There are many things that I was unprepared for as a mother. I was unprepared for the onslaught of love so profound that I can be knocked over with a simple cuddle. I was unprepared for living with the memory of having poo sprayed in my face, or vomit streaming down my back. I was unprepared for a lot of things. One of the things I was probably least prepared for was the constant internal struggle between Mum and career woman.
I’ve always been ambitious. I’ve made no secret of it. I enjoy working, and while I’m in in no way a cut-throat career woman rocking a power suit and stilettos, I get a lot of joy out of work. But recently I’ve been questioning my latest decision to strive further.
And, it seems, I’m not alone.
Just a few weeks ago I was out for dinner with a girlfriend, when she announced that she got a promotion that very day. “Congrats!” I beamed, motioning my glass towards hers for a cheers. She clinked our glasses together uncertainly.
“It’s great!” I said. “This is what you’ve been working towards, right? This is what you wanted?” My question prompted by her less-than-beaming face.
She shook herself out of it, and said, “Yes, it is. It’s the next step towards what I’ve been working towards. They’ve said that in a year I’ll be ready to take another step up. It’s just …”
I finished her sentence. “You’re not sure if that’s what you want?”
“No,” she admitted, almost looking shame-faced. I understood.
“But you feel like you should want it?” I asked.
“Yes.” She was stumped.
And I get it. Cos so am I. All my adult life I have strived to learn more, do more, see more. I move jobs the moment it becomes familiar, seeking new and interesting paths, and I’ve been focused on reaching a certain point by 30 … then 40. And all of a sudden I’m questioning it.
This comes in a week where I’ve gone for a pretty big promotion at work. It’s unlikely I’ll get it, but I interviewed fairly well, and you just never know. Yet I find myself questioning if it’s what I want, when what I want is to be available for my kid, and I’m so scared that gaining more responsibility means losing some of that. And to that I just want to jump up and down like my five-year-old and scream, “it’s not fair!”
I feel like this promotion is what I should want. Or at least something past me would kick herself for not going for. After all, isn’t this what I’ve worked so hard for?
I’m writing this because not everyone seems to feel this way. Not everyone seems to understand – or even see – this complete struggle I’m having between these two people I am. It’s almost as though I’m standing at a fork in the road, and wondering what the right path is.
Friends just say, “You’ll be fine.” Or, “You can totally do it. You’re awesome.” But can I? What does it cost?
So much is unknown ahead. Will my child settle into school well enough that I can go back full time? Will a bigger job make it harder for me to switch off when I need to be Mum? Will I cope with the next year looking different to what I had planned in my head, when I’m someone who struggles with a path unplanned?
And so it goes … the doubt, the fear, the questions, the constant cycling back and forth, and at the heart of it is a desire to give my child the best of me.
And then I find myself asking … how many dads do this? I’m sure there are some, but it’s a conversation I have more with my female friends than my male ones.
I’m always going to preface anything like this by saying I’m married to an incredible man. A doting dad. A man who would never make me feel that I was the one who had to take a career hit to be there for my kid. But there’s an unasked question. If I don’t do it, who does?
I’ve always just naturally adopted the role of main carer. And while I don’t buy into gender stereotyping, I can’t help but wonder how much of it is hard-wired into me as mother. I’ve assumed the responsibility to adjust my days for earlier pick ups. I’ve worked part time. I’ve organised the birthday gifts, the snacks, put the childcare dates in my diary, bought the school shoes six months early because they were on sale, and made the decision to only go for jobs that allowed flexibility (perhaps at the sacrifice of other jobs). I’ve done this because I have felt that it’s my role (and, yes, because I’m a planner and an over-thinker – indulge me), not because it was expected or asked of me. And most of the time that’s fine. I want to do these things. But if I don’t do them, what then?
This is where the conflict sits.
This, I think, is what they meant when they say, “you can’t have it all”. I know that taking a step up means sacrificing some of the “mum time”. And, sure, next year, when missy starts school, I could probably work five days a week. It could be perfectly fine. But there’s still that part of me that wants to be there that one day a week for pick up and drop off. Who wants to be there when missy needs me. Who wants the flexibility to join school excursions, and ride her bike alongside her child to school.
And then there’s the other part of me who looks at a promotion and thinks, “I should want this.”
And I don’t know what to do, because the desire doesn’t come without sacrifice.
Either way you look at it.
If you’re reading this and looking for a conclusion, it’s not here. I can’t wrap it in a bow. Believe me, I tried. I just wanted to acknowledge the struggle, the conflict, the very real feelings and sacrifices of being a parent. I wanted you to know that if you feel this way, you’re not alone. I wanted you to know that we’re all just trying to figure it out. And that’s OK.