Over seven years as a mother working outside the home, I’ve learnt a thing or two:
1. The working mother clichés are true
Soother in suit pocket? Check. Smushed banana on trousers? Check. Racing out of work to make it to creche on time? Yes, a thousand times over. Clichés exist because they are mostly true, and really, in this case, it’s not such a bad thing. Finding a soother in your pocket or a Spiderman in your handbag can be just the little lift you need during a busy meeting or a stressful day. The smushed banana – not so much.
2. The working mother stock photos are not true
Those photos in every working mother article ever – the ones with the glossy-haired smiling woman at her lap-top; her laughing baby perched happily on her knee? I don’t know about you, but any work I’ve done with a child on my lap has not looked anything like that. Usually, the child in question is either banging on the laptop keys and inadvertently emailing my boss, or else he’s crying. I am the opposite of groomed and glossy, because seriously, if my childminder is sick and I’m simultaneously working and minding my kids, I don’t have time to pee, let alone fix my hair. And my kitchen does not look like an Ikea catalogue (ever)
3. Commuting is me-time
I read a really good article once, decrying the notion that supermarket shopping is me-time. I wholeheartedly agree with the writer, but when it comes to the commute to work, it’s a different story. Particularly commuting by public transport – what’s not to love about forty-five minutes or an hour of uninterrupted reading – a book, a newspaper, or the entire internet? Bliss. Caveat: driving, or taking a train with no free-seats makes this slightly less appealing. But either way, you’re unlikely to have to wipe someone’s nose or break up a fight (I hope)
4. Mommy-wars are a myth
The big divide between working mothers and stay-at-home-mothers? I don’t buy it – not in real life. Yes, there are some heated online debates, but in normal, everyday life, we’re all too busy getting on with things to have time for wars. Plus we all know exactly how hard it is to be at home. Any given day “off” – spent cleaning porridge off a high-chair or pee off the floor – is a reminder that sometimes work is the easiest place to be.
5. Mommy-wars might be 1% true
Well, OK, I admit there’s a tiny, niggling element of truth. While there’s no actual “war”, I confess that I have occasional “lucky her” thoughts when I see a mum in lycra at the school drop-off, as I race to get into work on time. And she may see me in my heels, and occasionally think “lucky her”. And that’s OK – we’re all human.
6. The best part of the day isn’t always the best part of the day
The guilt-ridden part of me knows that after being away from my kids for hours on end, the best part of every day should be coming home from work and spending the evening with them. Of course it should. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s really not. Sometimes the kids are all talking at once or all crying at once and I can’t hear anyone. I’m tired, they’re tired, and homework is not working. Nobody will sit still long enough to eat dinner, and the kitchen’s a mess. I get crosser and crosser, then finally turn on the TV, and peace descends. A little voice inside my head tells me that sticking them on front of the TV after not seeing them all day is a bit crap, and I tell that little voice to pipe down and make me a cup of tea – I’ll make up for it tomorrow.
And sometimes, if I’m honest, the real best part of the day is sitting down when they’re all finally in bed.
7. Selective lie-ins
The toddler who is up at 6am on Saturday and Sunday, invariably sleeps in on Monday morning – what’s that about?
8. The day off
There’s nothing like spending a whole work week looking forward to a day off with the kids, then spending that entire day-off wondering what you were so excited about. The image of cosy family-time is replaced by the reality of emptying the dishwasher eleven times, making fourteen thousand snacks, breaking up twenty-two fights and dealing with eight tantrums. And then having your boss ask if you went anywhere nice for your day “off”.
9. The childcare trap
After years of hearing “childcare costs are a second mortgage” as “blah, blah, blah”, you suddenly find yourself eating toast for dinner, because, well, childcare costs are a second mortgage. Ironically, and very annoyingly, childcare costs seem impossibly expensive until you work out how little you’d have if you gave up work.
That’s really all I’ve learnt so far. Once I figure out the important stuff – like getting to the bottom of the laundry basket or fully letting go of the guilt, I’ll let you know. But for all the challenges; for all the noisy evenings trying to prepare dinner and supervise homework and be heard above the din; I’d rather be there in the midst of it than anywhere else. My kids make a good day better, and a bad day good. The woes of work can be forgotten in an instant with just one squeezy hug from an excited toddler, and a “You my mummy, us love us other.”
Speaking of childcare costs, you might like to read this feature that I wrote for the Irish Examiner, about Nicola Sheehan and her decision to save to go back to work after maternity leave: Why do families continue to work, if salary only just covers childcare?