When I decided to walk away from my career 5 years ago I thought it was going to be a temporary move. Five years on and I honestly have no idea if I will ever go back to it.
I look around at the other mothers I know who have returned to their former roles at work after maternity leave and now as their children are at school and older their careers begin taking off again. But what about those wilderness years, when the children are small and the family is growing what happens to us then?
Your job is a life raft on the sea of life. It keeps you afloat financially most obviously, supporting your needs for food and shelter within this material world. But its much more than that. It is a large part of our identity. A breath after you meet someone and you have introduced yourself they ask you what you ‘do’. What you do and who you are are inextricably linked in our society. We value the contribution that people make in the world and the sort of contribution they make is a shortcut to the idea we hold about who they are.
So you paddle like mad in your early twenties to get a head-start on the other ‘rafters’ around you, rowing with anything you can get your hands on to get qualified to just get your space on that raft. You continue this thrashing, splashing shark fight until you are established in your chosen field.
At which point you might then coast for a bit, your stripes now earned, you give yourself just a small bit of space to look to the horizon. You begin thinking about giving the raft an gentle nudge in another direction. If you’re lucky, the waters are calm, money is coming in, you can spend it on just yourself and do what ever you like when ever you like. The horizon is interesting, exotic and tempting, the world is there for the adventure and you are most definitely the captain of this now pretty luxurious raft.
During this time you might have been lucky enough to meet someone, to start a life with them and then to consider starting a family. You have naive rose tinted ideas of how this new person will just slot into your already pretty cool life. You will still do all the things you want to do, but now you;ll have a really cute little mate to do it with. You will rock the workplace and the homestead. You will be the one who juggles it all and still looks good doing it. You definitely won’t be one of those zombie moms, or co-sleep, definitely no co-sleeping.
Fast forward to six months into maternity leave. You are still in pajamas at lunch time, covered in mushed banana and you haven’t washed your hair for a week. You can’t remember what day of the week it is let alone any of your passwords to access your work laptop, even if you could contemplate ‘Keeping in Touch’… But soon you have to think about going back to work. Your life as you knew it has been completely obliterated by this small, adorable but screaming presence in your home. Day rolls into night and weeks roll into months.
The ‘Work You’ seems like a hazy memory, a stranger almost compared with the you that confronts you now. And the panic of how you will ever be that person again sets in. You never wanted to be one of those people that parenthood changed but here you are…changed beyond all recognition, both inside and out. Your work life raft is floating alongside you just waiting for you to haul yourself back aboard. Waiting to take you back to yourself. The problem is, you just can’t find the strength. Now you have a half stone baby clutched to your hip and you haven’t slept in months, the effort to heave your combined body weights to the safety of the raft feels impossible.
This is where you make your decision. Whatever gives you that push to haul your ass up aboard the raft, be it financial, personal, or professional you manage it and pull yourself back aboard the raft-race. Things move more quickly, priorities have shifted and times swallows you up in a constant whirlwind of responsibilities – home, work, home, work, home, work. The waters are rougher some days than others when teething or noro-virus strike and you still have to carry on regardless desperate for a break in the weather and some blue skies.
You look around and expecting to see other similarly sea sick exhausted faces all you see is everyone else looking fine. Managing it well, keeping all the balls in the air and paddling their raft at a steady pace every day. You examine your oars – is there something wrong with them? With your arms? With the raft itself? Am I on the wrong raft? The waters begin to seep up through the floor of your raft and you find that you are bailing out the water as well as rowing. Working twice as hard just to stay still. Bailing out the financial burden of childcare and a mortgage, spinning the plates of your old life, old friends and commitments and still being there for your family and home. But where did you go? Where did the time for YOU go? It’s gone in to all that bailing out and rowing there seems no time for floating now. When you float, you sink and you have to work harder to get back to where you left off. It hardly seems worth it.
So you keep going and going and going and day by day you make small progress and day by day you become more and more exhausted. The raft race is far ahead of you now. At this point you either make the decision to fish or cut bait. To stay in the race or to slip over the side of your raft and surrender your position.
I slipped over the side of my raft in 2013. I watched as my career of 12 years floated away from me taking my financial independence and part of my identity with it. The water was soothing and cool though and I had plenty more energy for treading water and even the odd backstroke. I enjoyed the sunsets on a lilo with a mocktail (as I was pregnant again) and having the sea all to myself everyday. Now I have three children and the waters are a bit muddier and a bit choppier and some days they totally come up over my head as the responsibility of three small people leaves me sorely outnumbered. On those days I search for that life raft, desperate for a break in the monotony of being a stay at home mum. But I can’t even catch a glimpse of it, my life now so different to way it used to be.
And then I remember myself and catch a glimpse of the other parents on rafts all around me, desperate for a day to sneak in to the water and catch their breath. The energy is different down here, people up there on the rafts move faster, more loudly and make bigger waves. Their impact and contribution clear for the world to see. They are validated and recognised, seen and heard. There are days when nobody sees you when you are in the water or hears you. Rarely does somebody recognise your efforts at home or in parenting and more often than not you feel like you’re muddling through only to make no-one very happy. But the energy is slower, more predictable and more under your own volition. It is more joyful and more uplifting on the days that go well than any good day in the office. But the rewards will not be reaped by payday at the end of the month or even by bonus time at the end of the year there is no magical finishing line and no one will get a medal of participation.
But we each of us know deep down that THIS is the most important job we will do. Even if society (that’s us) doesn’t always value it as much as we’d like. As parents we are making the biggest contribution to society in shaping how the next generation think, feel and behave. So give yourself time for floating and cocktails and lilos and sunsets along the way. Take a breather, recharge. Don’t expect to ‘find’ the time to do this, you have to ‘make’ the time and you do this by not doing other things. I don’t mean by leaving your job and giving up on everything but by leaving somethings undone, by letting some things go, by lowering your expectations. By leaving space and choosing to float every now and again. Give yourself that permission.
I write this to recognise us all whether we’re still in the raft race working, not working, surviving or thriving in the deep oceans of parenting. Keep paddling, swimming, bailing it will get easier as each storm passes. Wherever you can throw out a rubber ring to those around you – even if they don’t look like they’re struggling. Especially if they don’t look like they’re struggling – making it look easy comes at a cost too. You can forget how to float.
Photo Credit – Alistair Humphries – You Tube.