For months now there’s been a post that I’ve been itching to write, but every time I write it I stop. I worry that I’ll explain things badly or come across as spoilt, whiny or just plain ungrateful which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’m not. I’m just tired.
So what’s prompted this now? A couple of times now, I’ve heard working parents described as showing it’s possible to ‘have it all’ or words to that effect. One of my closest friends used it the other day to describe me. But as lovely as the compliment is, I felt an element of dread at being described as it. Why? Because it couldn’t feel farther from the truth for me. I’m no longer convinced ‘having it all’ is possible. Or something that we should even want to strive for.
Let me start with the back story. Before I had kids, I was focussed on my career. Like most people I know, I worked hard to get to a position that I loved. I was (and still am!) good at my job and I took huge amounts of pride in doing it well. It motivated me, rewarded me and ultimately it defined me. I had a life outside of work but for forty plus hours a week, and a huge chunk of brain time outside of that, my role was who I was. Hello work me.
Then I had a child and my world tilted on it’s axis. I cried the day that I went on maternity leave but I couldn’t imagine going back to work after motherhood had started. Now there’s mum me. Then time went on, my brain got itchy feet (if that’s a thing) and I knew it was time to go back. Again, everything tilted. We re-grouped, I attempted to balance work, motherhood and everything else and things started to get back to a new normal.
Eight months after returning to work, I was pregnant again. I know, an employers dream. Which is hilarious given that I’m one of the business owners. Another shift. Another majority of a year spent knowing I’d soon be off. Another nine months of being at home, this time with far less thoughts of what I was missing out on. And then… back.
Which brings me to now. Eleven months in to post-maternity leave life. Nearly a year of juggling the demands of a pre-schooler, a baby (now toddler), a husband, a house, a job, a business… A whole year of fitting a full time job into part time hours. Of racing from work to nursery to school via the supermarket. Of mentally juggling how to respond to a colleague with how to stop my toddler from coming in to our bed every night. I am a wife, a mum, a friend, a home owner, an employee, a boss, a shareholder and a sleep deprived wreck of a person trying to identify which one of those comes first whilst trying not to fail at the rest.
Does having everything mean this? Does it really mean sitting at the kitchen table frantically trying to answer a pressing work query whilst attempting to stop the baby from bashing the keyboard as I go? Jumping up every couple of minutes to answer the demands of two children under the age of four? Worrying in meetings that I should have spent a little longer settling the youngest at childcare that morning or trying to mentally jot down a shopping list whilst having a wee because it’s the only spare moment in the day. Spending nighttimes waking to remember things that have been forgotten, spending daytimes trying to remember what on earth it was that you’d remembered and promptly forgotten again. Knowing that the minute you get on top of things, a big meeting, a sick child, a broken down car… something, will break the momentum and you’ll be right back to being in a permanent catch up.
The reality is, it’s exhausting. That the mental acrobatics alone will drive you insane. Let alone the logistics and that’s before you throw in the realities of childcare. That just when you think you have a balance on work and home, those childcare arrangements will need to shift thanks to things like the school day and suddenly you’ll be left trying to work out how to juggle all of that in even less hours without burning out your support system in the process. And that’s for the people fortunate as myself who have that support network there. Because don’t even get me started on the issues and costs around childcare for working parents – a provision that’s sadly lacking despite the best efforts of childcare providers.
Additionally, even in this day and age, it’s primarily a female based issue. That whilst we talk of equal opportunities and pay and parity, there are very few people who would look at my husband, someone in the exact same situation as me, albeit working full time rather than my part time, and say that he’s an example of having it all. That he is rocking fatherhood and working parenthood and everything in between. And why wouldn’t they? Because technically he’s attempting the same juggle every day. Only he isn’t. As much as he’s hands on at home, his mental load at home is far less. But that’s an issue for another post.
Why am I sharing this? For the others. For all the people like me who look at those around them and feel the pressure of comparison. That look at those smashing their careers and wonder why they’re not pushing for career progression in the same way. For the ones that worry that they’re not doing enough with their kids when they drop them at daycare for yet another day running. And for the people out there who are driving themselves into the ground trying to keep up with it all.
The best descriptor I’ve seen (via the incredible Anna Mathur) was using various different cups filled with water; one for work you, one for mother you, one for you and your mental health and wellbeing. You take a single full glass and share it out between the three but none of them are near full. So you put more of your time and energy (the water) into the motherhood side. But now career and individual are running on empty. You want to do well at work, you pour that energy into career you and bam, the others are low. It’s an impossible achievement, especially if you’re an individual that’s used to pushing yourself to be the best at everything you do.
Is it really having it all if you’re running like crazy to achieve it? Is having it all really something that we want to strive for? Is it even possible? With only so much of you to go around and so many different channels requiring your focus and attention, it seems an impossible dream to be able to ‘win’ at all of them and whilst my kids are important to me, I don’t believe it’s in their best interests for me to solely be focused on them at the detriment of my self. Maybe it isn’t that we can’t have it all but that we can’t have it all at once, that we’re in a permanent balancing act of topping up our focus and achievements in each area. Maybe the real way to have it all is to learn to accept that. One things for sure, I’m no longer convinced that having it all is something we should be aiming for.