In our weekly series Christine Armstrong, the author of The Mother Of All Jobs: How To Have Children, A Career And Stay Sane(ish), unpicks the myths around being a working mother and asks: is having a work/life balance an impossible dream?
A raw and recurring theme of interviews with mums who define themselves as ‘careery’ before having kids is that they have, at points, felt crushed by loneliness and isolation.
For some, stepping out of work for maternity leave feels like being drummed out of town and diminished in status on the same bleak day. They curl up on their sofas and sob, picturing what they are missing out on in their ‘real’ life. For others, it’s dawn with a screaming baby that won’t feed or settle as you rage that every other sodding person in the whole sodding world is asleep right now. Or wandering through a park with your buggy wondering at everyone else getting on with life while you feel invisible, locked and frozen in time, just wanting to reach out and touch someone. Or the stab through the heart as your partner shuts the door on their way to work and you realise you have ten long hours before you see them again and you can’t decide whether you loathe them or long for them or both.
For me, it was work itself after kids that I found intensely lonely, partly because I’d been pushed out of my old job and was working in a new role I wasn’t well suited to. I would arrive, already feeling late and already on the back foot, with the taste of vomit in my throat from a lack of sleep and try to engage with the 20-somethings who worked so hard and so late into the evenings. I knew a bit of what they experienced because I’d worked in similar ways but also knew they couldn’t see my world. My confusion about my priorities, my disconnection from them and from home, my guilt about never being there for what they called ‘the second day’, the phase of work that kicked off at 6pm and ran until late at night. There seemed no point in trying to explain: we all had work to do and, anyway, I didn’t have the words.
For others, it hits much later: Jackie, a mother of two, finally confronted her loneliness on a Friday night on the way home from work.
“As I left the train station, I went past the local wine bar and, glancing in, saw a big table of women in the window, drinking and laughing. I stared as I realised most of the mums in my daughter Betty’s class were there. Even that bitch Rachel who’s had way too much Botox. I longed to walk in but I obviously wasn’t invited, I didn’t even know they all went out together like that. I needed to get home so tore myself away from staring, terrified they would see me gawping at them from the street. In my head I was furious, jealous, angry with those fucking yummy mummies who sit around all fucking day drinking flat whites, planning park runs and talking about diets.
I got home upset, only to find Dan watching sodding re-runs of Top Gear in his boxer shorts drinking a large glass of red wine. Milo was wearing his nappy and what he ate for dinner and Betty was upstairs with an iPad. The kitchen was piled high with everything used since breakfast. No one even said hello.
I wonder how it can be that I am so lonely when I am never, ever alone.”
Jackie found both maternity leaves hard and fell back on family and old friends to see her through. She didn’t make time for hanging out with the other mums who seemed different to her, ‘more maternal and a bit boring’. She really loved her work and college friends who go out a lot and party and didn’t think she fitted in with the mummy crowd. It was only after she’d returned to fulltime work that it hit her: work friends just didn’t understand the pressures of working and parenting, her partner Dan had his own issues and wasn’t interested in chatting about how it all felt and she didn’t have a local support crew. She knew very few mums of kids the same age and realised later that her kids were invited to less stuff because other parents didn’t know her.
Jackie is clear on her advice for anyone having a baby: learn from her mistakes and make friends locally as early as possible.
Since the night outside the bar, she decided to join the PTA to meet some other parents. To her surprise she actually likes a few of them and says now that having a local network, however small, is the difference between a lonely sadness and the chance to belly laugh at the absurdity of life with small children. Like when your toddler takes off his trunks, grabs his willy in his hand and pisses down your leg in the open area of the pool showers. You need a group that laughs hysterically and outdoes you with their own wee horror stories. Ideally over too far much wine of a Friday night