Baby diaries: Reconciling life as a working mum

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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.

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Ten reasons to be impulsive

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1. Thinking things through gets in the way of actually doing stuff, avoid the problem and skip the thinking part!

2. The sooner you impulsively commit to something the more likely you are to follow your instincts and go through with this. For example you could think I’d like to travel more so randomly apply to an internship in Cambodia and then when the email offer comes through immediately respond that you are in and tell everyone. Its so much harder to back out when you force others to become collaborators of your impulsive ways!

3. You can be impulsive in some areas of life but still remain resolutely steadfast in others. I like to be impulsive about the small things such as committing to take up a new sport by buying all the equipment before even trying the game, which career to pursue or whether to move country. However, I remain wholly restrained when it comes to more serious things like deciding not to go out for a spontaneous afterwork drink when I’ve been looking forward to an evening of some sort of Netflix fix and binge eating with the cats for company and judgment.

4. Being impulsive makes for much more interesting and also more succinct story telling process. Guess which is the impulsive version from below?

  • ‘I applied for a job in Switzerland without thinking about it, was offered the job and then decided to move’
  • ‘I carefully considered whether or not to apply for a job in Switzerland, I weighed up all the pros and cons and sensibly thought through all potential ramifications of undertaking such a step, eventually I concluded that such a notion was ridiculously ill-thought out and I therefore decided to stay here in a predictable job I ceased to enjoy some time ago.’

5. Being impulsive gives you an air of mystery, where people are never too sure what you are going to commit to next. Maybe you’ll simply buy a life-size elephant soap dispenser on your next Ikea trip, maybe you’ll have moved to Timbuktu before you got round to telling anyone, maybe you’ll do nothing impulsive for long enough people will think you’ve got over these crazy tendencies then BANG! You can surprise them with the next adventure!

6. Impulsive behaviour is just another way of following your gut-instincts. These aren’t the instincts your gut has to avoid cheese wrapped around butter encased in clotted cream but that inner feeling within you that tells you if a particular course of action is right or wrong. All too often we suppress our gut instinct and agree to things like attending a seminar on how to optimise seminar attendance when we really should have listened to that inner voice telling us we don’t want to do that.

7. Being impulsive is a characteristic often associated with children, this doesn’t mean it’s bad for adults but means it will help you access your inner, and frankly much more fun, child. It means you can enjoy running through the rain, cartwheeling across the park/in the office and climbing trees without worrying about getting wet, making a fool out of yourself or how you’ll get down again.

8. Being impulsive means you can face your fears and learn to overcome these. I was pretty terrified of teenagers, particularly en masse, so when I saw a volunteering opportunity (whilst studying part-time and working full-time) to work with groups of 16 and 17 year olds in the spare time I really didn’t have I signed up without thinking it through AT ALL. Having impusively committed myself to something where others were relying on me, I was compelled to continue and actually quite enjoyed the experience, learning that young adults aren’t nearly so terrifying as I had initially expected!

9. Whilst being impulsive may occasionally get you into some foolhardy situations, the stories that occur as a result are usually worth any traumatic experiences at the time. For example an impulsive desire might lead to your clambouring on top of the fridge (so you can stare down at others) and then realising that the washing machine you used as a staging pad has since been turned on (and is now whirring so much it’s truly terrifying) that now you can’t get down without some serious help you desperately need but are really reluctant to accept. Traumatic? Yes. But probably worth it for the stories you can later share with friends of how great it was to be able to stare down at that mean cat you don’t like and leave them guessing abut how you got to be so high up (this may have been an example of my cat’s behaviour rather than mine).

10. Impulsive behaviour led me to writing this blog, I bought a domain name before I knew if or what I was going to write and then before I knew it I was happily blogging away like a trooper and connecting with all sorts of cool other bloggers.