I’ve long been a proud feminist.
Ginger Spice was always my favourite for her bold and brazen personality and the reason I spent much of ’97 yelling ‘Girl Power’ in the face of any boy who annoyed me. I felt Buffy slayed before slaying was even a thing, and when I had to write an essay in Year 7 about my hero, I opted for Emmeline Pankhurst.
Yes, amidst a sea of impassioned speeches about David Seaman and Britney Spears, I stood up and waxed lyrical about the Suffragette Movement.
So I’d long assumed that women ‘having it all’ was the ultimate feminist move. No longer expected to stay at home trapped in the more traditional roles – they could have their place in the workforce and the home. As Beyonce once sang, women were ‘strong enough to bear the children, then get back to business.’
In fact, I found the very question of whether we could hold down a successful career, and family, to be patronising and demeaning.
That was, until I became a working mum.
Last autumn, after a year of maternity leave with my gorgeous son, it was my turn to reenter the workforce.
I’d already decided to leave my full-time position at a magazine and go freelance. So, in those early days, I accepted work for a prominent website.
On my first day, after dropping my son off at his nursery at 8am, I ran back home to get ready. It was like that scene in ‘She’s All That’ when Rachael Leigh Cook becomes hot by ditching her glasses and ponytail – except, in my case, it was sick-stained joggers and nursing bras with removable pads.
Feeling like the main character in my own movie entitled ‘Brave Working Mum’, I sauntered around central London with my freshly brushed hair blowing in the wind and taking sips of a hot coffee that I was able to enjoy uninterrupted.
I had achieved it. I was a working mum.
On that first day, I naively WhatsApped my best friends and told them how happy I felt. I was so excited to get stuck into work, finding a passion outside of motherhood again.
How wrong I was.
Almost a year on, I’m a shell of my former self. My attempts to ‘have it all’ have left me sleep deprived beyond belief, surviving solely on adrenaline and iced coffees with extra shots.
Now, I realise that women can’t have it all. Not when we’re victims to a patriarchal society that sets working mothers up to fail.
Just look at how working mothers are treated in this society – we’re meant to parent like we don’t have jobs and work like we don’t have families. The result leads to us feeling like we’re failing – on both counts.
Women don’t become masters of having it all but rather masters of juggling everything and remaining silent on the mental and physical burden this takes. Most places of employment have set hours that don’t necessarily consider nursery opening and closing times. There’s no sabbatical option for when your child goes through a sleep regression or growth spurt and we don’t have pay increases that align with childcare costs soaring.
New research recently found that seven out of 10 women in the UK have faced discrimination or negative treatment at work after becoming a mother and a quarter said they felt less valued.
Many working mothers cited masculine work environments as a key issue, admitting they felt they would be judged if they spoke openly about how much they were struggling to balance it all. Over half of the women in the study felt they weren’t working enough and almost 80% felt they weren’t spending enough time with their kids. The overwhelming theme throughout? Guilt.
No matter how hard I try or pretend to myself, I’m never going to be the perfect employee and the perfect mother
Thankfully, as a freelance writer, I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of employers who are understanding of the uncertainties and last minute emergencies that come with motherhood – but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like a burden.
Why would they continue to work with me when they can choose someone childfree who has no dependents to worry about?
I also have a brilliant partner, but with no family nearby, we lack that village of support. And so I’m often stuck with a sick toddler on my lap, trying in vain to finish my work while he attacks my keyboard like it’s a brand new toy.
Or I’m logging onto my laptop after his bedtime to finish off the work I struggled to get through that day because my son decided to have a party in his cot at 3am and I wasn’t allowed to decline my invitation.
No matter how exhausted I felt. Which was the reason I accidentally described a sex toy as being ideal for ‘perspiration’ and not ‘penetration’ in a recent article I was commissioned for.
Maybe in our mother’s generation, they could be those hands-on types who volunteered at bake sales and were always there at 3:15pm to meet at the school gates. They could have dinner on the table for us by 5pm, and tuck us in at night. They could spend weekends running around the park with us, or setting up some fun activity at home. My mother worked part-time for most of my childhood, as did many of my friend’s mums.
But if you have a full-time job, you can’t be that mother. Logically, it seems so simple. Yet emotionally, I think many working mothers push themselves to excel in those traditional roles they grew up seeing, while trying to hold down full time jobs.
It’s taken me a while to accept that something had to give. To realise that I deserved more than the pressure of ‘having it all’. That it was OK for me to turn down work if it was too much stress.
Or to be OK with the days when my son was the first to be dropped off at nursery and the last to be picked up.
That my son was going to survive if I was exhausted in the evenings, or struggling to find energy at 6am on Saturday mornings. That I was going to survive, even after missing out on opportunities, when taking them on meant working myself into the ground.
Before, I was dropping him off at 7:30am, logging onto my laptop for 8am and working through before picking him up, doing the bedtime routine and logging on again after dinner. When he was off from nursery sick, I was maniacally attempting to get through my work during his naps and staying up until the wee hours.
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Now, I take on far less work. I log on from 9:30am to 5pm and if an assignment is going to cause me to work outside of those hours, I say no. But it’s been a tough change to accept, resulting in anxiety and a reduction in pay.
I firmly believe there needs to be a real change in the way we treat working mothers. More security for us and an acknowledgment that a child is a full-time responsibility and not as insignificant as a houseplant that you just water on occasion.
We need all bosses offering paid time off when childcare falls through and not capping pay if a working mum needs to adjust their hours to suit drop off and pick up.
The truth is no matter how hard I try or pretend to myself, I’m never going to be the perfect employee and the perfect mother. The two are contradictory terms.
And until society changes to support working mothers, they always will be.
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