You can skirt around the issue of returning-to-work after baby with whatever fancy, politically correct phrases you like, but when it’s reduced down like a Masterchef-style jus, the stress, the negotiation, the juggle and the guilt make the whole process, simply, crap.
If you’re one of the very few, incredibly lucky women who have a job they love, with a boss who is compassionate and flexible, and a partner who is supportive, then returning to work in an altered capacity (I mean full time to part time, not a drug-induced haze!) after you had a child, was probably a simple transition.
However, for the vast majority, it’s a source of great anxiety.
• Who will care for the child/ren?
• Will you have to drop your child off at the butt crack of dawn only to pick them up at feral hour when you are both tired and grumpy?
• What job will you return to? Will it carry the same status and pay that you worked so hard for, or will you need to take a detour (demotion?) in order to achieve the balance you require?
• Will the money you bring home make it all worthwhile?
My initial return to work decision was quite traumatic. I loved being a mum but when my son was 12 months old, I started struggling with how being a SAHM was perceived by wider society. To say I enjoyed staying home was often met with looks of incomprehension, like it was unnatural, or even lazy to be remaining out of the workforce.
We build identities around our professions and sadly, are often judged accordingly. Titles are superficial but they carry weight. Have you ever been conversing with someone who asks what you do, and your reply, “I’m a Mum” is met with glazed eyes and excuses to move on? Say, “I used to be an HR Manager and now I’m a Writer” and there seems to be significantly more interest.
Next time I might try, “I’m a 0055 phone operator,” just to mix things up a little.
So, I forced myself to truly question my identity, including the job I was doing pre-baby. Was it worth it? Did I love it enough to be away from my child? Could I cope with the juggle and the travel? Could I be the best I could be to both my job and my child?
Apart from going to the toilet solo and having a lunchbreak amongst adults, the drawcards for returning to my previous job were limited. Childcare costs would be covered by the two days a week I would return, but would the slim surplus be worth the stress?
With hesitation from me and encouragement from my husband, I relinquished my security blanket, giving up a job in HR, because, ironically, it was not family friendly. Travelling two hours a day to deal with adults who behaved like children, was strangely unappealing and failed to carry the same status it used to.
I chose to stay at home for a while longer and savour the time with my baby. I was fortunate to have that option, and although it made the situation financially tighter, I felt relieved. It was the right decision for that phase of our lives but that niggling feeling of needing something else was hard to shake.
With the distance of time and the benefit of hindsight, I finally pinpointed my struggle. It was the lack of feedback from motherhood.
I’d always been one to revel in my own brilliance, not overtly, because that would be highly un-Australian, but I prided myself on being great at what I did and appreciated being rewarded for it, either with a ridiculously large, gaudy, gold-plated trophy that screamed “You’re the best!” or perhaps just a thanks for a job well done. A pay rise wouldn’t be scoffed at either. I didn’t realise just how much I banked on this positive reinforcement until it disappeared.
Being a mum, well, I wasn’t sure I was that good at it.
If motherhood is your gig, you’ll have learnt pretty quickly that babies and toddlers, tweens and teens are not overly forthcoming with praise. In fact, you’re generally rewarded with screaming non-sleeping infants, toddlers who poo in undies, grumpy pre-teens who are hard-done-by and teenagers who know a truckload more than you about everything, and aren’t afraid to give you feedback. Your performance appraisal comes courtesy of your kids. It’s never very glowing. The rewards are few and far between – a face-cracking smile from a baby, a squeezy cuddle from a toddler, a tween hug in front of their school friends, or a slap on the back and a rare thanks from your teenager.
I know, I know, that’s not what being a parent is about but when it’s your only form of positive encouragement, you can run a little dry in the self-esteem stakes. Paid employment offers ego boosts that staying at home does not. If we’re effective at our jobs, we’re rewarded. Financially, verbally or promotionally. People bang on about how important the role of a mother is, but that is not backed up by society – in status, pay, or respect.
Four children later, and a job list that would make Centrelink proud, I’ve finally reached a happy medium. I spend my working hours doing something I love. My husband and I share the childcare, as well as utilise a local crèche. We both work from home with flexible hours. We can attend school assemblies when our children get awards, we can do kinder duty (by choice?), without having to fake a sickie.
I accepted I couldn’t be everything to everyone, so I had to first, be true to myself. I acknowledged that I could do it all. Just not all at the same time.
It was a process that wasn’t without tough decisions and sacrifices.
Despite finding the balance after many years of experimentation, I still find people don’t really take me seriously. They think I have this quirky little hobby I undertake from my attic at home (I don’t have an attic, in case you were wondering). Clearly the old fashioned idea of leaving the home to travel crazy hours to an office to report to a man in a suit are still rife through society.
My children are equally baffled by the idea of work. Most of their friends’ parents have to dress up, get in a car or train, and go somewhere for their jobs. Why are we still hanging around the house? In our ugg boots?
The definition of work needs a serious overhaul.
So, if you find the decision to return to work after you’ve had a baby difficult, there’s logical reason for that. It can be a life-altering decision. It could be the very thing that drives you into a new career or forces you to make peace with your title of SAHM.
Did you return to work after having a baby? Was it the same job? Or were you inspired to start a new career or job? What were your struggles? Comment on Kylie's blog.