sometimes this is a circus act and I can keep all the plates happily spinning at once, other times I’ll let a few plates slip as some areas require more attention than others. Mais c’est la vie.
I can’t always do it all, but nor should I or anyone else expect me to.