Struggling To Find Your Work Mojo After Having A Baby? Just Give It Three Years…

Three is the magic number for Katherine Ormerod - who is finally rediscovering her work mojo now she's reached 'middle motherhood'

Katherine Ormerod

by Katherine Ormerod |
Updated on

Over lunch last week, a new girlfriend picked up at my local soft play, admitted she was feeling in the doldrums about her work life. ‘It all feels so meh,’ she said, ‘like I’m just hovering above the whole thing.’ Late last year I had a similar conversation with an OG mate who shared her frustrations of work not really coming together even though her little one was coming up to their first birthday. These women had childcare arrangements more or less in place, they aren’t first time parents and are also vibrant, successful and dynamic in character.

I’m sharing what I told them both: I didn’t really recover my work mojo for around two and a half years after I had my kids and it took three years to feel that anything was properly moving again. It is only now six years after my first child that I’m making more money than when I got pregnant. I went back to work four weeks after my first (with hardcore pressure to finish a book and then quickly market it) and two months after my second (much more slowly with no major deadline). But it took more than two years both times to fully wrest the inertia and feel like there was an actual sense of momentum or clarity of focus in my work life.

I’m probably not meant to say this. We’re meant to pretend that with the right nurseries and flexible working policies, we can hit the ground running and more or less get back to the same verve and prolific productivity we had before we got pregnant. I do understand the implications for feminism and that my description above only adds fuel to the fire for any employer looking to discriminate against working women. So many of us need to work to provide for our families, there is definitely the argument that we should keep quiet about this prolonged lapse of mojo. And of course, it’s not the same for every woman and some take the mental and physical tolls of childbirth and early child rearing much more in their stride. Some have easy births and easier babies. Some just ride the tidal shift atop a long board rather than a wing and prayer.

I do want to be clear. Right up to my personal ‘I’m back’ moment, I carried on fulfilling my obligations to my clients and was always conscientious about dotting the ‘i’s. I made enough money to maintain my life and my family. I worked on cool projects, travelled, met new people and enjoyed finding fulfilment outside of the home. I never ever turned up and thought ‘fuck it’. But with all my professional endeavours there was just an internal sense that I was withholding something—not from the quality of my writing or content, but in the risks I was prepared to take and the power I felt over my own trajectory.

While it's true I changed lots in my setup to make work work with kids at the beginning, it was all within my wheelhouse—it didn’t terrify or exhilarate me. When freelance journalism proved impossible with a baby on my hip, rebuilding my professional foundations certainly took time. I had to lay new tracks to start my ghostwriting career and that really wasn’t easy (see this piece here). But it never felt unsafe. I knew I could do it; I’d been ‘ghosting’ celebrity articles for a lot of my career and anyway, it was a secret job. No one outside of a few backstage souls would ever have known if I’d fallen flat on my face.

Now I have arrived at the mojo moment, I can really feel what was missing. It was gumption and chutzpah and reserves of both confidence and positive energy. I haven’t written a book with my name on the front cover for six years for a reason—I just haven’t consistently felt on level footing enough to take the criticism, the attention and the onslaught which inevitably comes when any woman sticks her head above the parapet. For so much of my life I’ve been a hardy tall poppy, but something instinctive and almost prehistoric inside me has guided me to protect myself and by extension my little grubs. It’s taken me this long to shed the mental and physical vulnerability that becoming a mother imprinted on me. It’s taken me six years to get my professional muscle back.

I now feel my vim and vibrancy pulsing back through my veins. I’ve got ideas and follow through; I’m prepared to mix things up and feel freer to walk perilous roads. I feel like I could climb, but also move mountains. Not everyone will like what I do or have to say, but that no longer feels dangerous. I am absolutely ready for abundance and challenges and to reconnect with my raw ambition. There are so many reasons that this has all come together for me as my youngest turns three, some of which are particular, but many others are systemic.

Firstly, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that a woman might feel prepared to take more professional risks when there is less of a financial burden to consider. My childcare bill is about to reduce by £1000 a month. For the past nearly six years I have been bleeding any profit from my toil and knowing that our 30 hours are about to kick in definitely lightens the load of earning pressure. Nothing holds us back from making punchy professional choices more than fiscal responsibility for our offspring. Fine for me to eat toast for a week, no chance for my boys.

There’s also the physical side. Birth isn’t just mechanical (aka putting your body through a natural car crash), it sucks your bones dry. Iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin B12, B9, iodine, selenium stores, omega 3 fats and specific amino acids from proteins are all leeched from your flesh to build eyes and ears and femurs. And of course, you give all your resources to babies that don’t make it earthside too. I’m sure you can top all that back up faster with a list of perfectly prescribed supplements and an optimised diet. Like many of us, almost immediately juggling, I found wine, houmous and pitta bread more of a realistic source of survival.

When I’ve had this discussion, lots of people have suggested that it’s the lack of sleep that depletes the devil-may-care work drive. Not so for me, as both my kids have always been reliable sleepers after four or five months (feel free to make a voodoo doll immediately), but I definitely still felt that physical drag of being almost vampirically drained. When you’re in that spot, it’s simply self-preservation which stops you from reaching professionally because you know —whether consciously or subconsciously—that your resources simply cannot cover any major screw up if a risky move turns sour. Any massive stretch could send the boat belly up. If you feel you are coasting or that energetically you’re a fraction of your former self, all this might be to blame. We brush off postpartum depletion as we forget to do our pelvic floors, but some doctors and researchers estimate this gut-deep fatigue can last up to a decade. Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s nothing.

When you add in the bonko hormones and the new insane ever-growing to-do list (while writing this, I’m also Whatsapping my PTA about the Curry and Bingo night, making a mental list to get the wet football kit out of the washing machine for tomorrow’s practice, texting our childminder, having a stand-off with the government’s tax-free childcare website and trying not to burn chipolatas for tea. This is all times, all day, every day), we really need to stop being so painfully critical of ourselves and look at it all laid out on paper.

I absolutely don’t want any new mother to read this and think fuck, Katherine says I’ve got six years before I get back to myself. It’s not that. Far more, I mean we need to be so much gentler on ourselves and far far more realistic in our expectations of what it’s really like to go back to work. I have friends who were promoted while on maternity leave or very quickly after they returned to the office and found they just buckled under the strain. They have all since re-ramped back on, slightly further down the road, but my God, they beat themselves up for it in those early days. But this isn’t some kind of failure. In fact, it’s obvious to everyone else except the person self-flagellating. You will be on fire again, most likely in a whole new way, it’s just probably going to take longer than you’ve been led to believe.

Now I’m here at this new stage of ‘middle motherhood’ (no babies, no teenagers), I feel a new fierceness and there is a noisy magic to it. It’s like a fairy godmother has tapped my head with a wand and I’m sparkling again. Of course, not everything I touch will turn to gold and there are going to be lulls and setbacks ahead. I have plenty of T-shirts to wear to those pity parties. But I am also so incredibly thankful to have that glimmer back. Once upon a time I took it for granted. Never again.

First published on Every Shade of Grey, Katherine’s Substack.

Your Not Forever Home, by Katherine Ormerod, available for pre-order now.

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