‘Work and Play’. It’s the title of a Peppa Pig episode that I have watched more times than I would care to admit, and it’s a fitting description of family life – whether you are in employment or not.
For most mothers living in Sydney, returning to work after having children is a no-brainer. In a city of exorbitant rents and sky-high mortgages, it can often take two earners, sometimes working multiple jobs, to sustain a family. Still, all new families face the questions, who will work? If so, part-time or full-time? Who will care for your children while you are working? Can you even afford child care? And everyone’s answers will be determined by multiple factors relating to their own personal circumstances.
When I left a contract role as an editor for a book publisher at 36 weeks pregnant, I was painfully aware that returning to the workforce – within an industry that is notoriously difficult to crack into, and with a baby – would not be easy. So instead I focused on the idea of being fully available for the young family we planned – if we could manage it financially. But boy, did I have an idyllic picture of my life as a stay-at-home mother … My children and I would bake cookies! Arrange teddy bears’ picnics! Snuggle up and read my favourite books from childhood! Do fabulous art and craft! It never entered my head that I might actually find life as a stay-at-home mum challenging – or that watching your toddlers throw flour around the kitchen or squabble over sequins and feathers is a sure-fire way of losing one’s mind.
What I learned as a stay-at-home mum to two young children (number two followed number one rather quickly) was that caring for children is hard work, no matter how angelic your little angels may be. To be clear, I love my daughters deeply, absolutely, and I feel very privileged to be their mother – yet I can say without a doubt that being a mother is the most difficult role I’ve ever had. The demands and needs of young children are relentless. From a basic nose wipe to your undivided attention throughout the waking hours (and possibly the sleeping hours too – I’m looking at you, Miss 2 years), someone always needs something from you. And when meeting their needs is your responsibility all day, every day, it can be rather exhausting, not to mention thankless. No one ever gives you a pat on the back for that flawless presentation you gave to your three-year-old child that averted a tantrum on the shopping centre floor. Or a promotion for, say, seeing the family’s ‘project gastro’ through to completion.
We also discovered just how expensive it can be to raise a family. Within six months of having our first child, the bills were piling up and reality of the expense of feeding, clothing and nurturing a family had set in. We agreed that any income I could earn would make our life easier. So I began to take on freelance work – fortunately an option that was readily available to me as an editor and writer – squeezing projects into naptime, evenings and weekends. As I increased my hours steadily, it became clear that we needed external care for the children.
I now work three days per week. I’m proud to contribute to the family income, and my contribution has made things easier for us, but if I’m honest, it is often the days when I am at home ‘playing’ with the kids that feel rather like work, and the days when I am ‘working’ that feel rather like play (emphasised perhaps by the fact that on any given workday, my head is buried in the fictional world of whichever book manuscript I am editing – cushy, I realise).
It’s a situation to which Belinda, another local mum with two young children, can relate. She says, of her decision to return to work in her field of marketing: ‘Financially it’s necessary for me to work. However, it goes beyond the money. I might have once dreamt of being a stay-at-home mum, but in reality I love the structure and stimulation of my career. I believe I am a better mum when I am working and actually a better employee as a mum. So everyone wins.’
Belinda makes a good point. Balancing the demands of motherhood and work can make you very driven, very efficient, very organised. It can also make you appreciate your children all the more.
Heather, an Inner West Mum of three children, points out to me in conversation that I have a degree of flexibility that most working mothers simply do not have. As my own boss, I am constantly juggling my work schedule to meet the needs of the family. When Miss 2 or 3 years is unwell, or has an appointment – and with chronic health issues and additional needs, there are rather a lot of these – I can be there without having to justify my whereabouts to a boss. I simply make up my hours after hours.
For Heather, what has made all the difference in her current role as chief operations officer for a not-for-profit is having a female boss who understands the needs of a family. Heather’s boss also has children and fully appreciates that there are times when your kids must come before your work – which does not mean that you aren’t passionate about your job or don’t work hard. Heather is one of the most passionate and hardest working people I know. All too often, however, it is only the workplaces where one’s boss is a parent, that flexibility and empathy are afforded to working mothers.
The fact that in this day negative views exist towards both mothers who stay at home, and those who return to work, is truly baffling. Our choice to stay at home with our children or join the workforce is a decision that is frankly nobody’s business but ours. Clearly there is a long way to go in supporting mothers’ return to work through fair work practices, paid parental leave and greater accessibility to child care. And for those mothers who do choose to stay at home, I tip my hat to you: I know now, it’s no teddy bears’ picnic.