Babies and commuting and working and cooking and changing and feeding and trying – trying very hard to keep it all together. That’s how it was for me in the early days – like for so many others – as a new mother trying to maintain a career.
I vividly remember reading an article by Gaby Hinsliff – she talked about trying to find a balance between work and home – a topic that was newly interesting to me as a first-time-mother who had just gone back to work. She talked about the challenges, the stress, the demands – all of it rang true. Then she talked about writing in her home-office, and coming out some time later to have lunch with her son. Ah. That was the difference. I didn’t have a home-office or the option of lunch with my daughter. I had a full-time five-day-a-week office bound job as an operations manager in Funds. The article was interesting, but I felt it didn’t fully apply to me anymore. And this became an ongoing issue for me – I’ve read many, many well-written, incisive, thought-provoking articles by working mothers in the intervening years, but as they tend to be written by writers (naturally) and writers tend to have the possibility to work flexible hours and from home, there was a gap between their experience and mine.
I started to believe that in my current role, I couldn’t achieve any kind of balance – any kind of set-up that would ease the guilt; that would allow me more time with my children, but without quitting my job.
I remember having dinner with friends one night, having just returned to work after my second maternity leave. Still in that muddled, knife-edge first six weeks, when it seems like it might not be possible to keep going. I talked about how difficult I was finding it working full-time with two small kids in creche five days a week – gone from the house for eleven hours a day. I couldn’t stop counting those eleven hours. Surely the kids would be in therapy in years to come, pouring forth on their lack of home-life in the early years.
One friend suggested looking for a four-day-week. I wasn’t so sure. I was worried I’d be put on the mommy-track; that my boss would assume I was stepping back. And I wasn’t convinced that one day off could make much difference – I’d still be in work four days a week, the kids would still be gone eleven hours for each of those days.
But a year later, I finally caved and nervously broached the subject with my boss. He was wonderful about it, and I slipped happily into “part-time” work. A few more years later, I work a day from home too, and I also start early so that I can leave work at 4pm and be home for joyous homework-time with my kids.
I’ve finally found a balance – less stress, less guilt, and more time at home for all of us. I’ve stopped counting the hours that the kids are out of the house.
But it’s tenuous and I know that. I have no contract that confirms these conditions – the ones that have shifted my life from unbearable to really something close to perfect. And if my job changes or ends for any reason, it’s back to square one. There are no four-day-week-with-one-day-from-home jobs in my industry – not for someone walking in off the street. So like so many other women, I’d have to work full-time or quit altogether.
There are mothers who no doubt enjoy working full-time (well, I haven’t actually met any, but I’m sure there are some out there) and there are many, many mothers who enjoy being at home full-time with their kids. But so many of us are looking for something in between – continuing a career, but not to the detriment of family-life. A balance of some sort – it varies from person to person – but ultimately, something that allows us to thrive at work and still be present at home. Not because we want to sit around watching day-time TV (though maybe just one day of that would be nice…) and not because we’re trying to shirk work or leave more for our colleagues to do. We want it because it feels right; it feels better – better for our kids and better for ourselves; for easing of guilt and for maintenance of sanity.
But many employers are afraid to open the door to flexibility, So we muddle through. Those of us who have a balance are taking care to make it work; to defend it at all costs. Working harder and faster and smarter.
And those who don’t; they’re biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to show how well it can work. And they’re asking. They know that they need to keep asking, over and over. We’re not there yet, but I believe that eventually, all employers will see the benefit of balance, and then everybody wins.
This article first appeared on Lifeshifter