After six years at home full-time with children, including a year and a half home educating, I have now shot to the other end of the spectrum as a pretty much full-time working mother.
I will post about work itself another day, because that’s enough to warrant an entirely separate blogpost. Today I wanted to talk about the transition from stay-at-home to working mother.
This isn’t the first time I’ve worked since having children, but it’s the first time I’ve been away from them for more than the odd meeting here and there. I do two days a week in town in an office, and three from home. I spend four days a week consulting for a NGO, and the final day is devoted to other clients, book promotion and outdoors journalism.
The main change from how I worked in the past is that I don’t fit work around the children. I have had varying degrees of success juggling work and children in the past but overall I don’t find it a good solution.
I can’t stand being glued to a computer or phone while they ask me for snacks and attention. But avoiding this scenario is easier said than done, because it means I have to take complete responsibility for my time. I can’t expect my children to prioritise my work and I can’t expect my clients to prioritise my family. Therefore I have to choose what I prioritise and when. My way of doing this is to only work when my children are physically not with me. This is new to me, and new to them, as they have been physically with me every single day for the last six years.
Emotionally it has been something of a journey. It’s been hard for the children as they miss me, of course, and they have had to get used to firstly school and nursery, and secondly a childminder. On the plus side Noel is at home three days a week so they are spending a lot more time with him, which makes all of us very happy. But it’s not really my place to discuss my children’s emotional journey so I’m going to focus just on mine.
The main issue has been guilt. I know, major shocker right?
There was the obvious guilt of leaving my children to go to work.
Followed by swiftly reminding myself I wasn’t leaving them, they were with their father most of the time and with a qualified professional who I know and trust the rest of the time.
Followed by swiftly reminding myself that regardless of whether they were with their father or a qualified professional, I am entitled to pursue my own career.
Followed swiftly by being annoyed with myself for the entire thought process because did that mean I judged other mothers who worked and labelled them as ‘leaving’, read ‘neglecting’ their children?
Then came the guilt that I whisper it love my job and am ambitious for my career and personal development. One day, after dropping Cherry and Violet off and heading back to crack on, I was seized with an overwhelming compulsion to jack in a new client right now, shelve my future books, park the journalism (my profession of 15 years, no less) and find something locally based, in an industry I do not enjoy, that would pay the bills.
In that moment I genuinely felt it would only be acceptable for me to be away from my children if I was doing a job I don't like. That should be my natural punishment for leaving my children to work. You can't, went the silent internal judgement, expect to 'have it all'.
I’m so thankful for the school run, because I find thinking while walking so much more productive than thinking while sitting at the table at home. It’s a powerful metaphor. You genuinely move through your thought processes, one foot in front of the other, always forwards. You don’t get a chance to get stuck in your head.
By the time I got home I had seen the compulsion for what it was, a toxic combination of my guilt and self-doubt talking. A strange hash of learned beliefs about the role of women, and mothers, contrasted with my true values which have not always been supported by rhetoric or experience.
And then there was the guilt when my children asked me why I had to work. It’s so tempting to fob them off with the standard ‘to make money so we can buy nice things’ response, and reassure them I’d much rather be with them all the time and life is just unfair and I am at the mercy of 'the man' and dragged away from them against my will.
But this is not true. I don't just work for money and while it might be harder for my children to hear the truth, I trust them to be able to handle it. I told them I worked because I enjoyed having a purpose and being of service, and I love to write and make people happy by telling stories and this was what I wanted to do with my life.
The hardest part of all is not saying that I wish I didn’t have to work and could still be at home with them all day. Because while I do miss them and think about them, and look forward to the times when I can be at home with them, I don’t wish I was back at home full-time.
The time had come for all of us, for our worlds to get bigger.
The children were ready for more and it was Cherry starting school that prompted a chain-reaction of events. I’m not saying for a second we could not have met her changing and developing needs home educating, but school was our solution and a choice in which she participated fully. With Cherry at school, Violet's circumstances also changed and home educating was no longer meeting her needs, and so we agreed she would start at school nursery. Noel was also ready for things to change, for more time at home and with the children and less time in the office. And I was ready for the exact opposite. Less time at home, more time out in the world again. This was the solution that worked for all four of us, together.
It’s also not necessarily a permanent fixture. We adapt to change as our needs change. Noel and I are adjusting and adapting our work schedules and at times he will be at home and me at work more more, at other times, I will once again be the 'default parent'.
At some point in future school may no longer be the right thing for either or both of the children. The great thing about having home educated is that you know what’s possible, and you know school is optional. If school isn’t working for us, we will remove the factor of school.
It’s not just our worlds that have got bigger, our minds have too. We have stepped out of the mindset of following the paths dictated to us – school! Office job! Full time work! Money for nice things! And instead we’re putting ourselves at the centre of the equation and asking, what do we want, and how can we make these things happen, for all of us? There are no right or wrong answers either. There's no shame if the priorities switch, if earning money becomes more imperative, or if we decide to jack everything in temporarily and road-trip for a year. (I would quite like to do this at some point, wouldn't you?!)
If there’s one thing our family is learning to be, it’s adaptable. That’s what our species does, after all, and it’s what makes homo sapiens so incredibly successful. We adapt.