I’ve been reading a lot lately about mothers and work. Is there something in the air? (Or, more likely, something in the news I’ve missed?)
Two thoughtful blog posts about it popped up in my feed yesterday: one on Peonies and Polaroids, from a self-employed mother of twins who went back to wedding photography after a few months; then one on Oh! you pretty things, from an at-home mother writing about satisfaction and validation. Both of them were sensitive and truthful and made me think.
I have friends in every situation: in full-time work, in part-time work, at-home freelancers, stay-at-homers; wishing for more hours or for more time at home or struggling with the balance of the two. Or enjoying where they are, but feeling, somehow, that they shouldn’t be. Wherever you end up, you feel guilty about what you want. As with so many things involving babies – *cough* breastfeeding, cloth nappies, sleep routines, staple toddler foods, SHALL I GO ON – it feels like you can’t hear about someone else’s choice without it reflecting somehow on yours.
Me, I always thought that I’d give up work once we got to the baby stage. I knew my babies wouldn’t be small forever, and thought the raising of them was my job. While Timothy worked on computers, I would work on little minds. It was such a beautiful calling I would never want for anything but nursery rhymes, and be deliriously happy all. the. time.
Then I had Henry, and found that so many things changed – inside and out – I could never have predicted them all. And if it was like that for me, then it was like that for everyone. I felt like Mrs Dalloway: I could not say of anyone in the world, now, that they were this or were that. Do you know (you probably do know), I adore that boy. Watching him develop into a person is one of the great fulfilling joys of my life. He drives me mad most days, but for every don’t drink that dirty water no that’s a knife GET DOWN FROM THERE minute there are ten where I’m laughing too hard to move or whooping over some little accomplishment, and thinking you, sir, are the best thing that ever happened to us.
I carried on working part-time because we needed the income, because editing and copywriting lend themselves to freelancing better than most, and because they need practice if I’m not going to run mad and start putting splice commas in offensive places. (Please don’t look at this blog for evidence of my grammar sense. I try to switch off the radar here, and only occasionally break out into a rash of dependent clauses.) I discovered very quickly that I could only work when Henry was asleep, and wrestled with using my time in a way that felt right. Guilt, and guilt, and guilt. In the process, I made three more discoveries:
parenting is not ‘my job’. It’s ours. There are things Timothy gives Henry that I can’t, and vice versa. He will take things from both of us, for better and worse, and if he doesn’t feel that we both love him and are invested in him equally, then we’re doing something wrong.
it’s alright not to love every aspect of raising a tiny person. The happiness is intense, but so is the smell of the nappy bin. Just like any other daily routine, between breakfast, lunch, dinner and constant clean-up, there are things that are a grind. It’s ok to admit it. It doesn’t mean you love your child less because you don’t sing like Snow White while scrubbing spaghetti sauce or clearing up pee.
being a mother makes me more of myself, not less. Or it should. I still love the things I used to love and need the things I used to need. There are so many things I want to be over the space of a lifetime: someone who can play through a good concerto, someone engaged in politics and world events, someone who travels, someone who tells a magnificent bedtime story, someone who really, truly writes. I run through ten different aspects of myself in a week, and use all of them to mother with. If there are a million varieties of people, and hence a million varieties of mother, then every version of work-and-home is just someone doing their best to find what they need. Whatever you need to be happy – at home or at work or somewhere between – is an important part of you, and it doesn’t need excusing. It’s just fine. (I mean, unless it’s heroin or something.)
Yesterday afternoon – seeing double after weeks of rubbish nights – I watched a female historian talk about Anne Boleyn and dreamed of dusty manuscripts. I listened to Hilary Mantel, got all shivery over her turn of phrase and wanted to lock myself away until I had ten good metaphors on paper. I sat under a duvet with Henry and sang the beehive song eight times just for the look on his face. And I cried around 5pm, unable to think of anything to make for dinner that didn’t involve an already dirty dish. Henry climbed onto my lap, murmuring ‘sad, sad?’ into my ear, and wiped tears off my face with the ends of his fingers. I put him to bed thinking that it hadn’t been a good day, parenting-wise. I am huge and exhausted and sitting him in front of Postman Pat more often than I’d like. But the truth is this: I used all of me to mother with – even if the version today wasn’t the sparkly one I’d roll out at dinner parties – and that’s all I’ll ever have. It’s all he knows. It’s everything he needs.
And so it’s just fine.