Pregnant and working? Thinking of returning to your job after your baby is born? Or finding that facing the office is harder and harder now that you have a child to look after? Here are some ideas to help you banish those back-to-work blues.
I'm a working mum, and I have been from the moment I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. Because, contrary to popular opinion, the unique challenges faced by working mothers begin with the inevitable nausea that comes upon you, quite without warning, in the middle of an important meeting when you're nine weeks pregnant and haven't told anyone in the office yet. All at once, your mind is overwhelmed by questions: "Should I tell? Have they noticed how pale I am and how I can't stand the smell of the lunchroom fridge any more? How much longer can I get away with avoiding afterwork drinks on Friday? Can I hold out until 12 weeks? If I 'fess up now, will people think I'm not pulling my weight?"
That was me, a little over four years ago. I blurted the truth out to my boss one afternoon when she'd just pulled me into he boardroom to talk to me about something totally unrelated. I hadn't planned on announcing it to her that way - I hadn't actually figured out how to announce my pregnancy at all. I was the sixth woman caught up in a wave of pregnancies that had swept our office during the preceding few months, and instead of being excited about my baby news, I dreaded the "Don't drink the water!" jokes and the ignominy of being Last in Line.
At the time, I had no idea that a few years later, I'd be making a living as a working mum out of writing about being a working mum. Because, let's face it, the term "working mum" is almost redundant. What mother doesn't work? We all work, all day long, but for mums who work at a paying job, whether inside the home or out, the struggle to achieve balance between work and home is fraught with complications and difficulties.
There's no guilt like that of a working mother. Over the past four years of being a working mum, I've learned a lot about guilt. I've also learned a lot about how to cope with those feelings that you're somehow never going to get it together or have any kind of balance between work and motherhood and life in general. Here are my best tips for coping.
Redefine your image of the deal working mother
Before I became a working mum, I would have said the ideal working mother was meticulously groomed, regularly works out at the gym, is never late to drop her baby off at childcare, has homemade dinners on the table every night, lives in a spotlessly clean house, and still has time to host a book club once a month. Basically, the exact opposite of myself.
Think about the "ideal working mum" picture you have in your head, then compare it with reality. Is that kind of perfection really something you can achieve? Is it something anybody achieves? If you can't achieve it, why are you beating yourself up over it? We need to redefine what it means to be a working mother, and the definition needs to be something realistic, achievable, and just plain "good enough". If you're always trying to accomplish the impossible, you're just going to keep feeling more and more terrible about yourself when you can't reach those crazy goals.
The key when defining what working motherhood means to you is those two words TO YOU. Everyone's idea of what it means to be a working mum is going to be different. So I can't give you some kind of universal definition. All I can say is that the definition needs to be something that works for you, in your situation.
Stop comparing yourself to a false ideal
That non-existent perfect mother might sound like somebody you know. My sub-editor Ellie bakes bread and has this cute, quirky house and these two gorgeous daughters. When I met her, I actually decided I was going to hate her, because her life seemed just a little too perfect and I was jealous I couldn't be like her. But then one day, I was over at her house working at her kitchen table, and one of her daughters came into the room screaming bloody murder. Suddenly, I realised that Ellie is just like me. She sometimes rings at 10pm to talk about work stuff because she works from home and finds it a tad bit difficult to get anything done when the children are around and screaming bloody murder. She's amazing, but she's not perfect, either.
Ellie's house is always, always clean, and every time I came home from her house, I'd look around my own messy place and wonder why I couldn't have a clean house like Ellie. Then I had another realisation - I have about six times more stuff than Ellie does. Her house is clean because she doesn't have that much stuff. She is one of those minimalist people. So there' s my choice - I can become a minimalist person and have a clean house, or I can keep all my crap and have a messy house. I'm just going to live with the mess, thank you.
Don't you hate it when your in-laws compare your kid to one of their other
grandchildren? You know in your heart that your child is as special as the other grandkids, and it's not fair to compare kids anyway because they're all unique in their own way. Well, newsflash - that is exactly how your family feels about you. Stop comparing how you handle things to how your friends handle them. Stop wishing you had what other people have. I know, it's human nature, and you can't put a stop to it in every area of your life. But stop it in the motherhood realm.
Remember what balance really means
If you want a balanced life, remember "balance" does not mean your commitments, obligations, responsibilities, and tasks suddenly disappear, leaving you lying on a beach, cocktail in hand. That is not balance, that is a nice dream. Balance means all areas of your life have healthy relationships with each other.
Relationships are about give-and-take. There is always going to be something or someone screaming for your attention. Your job is to figure out what balance looks like to you. This is hard for women, because we are very used to picking up all of the slack. You need to overhaul your way of thinking about how working mums behave and what their lives are like.
Make changes to your work
This is a scary thing for most of us, because we automatically think that work is a no-negotiation zone. Instead of thinking about what work wants from you, it's time to think about what you want from work. What do you want to get out of your job? Is it the money? The adult interaction? Why are you doing the job you are doing? And are you really happy doing it? Is work working for you? There is new legislation requiring employers to look at ways to make their workplaces more family-friendly; is your employer doing anything? Think about how much you want to put up with before it starts putting a strain on your family. And think about your options. Put your family first.
Think about what you love to do, and how to make that your career. If your job isn't working for you, maybe you can create a job for yourself that will work for you. Things like flexible time, working remotely from home one or two days a week, job-sharing with another mum in your office, going part-time, signing on as a consultant. Most of us say, "Oh, my boss will never let me do that." How do you know unless you ask? Tell your boss that you love your job but it's not working for you, and give them that list of alternatives. Say you'd really like to keep working there because you know you have a lot to offer, but you want to make some changes that will benefit everyone. And if your boss is a jerk and says no, then you have to face that too. It's hard, I know, but it's necessary.
Get a support group
I know what it's like to not have much in the way of support. My family lives in
the US, and I have my in-laws here for support, but I didn't feel comfortable
asking my mother-in-law questions about breastfeeding. I was on maternity leave for eight months, six of which I spent entirely in my pyjamas. When I went back to work, I felt isolated and alone, until I started forcing myself to make friends who were in similar situations. You need people who understand what you're going through. Seek out other mothers at your workplace. Join a women's group. If you can't do the whole coffee group thing, that's okay, start your own thing. Host a craft night once a month and invite every mother you know. Once a month is do-able. Schedule regular Saturday-morning coffee dates with a friend. Support is good for your soul.
Your support group, especially of working mums, is an endless source of
ideas and inspiration for how to keep your priorities straight. If there's another
working mum at your office, ask her how she gets balance. Chances are she doesn't have it either. You can work on it together, it's nicer to do things like this in groups! You're not alone, so don't isolate yourself on purpose. Look for support.
Help comes in many forms, from paid help like a housecleaner, to childcare.
Money is an issue here, but so is time. My one big concession is the guy who mows my lawns every fortnight. It costs $20 a pop and it's totally worth it, especially since we stand around and gossip for ten minutes before he gets started. My other big concession is childcare. Initially I sent my daughter to a PORSE in-home caregiver two afternoons a week, and gradually increased this to two full days, and now three. When I decided to work full-time, I chose to send her to a preschool for two days a week, so she gets in-home care three days a week and preschool the other two days. There are a lot of options for childcare. In-home care is awesome, and I highly recommend PORSE. If you have room for one, an au pair is surprisingly affordable - around $150 a week. Nannies are expensive, but what if you shared one with a friend? Or speaking of friends, two of my friends both work part-time and they swap childcare - one of them looks after the kids Monday-Tuesday, the other one Thursday-Friday, and it doesn't cost them a cent.
Figure out what you can afford, and what works the best for your family, then do it. If you want a cleaner, look in the back of the community paper for those little classifed ads. Or pay one of your teenage cousins to do some stuff for you. Swap childcare for childcare. Investigate the childcare subsidy and call up WINZ to see if you're eligible for any assistance. You don't know unless you ask.
Go easy on yourself
You're going to screw up. you're going to let things get off-balance. Change is a wheel, it's not a continuum - you make a change, you maintain the change, then something happens and you relapse, so you get back on the wheel and you make the change again, and you might maintain it for a bit longer this time before you relapse. The periods where you're maintaining the change get longer and the relapses get shorter.
The most important thing to remember is that you are a valuable human being, and deserve to be happy - and if work is working for you, then another important piece of the happiness puzzle will fall into place.
* Equality and Human Rights Commission. "Working Better: a Manager's Guide to flexible Working." 1 October 2009. Online: www.equalityhumanrights.com/hereforbusiness
* Galinsky, Ellen, James Bond, and E Jeffrey Hill. "When work works: a status report on workplace flexibility." Families and Work Institute. 8 April 2004. Online: familiesandwork.org/3w/research/downloads/status.pdf
* Kelly, Erin L and Phyllis Moen. "Rethinking the clockwork of work: Why schedule control may pay off at work and at home." Advances in Developing Human Resources 9.4 (2007): 487-506. Online: http://adh.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/9/4/487
* Parker, Kim. "The Harried Life of the Working Mother." Pew Research Centre, 1 October 2009. Online: http://pewsocialtrends.org/pubs/745/the-harried-life-of-the-working-mother
* Workplace Flexibility 2010. "Flexible Work Arrangements: a fact sheet."
Georgetown university Law Center. 13 May 2009. Online: www.law.georgetown.edu/workplaceflexibility2010/defnition/fwa.cfm