“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”
I have been meaning to write this post for most of 2022. Never have I been able to. Now, in the final hours of this year, as my son naps, I am attempting to get the words on the page.
I wanted to write a post about being a stay at home mother. A woman, who has chosen not to work, but to spend her time at home raising her children.
“I can’t..” I said to a friend.
“I’m too privileged, it’ll be gross..”
“So write about your complicated feelings..” She replied, always the pragmatic one.
I put off writing for many reasons, but mainly fear of judgment because of the grossly privileged position I speak from. My partner works full-time in a job he enjoys, and after I stopped working to have our son, there was no immediate financial-need for me to go back to work. (Nor did I have a job to go back to.)
I always wanted to be at home with our baby for at least the first year, and hadn’t really thought through what I wanted to do next. This was over two years ago. I am still unemployed. I have complicated feelings about this.
“What do you do?” Someone asked at a wedding recently. Gulp. A fairly conventional conversation starter and my ultimate least favourite question. You’d think by now I’d be used to it, that I’d have got my head around the fact people are simply making conversation and care little for my response, but it still throws me every time. I take a breath and silently affirm that my employment status does not define me.
“I’m at home with my toddler at the moment…but I also write columns for my local newspaper…”.
It didn’t feel so bad said out loud. Though perhaps a tad rehearsed.
If I’m feeling particularly insecure, I’ll go on to explain what I did before having Leo and the brief copywriting stint I had earlier in the year. Sometimes I unnecessarily mention the short courses and Guardian Masterclasses I do, to hint at the fact I still use my brain and have a career in mind.
On another occasion, one Mum stopped me mid-sentence, sensing my panic as I rambled:
“It’s okay you don’t have to justify it!” she said as I practically listed out my C.V.
“I’M NOT LAZY!” I may as well have shouted.
Because to tell a society that is so money, career and “success” focused, that you don’t work, is a weird one. Am I a rebel? Or a fool? Or perhaps both.
Should I feel bad because I’m not contributing to the economy? Because I’m not a tax-payer? Not part of the work-force? And of course the big one: Am I a bad feminist?
Does my current lack of financial independence mean I have failed somehow? How will I ever make up the years lost to pension contributions?
I don’t feel bad for not contributing to the economy. I’m 29 years old and have many working years ahead of me. I’m contributing to society in my own valuable way. By hopefully raising two brilliant humans, who will go on to contribute to the world in their own special ways.
Financial independence is a complex issue that I could write a whole other blog post on. So is how society views caring roles, such as that of a stay at home parent.
I was at a dinner recently with nine other Mums, all working either part time or full time.
“I don’t know how you do it! I couldn’t do it…I’m off Fridays and that’s my hardest day! Work is easy in comparison!” Someone said to me, referring to her day off with her toddler. I didn’t know whether to feel complimented or embarrassed. Do people think I’ve gone mad? Five days a week with a toddler? I don’t see it this way because it’s my life. I’ve chosen it. We go to playgroups and music classes. We see friends and both sets of grandparents regularly. I have my weekly acting classes, short courses (did I mention the short courses?) and writing time. It’s a full-life. Despite the terminology, I’m not literally staying-at-home 24/7. (Could someone please coin a new term? “Stay-at-home” is almost oppressive.)
Of course I’d love to work. I’d love to use my brain more, earn money, feel a sense of purpose and direction in my non-existent career. It just hasn’t been a priority. This doesn’t mean I haven’t felt conflicted. There is a heaviness to being a working parent and there’s a different sort of heaviness to being a stay-at-home one.
There are moments I’ve longed to sit in an office, eyes fixed on the screen, absorbed in a piece of work. Uninterrupted, in a flow, feeling a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at the end of the day. Away from the monotony of trying to get a toddler to eat his lunch. Shielded from the unique loneliness and boredom that staying at home with a child can bring.
Then there are mornings I wake up and thank God I have nowhere to be that day. No emails to send. No Zoom calls. No one to interview.
My feelings, on any given moment on any given day, are anything from being driven up the wall, to quite at peace and thankful.
Because I’m aware of how fortunate I am. The freedom to choose when to go back to work is a huge freedom, an immense luxury. A dream. I don’t take my circumstances for granted.
Yet at times I find myself envying working mothers. Or just anyone who works. Anyone able to say “This is what I do for work..”.
And for mothers, having an identity outside motherhood.
We are complex human beings with different parts of the self that need nourishment, and at times I feel my brain could do with a bit more sustenance. This is met with a deep desire to have as much time with Leo as possible. The two needs battle one another and I end up feeling restless and guilty simultaneously. Eager to progress in the professional world, but equally loving the version of freedom and flexibility that being a non-working parent gives me, then feeling bad for not feeling grateful every minute of the day.
Then there are the feelings towards my partner. The bad ones. I knew I needed to start looking for work in 2022 when my feelings of envy and resentment towards Joel began to spike dramatically, and more frequently.
“Oh you’re at work drinks again this Thursday?..OH OKAY..”
*Enter flurry of intrusive thoughts: “He’s at work drinks. He’s probably having a good time whilst I wipe up spaghetti from the floor. I don’t get to go to work drinks. I’d like to go to drinks. I’d like to go to work. How come he gets to work? Because he has a career and a well-paid job and you don’t. He spent years studying for his job and you spent years looking after Maia. Maia is everything….He’s a solicitor. I wish I could tell people I was a solicitor. No you don’t. You never wanted to be a solicitor. You literally put “Law” in your “Definitely No” list, right under I.T. and Accounting. He loves his job. I’d love to love my job. I do love the children. I suppose they are my job. Yes they are and I do. He’s still at work drinks.”
Joel often comes home with stories from his working day. Anecdotes from colleagues that have made him chuckle, or left him in awe. There’s evidently a camaraderie in the office that helps the long working day to flow. I’m thankful my partner is not miserable at work.
I picture him, slaving away behind a screen or stood in the kitchen making a coffee with a colleague, whilst I battle to get Leo to sit in his car-seat, or lie peacefully with a book as Leo naps, and I can’t decide how I feel. Envious? Or just incredibly grateful. After all, the grass is always greener. Is it acceptable to feel both? How dare he have a steady job that pays our mortgage…
They say motherhood is a “thankless” task, but I don’t like this word. It’s the most simultaneously unrewarding and rewarding job in the world. Nothing compares.
Work-work, professional work, is a whole other ball game.
We hope as we get older, to find work we feel is, in some ways at least, somewhat fulfilling. Work we find our flow in, work we find challenging enough to test us and help us grow, but not so challenging it’s constantly overwhelming.
“When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others. Though we are often taught to think of ourselves as inherently selfish, the longing to act meaningfully in our work seems just as stubborn a part of our make-up as our appetite for status or money.”
― Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
I look forward to this. To the obvious rewards of work. The money, the social aspects, the stability, the sense of self that comes with being paid for your skills. The ego-boost. There are rarely ego-boosts in mothering. Or, they’re a different sort. I feel a sense of pride every time one of the children says something particularly clever or hilarious. And whenever Maia shows me her artwork, which stuns me.
There’s no formal appraisal system, no pat on the back, no pay rise. No pay at all for that matter. The reward, is the very existence of your children. The reward is love.
I do not look forward to the intensity of being a working parent. The overwhelm, exhaustion and ongoing and intense juggling of balls. Mothers are expected to juggle all the balls. Progress is being made but it is still mothers booking the doctors appointments and mothers sewing the Brownie badges on. I cannot complain because I’ve had one less ball to juggle recently.
Despite the complicated feelings, I wouldn’t change the last two years. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have so much time with my little boy, and to be at every school run for Maia. As numerous folk have said to me “I’ll never get this time back”. It has been sacred. (Sacred, and all the other things.)
I’m excited for the next chapter. A little anxious as to how I will cope balancing two children and work, but I’d rather take the leap than not. Even just the word “work” fills me with a feeling of possibility and potential. A sort of expansiveness. My world getting a little bigger.
As big and scary as it all feels now, I remind myself it will be worth it.
To hopefully, one day, make my children proud.
“When work is not going well, it’s useful to remember that our identities stretch beyond what is on the business card, that we were people long before we became workers – and will continue to be human once we have put our tools down forever.”
– Alain de Botton