Looking back over the last few years, tumultuous and unhappy times for my career, I think about the advice that I would have given my former self with hindsight and the knowledge that it’s all worked OK. Hindsight, as they say is 20:20 and created hindsight in the form of imaginary letters from your future self, is a therapeutic technique used in Motivational Enhancement Therapy, a treatment for addiction and eating disorders. Guess what? It turns out that YOU are the best person to give yourself advice as no-one knows you, your motivations and foibles as well as yourself. If only we could all have a future self to guide us. Having not had this advantage, here’s a letter to me of 5 years ago, when I was working full-time with a 2 year old and a <1 year old – in case there are others who feel desperate like I did then and are in need of a “future-self” to advise them and put things in perspective.
Dear Me 2010,
I understand where you are. Sometimes you look in the mirror and you don’t recognise yourself. You go through the motions of the day feeling detached and dissociated from life. On dark days you believe this will be the rest of your life, your education was for nought, your identity to be forsaken for drudgery, your ambitions to be sacrificed at the alter of society’s expectation of “motherhood”. Sometimes you contemplate if life is worth living.
I understand; I have been there.
The unrelenting sleepless nights.
The flabby belly and sagging boobs.
The “comfy” clothes and orthopaedic shoes.
The eau de puke.
The no time alone to think. Who would have thought that going to the toilet alone would become a privilege?
The chores, the routines and the day-to-day responsibilities. Anything the children need or want. Anything the children do/ don’t do/ say/ don’t say/ eat/ don’t eat; any harm/ potential harm/ possibility of harm that might befall them, anywhere they need to be/ not be – it’s down to you. You always thought you’d be a great mother, but now you are not so sure. Now you have to listen obediently to snide remarks and “well-intentioned” advice on motherhood like a chastened schoolgirl.
The up-keep of a gruelling work-load that you try to squeeze into a shorter day, lest colleagues and superiors arch an eye-brow or make a comment about the decline in your performance and insinuate that you are not “pulling your weight”. The anxiety that you will be next in the redundancy line; despite all your qualifications and achievements. Unemployment has never even been on your radar. How could it have been? You were great at your job. But now you hear the whisperings. It is a possibility.
The tension in your relationship. That lovely man that promised to support you is now on another planet. Working the same hours you both used to work, wining and dining clients late at night because “Some-one has to continue their career trajectory to put bread on the table” and “Why should both careers suffer?”, “We talked about this, you wanted to be the main parent” and “Well if you can’t manage then why don’t we just hire a nanny?”. The seething resentment inside “Why does he get to carry on as if nothing has happened?”, “Why doesn’t he understand?” Maybe he doesn’t care anymore. Maybe we have “grown apart”?
And above all the resounding clang of self-doubt.
Maybe you weren’t so good at your job after all. How arrogant of you to believe that you were capable of achieving your ambitions – going forward, it’s about leadership and personality and do you really think that you have it in you? Maybe you deserve to be unemployed. Maybe you should resign and preserve your dignity. No one would judge you for it, you are a “mother” after all; this is what respectable women do, leave work to raise their children. Besides your salary is going straight to the childcare provider; your bank account a mere conduit. Financially you’d be better off taking that redundancy package. And children need their mothers. You can’t have everything. You have to compromise: work or motherhood.
Or maybe you are just not cut out for parenting? What a fool you were to believe that you could be the guardian and inspiration for anybody. You can barely look after yourself! What pathetic fool retreats into tears over a baby and acquiesces to the demands of a toddler? Spare the children this incompetence and get a 24/7 nanny for heaven’s sake – they’ll be better off. You can’t have everything. You have to compromise: work or motherhood.
Maybe your partner just doesn’t love you anymore? Why else would he not understand? Why else would he not help you? How can he love you anymore with your track-suit pants and stretch marks when there are younger women at his work who still wear high-heeled shoes, make-up and have actually combed their hair? Why else would he work long hours and not come home? Did he ever love you? You’ve let yourself go. You’ve neglected your duty as a wife.
Dear Me (2010), my advice is this:
- Believe in yourself as a parent. Your children need YOU, and you are the best parent that they will get. Everyone has wobbles now and then, nobody is perfect. If you are having a bad day, it’s a bad day – not a bad person. All good parenting starts with wondering if you are doing it right, only bad parents never question their actions and don’t seek to improve.
- Believe in your abilities at work. Don’t listen to the voices telling you to quit. They mean well, but they have got it wrong. Your employers are behaving in their own short-term interests, not in your interests or the long term interests of society. Only you know what is good for you and your family. Working full-time with full-time childcare or being a stay-at-home mother is an honest choice for many but there should be another way for people that want it. Work is more than a payslip. It is an identity, a social network, a status. It is power in a relationship. It is independence. Men understand this well, which is why they are much less keen to let it go. Don’t let the difficulties of 5 to 10 years stall a potential career of another 30 years (let’s not forget we will all be working into our late 60s!). Push for employers and society to change. Parental responsibility should be gender neutral. If all parents (male and female) pushed together for better work-life balance, employers would change. If you don’t push for change, who will?
- Make your partner your ally. He loves you. If he doesn’t understand then make him understand. Make him put himself in your shoes. Tell him how you feel. Make him pull his weight at home. They are his children too. Children need their fathers as well as their mothers. Never be taken for granted, and always expect respect. Make him support your career. It will be tough. There will be confrontation and arguments. It is worth it. It may be the saving of a woman, a marriage, a family.
- Don’t give up on “having it all”. A fulfilling work role with pro-rata pay AND being there for the children. Proper part-time work. Not full-time work for part-time pay, not a demotion to back office tasks or a move to a less prestigious organization, but the proper work that you are qualified to do for three days a week. I know that you will be told a million times that it is not possible. You will be pressurised to make a choice. You will want to give up. You will have to at times take that full-time work for part-time pay, take that demotion, move to a less prestigious organisation. But never give up on your ambition. Keep pressing, keep spreading the word about what you want, about what is right, keep vigilant and above all do not give up. Stay in the game. The “impossible” is only impossible until one person does it. Don’t go changing, make society change.
Along the way, you will meet some great people; some in similar situations and others in unexpected places. Two things they say will help you:
“If no one has done it before, it doesn’t mean it’s not possible; it means you have to do it.”
“Carry on doing what you enjoy doing”
Dear Me 2010, it works out well for you.
In 2015 you are still happily married. You have two great kids who KNOW their mother and KNOW their mother is always there for them. You eventually get offered a 3-day-a-week Consultant post at the best organisation for Child Psychiatry in Europe and sessions at the best Children’s Hospital in the UK.
It can work out.
Just hold on.
Just keep going.
Don’t give up.
Love from Me 2015.