I’m about to return to work after eighteen months maternity leave and I’m seriously dreading it. I’ve done it all before mind you, but now with two kids life is about to get more complicated. My eldest is starting school, so there is the school drop off and pick up chaos to deal with, and my youngest is starting day care. Add work into the mix, and all the expectations that being employed entails, and I’m seriously wondering how I will juggle it all. Even with my wonderful support team, i.e. my mother in law, it’s still going to be a challenge.
My maternity leave has been wonderful. I’m so grateful that I have been able to have such a long period of time to bond with my special little girl and watch her discover and explore the world around her. I’m really going miss the post afternoon nap snuggles we like to share and her infectious laugh that only toddlers can do. Many women do not get the luxury of staying home for more than a few months and I don’t know how they can manage the serious sleep deprivation of having a newborn as well as working. But money is money and sometimes having the choice of staying home is not an option.
Having a career break has let me rethink what I want to do and where I want to be. When you are working and are caught up in the daily grind of life, it is very hard to get a good perspective of what you really want. I only wish that more men had the opportunity to get career breaks and of course to also have some quality bonding time with their children. I’m sure it would result in less burn out and stress related illnesses.
There’s a great saying, but I’ve forgotten where from, “women can’t have it all, they just do it all!” and that certainly rings true sister! When I returned to work after having my eldest daughter, I often felt like a bad mother, a bad wife and a bad employee and sometimes I felt this trifector of badness all at once. Balls I was so carefully juggling were regularly dropped and it only took something small (like my daughter getting ill) to make my organised life a shambles. I often felt like a failure or a fraud, trying to make the world believe that I was super woman, when the truth was the opposite. Going back to work this time round will make the juggling more difficult and the dropping of balls more frequent.
Working and having small children has taught me some valuable lessons mind you. My home definitely isn’t as clean or as tidy as it once was. Admittedly I used to have pretty high standards of cleanliness. I look at the sticky hand marks on my windows and often think, “I should really clean them”; but knowing full well that the following day they’ll be there again. I guess a degree of apathy has set it, but I’d rather play with my girls than spend my whole day cleaning and tidying up after them. My priorities have changed.
They have also taught me to slow down and appreciate the little things in life. There is nothing more wonderful in this world than playing in the backyard with your kids. Chasing them around while they are squealing and laughing with a dog yapping at my heels is all I need to make me happy. A sloppy kiss and their little hand searching out to hold mine as we walk along is priceless.
In terms of being an employee, I am going back to work part time, which is great for me, but usually doesn’t make life easy for my employer. I’m pretty sure their idea of the perfect employee would be a young single male with no responsibilities who can work 24/7. Working weekends or late at night…not a problem! Dashing out the door early to pick up kids isn’t welcomed, especially when an urgent request comes in at 4pm. Being part time will also limit my career development and promotion opportunities. Part timers are often seen by employers as not being a team player, not ambitious, or having other priorities. Work is something part timers do because they need the money; and not because they actually want to be there. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. I will have to be happy to sit stationary in my current position, until I can once again return to full time work.
I’ve already posted about my need to work (Working for the man: the value of paid employment); it’s linked to my improved confidence and wellbeing. I really enjoy working, but I just sometimes wish that there wasn’t a direct conflict between my desire to work and having a family. I’m pretty sure that most women feel the same way too and I’ve often wondered why this conflict doesn’t get addressed more often. Everyone bandies about the phrase, ‘work life balance’, but it’s just hot air as far as I’m concerned. Unless governments and employers are serious about keeping women in the workforce then cultural practices will need to change.
Meanwhile I’m waking at 3am in a cold sweat trying to sort everything in my head. I keep joking to my husband that I need a housewife…not for anything kinky (you guys really have a filthy mind!), just someone to cook the evening meals, wash and iron the clothes and clean the house. I think every working woman deserves one too! I really understand why so many women opt out of the workforce after having children. It’s something I have seriously considered. Add in the cost of childcare and availability and it’s no wonder that 40% of Australian women don’t work when their youngest child is under the age of five years (1). For those of you interested in this topic and would like to read more, I thoroughly recommend Annabel Crabb’s book The Wife Drought.
Gender equality in the home is certainly a long way off. When my husband and I were first together we were fairly equal in the cleaning of the house and other chores, but as soon as children arrived, it’s amazing how quickly we settled into old fashioned stereotypes of housewife and male breadwinner. I completely understand that being home with the kids allows me to keep on top of all the household chores, and that when I’m working part time, I’ll continue to carry the load. The problem is the expectation, even if I was working full time, that I would still be responsible for doing everything at home. Working full time is not an option, if I am having to perform two full time jobs. If my younger forthright and idealistic feminist self saw me now, she’d be horrified and yelling all sorts of abuse at me. But the reality is a lot more complex than what an idealistic twenty something university student could ever imagine!
Admittedly when my husband is home, I would prefer he spent that time with his girls rather than vacuuming the floor. Fathers are just as time poor as mothers and feel just the same tug of war between their responsibilities of supporting a young family and spending quality time with their children. This is definitely not about a gender divide or men versus women, it’s about finding the right balancing act as a family.
I already know what heading back to work in March will feel like. I’ll be extremely tired, have regular mild panic attacks, feelings of inadequacy and failure, an untidy house and little time to do the things I love to fill my creative soul (including this blog). But there are also positives in going back to work. It means more money, adult conversations that don’t revolve around bowel movements and an improved sense of well being. I’ll just have to accept that I’m not in control of all things and that perfectionism is not a way of life. I also need to be a bit more easy on myself and go with the flow.
Oh well I guess I can’t have it all, but I’m just bloody well going to have to DO it all!
(1) Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) 2011 Census of Population and Housing.