The guilt of the working mum

Like many women I’m one of those who has kids - and a job - and tries to do both. Rewarding though both aspects of my life are, it’s far from easy. Individually both have their challenges, and along with most working mums I’ve spoken with, you never feel like you’re quite getting the balance right.

There’s a concern that you’re not spending as much time with the kids because of work that needs finishing and then vice versa. When you’re desperate to get a job finished but instead need to cater to the kids instead. And you have SO many balls in the air that just the slightest slip in concentration means something falls and you then spend time beating yourself up about it. It's far from zen!

I find that’s the hardest thing about being a working mum - not the juggling, the sleepless nights, the pretty much constant low lying stress about deadlines/homework/survival - it’s the guilt. The fact that you never feel that you’re giving 110% to any one area because you’re always thinking of what needs to be done next. And I have no idea if it’s the same for men/fathers - I’m sure it is. But in some ways it’s also a little different. Because from an early age society has enabled them to be able to balance work with family more easily. They are usually the higher wage earner, they are usually the ones who find it easier to get a promotion because there isn’t the automatic assumption that a woman will want maternity leave at some stage, and they also find it easier to get back into work after their paternity leave and continue as normal. See this great article on the BBC about the gender divide and working mums:  That's not to say it's one size fits all and I'm sure there are situations where fathers feel equally as under pressure but I can only speak from my own experiences. 

I went back to work within nine months of my first child and know that I was lucky - it's far worse in the US where it's a matter of weeks for most working mums. I, like many other women, went down to four days a week - laughingly called 'part-time'. And you take the wage cut that comes with it. But it doesn’t suddenly become a four day a week job, there’s still the same level of work, so what actually happens is you end up squeezing five days into four just so you can keep on top of things and continue driving yourself forward. And why do it? Especially when the vast majority of your wage, if not all of it, gets consumed by expensive childcare costs and you end up effectively paying to work?

I got asked that a lot - what with a daily three hour commute, trying to balance childcare drop offs and pick ups and the usual problems encountered while commuting into London. I did it because, despite the fact I love being a mother - you do put aside something of your own needs and identity upon becoming one. Suddenly it’s all about their needs, they come first and while that’s as it should be and I wouldn’t change it for the world, there are times you miss the pre-parental autonomy. Work gave me something of myself back to me. It still does. I love my job, I enjoy the cut and thrust of negotiations, of spending time editing, of reading submissions and getting that thrill as you find a script that makes your spine tingle.

When I set up for myself last year things changed. I had a second child and there’s not really any maternity leave when you’re self-employed. My hours currently revolve around sleep times, childcare, with a lot of early mornings and late nights. Plus, when he's here, he occasionally likes to help out. Start them early! :-)

There are still a lot of balls in the air, even more now, but it seems to be working (news to come on that shortly :-)). It doesn’t make the guilt any less, but you get on with it because what other option is there? So I’m not complaining about it - it’s part of who I am and I always enjoy being challenged.  

However, there are times I get frustrated and it’s more about the lies I was fed as a young woman. Because we were told that we too could have it all. That we’re equal to men in the workplace. That you can have a high-flying career and a family and that society will support you in this.  And frankly, it’s codswallop.

Women are having children later and later in their lives because they’re trying to get themselves established in a career first. Then we have children and it becomes even harder to bridge the gender divide pay gap and it gets more difficult to get promoted. And it doesn’t look set to improve.

So what do I tell my daughter? Do I continue the lie that she should concentrate on her career and when she has a family, it’ll be OK? Or do I tell her the hard truth that she can have both, but it’s going to be teeth grittingly difficult and she’ll have to live with guilt every day for not living up to the perfect image of high-flying business woman and zen-like involved mother that we all hoped we'd be? That there will be hard choices, sacrifices and tears but also, when it goes right - a huge sense of satisfaction that despite everything - things worked out.

It would be nice to think that by the time she’s an adult things will have changed…but considering the lack of movement on gender equality in the workplace even in this day and age, I'm not holding my breath.