Being a working mum is hard, that is indeed an understatement. I have always worked, since I was 16 working part time in a supermarket and I didn’t think anything would change when I had a baby.
I needed to work, the economy we live in doesn’t allow for many women to stay home with their babies anymore, we need to be a two income family to pay our mortgage and our bills and I was fine with that.
Until I wasn’t; maybe I was in denial whilst on maternity leave, maybe I was just blocking out the thought that my time at home would come to an end and returning to work was a very real thing I was going to have to deal with. It came around fast, super fast.
Since returning to work in July 2017 I’ve been asked by a lot of people how I have found it, often people are looking for you to tell them it’s great and you love the time to yourself, they want you to make them feel better about the prospect of going back to work, so what do you do when the reality sinks in that you’re having the most awful time?
How do you reply to a mother who’s asking if it’s as bad as she thinks it will be, when what you want to say is “it’s awful, I can’t cope, I’m stressed and I’m sad and I just want to cry”. Whilst that might have been the truth it wouldn’t have made another mum feel any better and how I felt isn’t necessarily how she will feel and I didn’t want to fill her with dread and spoil what was left of her maternity leave.
So I didn’t tell the truth, I didn’t tell her how I was really feeling, I bottled it up. I bottled it up from my husband, my mum, my friends, my boss. For the first few weeks back at my job I didn’t tell anyone I was so stressed that I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed and face another day, that I was so overwhelmed by the day-to-day tasks of looking after a young baby and also going to work full time that I would end up crying at the thought of all the mundane chores that needed doing.
For those first few weeks I didn’t sleep well, I didn’t eat well, I didn’t play with Amelia well because I was too busy internally stressing about whether the hoovering needed doing, the washing needed hanging out, the bathroom needed cleaning. All the housework jobs I used to do throughout the day I now felt like they all needed to be done in the evening after work. This wasn’t reality; the hoovering could wait, it could all wait but my mind wasn’t rational.
I was a mess; eventually I couldn’t put on a brave face anymore and I told my husband how I felt, he didn’t really understand and I didn’t expect him to. I didn’t really understand it myself, I couldn’t explain why I felt these things, why I couldn’t just “get a grip” but I knew I was on a downward spiral and I was miserable.
I suppose I should give some context here; I work as an office, in a full time only role. Part time hours are not an option due to the nature of the job, I knew this but I didn’t realise just how difficult I would find that. I also don’t live close to my work, I get the train and it’s a 40 mins ride with a 10 min walk either side. So my commute is an hour each way (on a good day of which these are few). This might not sound like much to those who work in London or work away from home but it was a lot for me. I was leaving the house at 7.45am and getting home at 6pm.
Maybe I sort of knew that these full time hours were going to be tough going because I did inquire about part time options whilst still on maternity leave but was met with the expected answer that it was full time or nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job, I didn’t want to start over at a new company and to be honest the thought of finding a new job and learning a new job whilst also trying to adapt to being back at work with a baby put me off and I decided to stick with what I knew even if the hours were too much.
I think I realised I had a serious problem when I had a dream, a dream I have shared only with my GP, I dreamt that I took Amelia (the baby in my dream wasn’t Amelia but I suppose it was symbolically) and I took her to the woods. I left her there, explaining that I couldn’t look after her anymore because it was too hard. I woke from that dream in floods of tears and went to her room in the middle of the night to hold her.
That dream still makes me cry, that something so horrid would even enter my subconscious. The following day I called the Health Visitor, I cried on the phone to her and she listened to every word. She told me to get on the first train home and she booked me a doctors appointment.
I was signed off with work related anxiety for 3 weeks, during that time I had to decide what I was going to do because I was NOT going to continue down this dark path.
Then I read a book, it was titled ‘Parenting the shit out of life’ by Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson. The funniest, warmest, saddest, most honest account of parenting I have ever read.
It was Chapter 8 that got me, a chapter dedicated to Anna’s tireless promotion of flexible working for everyone. Her words rang true, I was not being an effective member of my workplace; for one I was at at home on sick leave but when I was at work I was anxious, stressed and resentful that I couldn’t work part time. For every paragraph I read of Chapter 8 a feeling was stirring in me; I need to talk about flex. I have to bring this up, I have to try, I have to have done everything I can to make this work for me because little eyes are watching and one day she will be a mother too and if we have these conversations now.
I was determined that I didn’t want to walk out on the best job I’d had, I didn’t want to throw away my career, my knowledge, my skills or my salary due to inflexibility or because someone saw me as a bum on a seat for 35 hours a week rather than seeing my potential.
Having THE conversation with my manager was hard; I was shaking, I was stressed and anxious but I knew I had to do it; I had to ask about flexible working. I’m so glad I did; maybe my period of sick leave had opened a few eyes as to how I was really feeling and maybe there was suddenly an understanding that if I didn’t find a solution that suited both parties I was going to have to quit.
The conversation went better than I ever expected, I explained that I was struggling with the full time hours on top of the commute, I assured my manager I didn’t want to leave but I just couldn’t keep going at this pace. Within 15 minutes we had a plan, I would work 1 less hour each day. Finishing at 4pm instead of 5pm, I was able to collect Amelia from nursery, feed and bath her by 6pm and have the rest of the evening to make dinner, keep on top of the home and spend quality time with my husband.
In a bid to prove it worked I kept a record for a month; how many emails did I receive between 4-5pm that I wasn’t there to deal with until the following morning. It was minimal, sometimes none at all. My job wasn’t negatively impacted by my leaving early but I can’t put into words the difference it has made to me. I am completely engaged in my work, I am productive, I am happy, I have balance.
This is a long post, sorry for going on and on but it’s something I have been meaning to talk about for a long time, I’ve always promised to be honest on my blog and to share my truth with you. This is my truth and I can hand on heart say that talking about flex has had a positive effect in every aspect. I still get to keep my job that I love, but I also get to be a mum in the evenings and as for my mental health…I am entirely a different person. All for the sake of 1 hour a day away from my desk.
I can’t thank Anna enough for the work she does in bringing flexible working to the forefront of people’s mind. I had no idea how many women are ‘pushed’ out of their jobs when they have a baby and the fact that this sort of thing still happens in 2018 is beyond my understanding. I feel very lucky to have a boss who understands, who appreciated my struggle and worked with me to find a solution that worked for me and for my company. So many women are not so fortunate and we need to keep talking about it.
We need to not let those employers who push women out the door get away with it, we have to demand more rights for parents, more consideration of childcare costs and constraints, more understanding that just because you’re not sat at a desk doesn’t mean you’re not a productive member of the team.
We must keep talking about flex, so that our children don’t have to.