If you’d asked me as a teenager whether I’d ever quit working to be a stay at home Mum, I would have said ‘No’ without any hesitation. I’d have given the same answer in college, and through all my years of employment the whole way up to my due date. Virtually all of my life I’ve either been studying or working full-time. Making a choice to do neither was an utterly alien concept to me. I’m from a generation vastly different to my parent’s. I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities they gave me. I painstakingly built a career in a male-dominated environment, and succeeded far better than I thought I could. I adapted to fit in with the expected norms, pushed myself to stay up to date with the latest trends in technology, worked the extra hours to compete with my peers who sit up all night playing with code. Like most employees, I find it incredibly difficult to separate my sense of self-worth and value from the work I do. Ultimately, if you’re not getting paid for the work you’re doing, then it’s work that the rest of the world doesn’t value or recognise in a way we’re conditioned to desire. This makes it a lot harder to go from having a career to being a primary caregiver for your child(ren).
By the time I was pregnant I’d reached what will probably be the ‘pinnacle of my career’. I’d beaten the stringent hiring bar and was working in a global company, run under the influence of the behemoth that is ‘American work culture’. It was even more dominated by men than usual. The kind of company where I walked through the open plan office with an interviewer, and casually asked what the proportion of female staff was, and he was at a total loss. I later found out that there were but four at that time – for a number of months we each could enjoy the perk of our own personal toilet cubicle. The kind of company where I reviewed hiring interviews with a senior manager who commented regarding a lone female candidate, that he couldn’t understand why the number of female applicants was so low. On seeing my reaction to that statement, he was surprised that I thought it was perfectly logical that almost none of the few females qualified to apply would have much interest. Why would they prefer competing in such a male-orientated environment that was rapidly gaining a reputation for being far behind similar corporations when it came to the kind of things that women might tend to look for at some point in their career – seeing other women succeeding without sacrificing their family life, working regular hours without impacting performance reviews, something more than the mandatory maternity leave required by law?
Sadly, the reality of working in that company, especially while pregnant, was constantly competing at an unsustainable level in a workaholic environment. I wasn’t enjoying rising to the challenge, in fact I wasn’t finding much enjoyment in work that I used to like. The experience did teach me valuable lessons about stepping back and thinking carefully about what was best for me, rather than buying into the company propaganda. Many employees I highly respected and valued left, not because they couldn’t compete. Because they didn’t want to, or need to.
I was the first employee in the office to go on maternity leave, the first employee in Europe (as far as I could tell) that was an engineer. I was breaking new ground, and it wasn’t a positive experience. The worst point during my pregnancy was being told at the very last minute that I was expected to continue working 24/7 oncall shifts through my third trimester unless I provided a medical note. It’s not that there was any difficulty getting a sick cert to say that I couldn’t work past normal office hours, it’s that they actually required me to get one. Yet despite discontent with my current job situation, when faced with a due date quickly approaching, I was still undecided about how I might cope with my upcoming career break. I regularly reminded my husband that just because I’d applied for the maximum maternity leave, it didn’t mean I’d actually take it all! I suspected that I might not last very long at home with just me and an infant all day. Despite the extra unnecessary stress caused by my job while I was pregnant, I still planned to return to work full-time. Just not that job, or any other that was likely to be so family-incompatible.
Perhaps the fact that my last job was so stressful and draining primed me to miss working a lot less than I’d imagined. Even though being a parent has been way more mentally and physically exhausting than any other job I’ve had. Being a stay at home mother is tough, unbelievably tough. The days can drag on forever, the nights are shattered with screams and wails. Home can be the loneliest place in the world. It can be hard to find the energy to get yourself out in your stained clothes and talk to others. When you do, it can seem like you’re the only one struggling as other people present a picture-perfect snapshot of their lives.
Yet being a mother has also been so much more rewarding than my professional career has ever been. Kissing those scraped knees better, sharing in the triumph of a new accomplishment, or just having fun. As a result, I’ve undergone a total sea change when it comes to plans for what I’ll do for the next few years. Returning to work does have some appeal – I’ve missed being something other than mother and wife. I’ve missed having the peace to concentrate fully, and totally absorb myself in my work for more than a couple of stolen minutes between tantrums and nappy changes. However, I’m reluctant to trade away all those precious moments with a unique growing personality that I co-created. A return to working a traditional job in the IT sector means long hours and seeing a lot less of my son than I’m comfortable with, especially when my husband faces the same kind of hours.
Thus maternity leave came and went, and the status quo remained. Then a full year had passed by. We agreed that the preferred option for now was that one of us be at home full-time with our son. We’re very lucky to be in a position where it actually is a choice for us. The thought of both his parents working all those long, extra hours meaning that he would really only see us at the weekends just wasn’t appealing, even if the extra income was. So I’ve slowly been transitioning my old values and goals towards ones more compatible with being a stay at home mother.
Occasionally as friends returned back to work, I would bemoan the fact that part-time, flexible hours are virtually unheard of in IT companies. Unless you’ve been in a fairly boring state or bank job for a lot of years, you generally don’t cut your hours without a severe impact on your future in the company. My phone has rung regularly since I stopped working. My inbox also sees a steady influx of emails from recruiters hoping to entice me with one of the jobs they’re hawking. It’s somewhat amusing to see their interest drop to absolute zero when I respond to say that I’m currently only available for part-time projects. Although the IT sector is crying out for staff, I’m virtually unemployable. My teenage or college self really didn’t prioritise a career that was family-friendly at all.
Then, totally out of the blue, I got a call offering the chance to start working part-time AND flexible hours on a project. It’s even quite interesting work. It’s hard to believe. So, of course, I had to say yes, please. This isn’t something that’s likely to come up again any time soon (if ever). I don’t have to totally give up my plans of a carefree summer with the little man. But I do have to consider the logistics of being a full-time SAHM and a part-time worker. It’s quite a daunting change. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to cope with fitting it all in. The reality of trying to work in the same location as a toddler (that’s supposed to be sleeping) may not be compatible at all with the requirement to have a couple of hours a day to dedicate my tired brain to intricate software design and implementation issues. I start to panic a little merely at the thought of it. But I also find myself looking forward to the kind of work and challenges that were once a daily experience for me. To being more than just a mother and wife for a few hours.
I have a couple of weeks before this all kicks off. I really want to make to make this work. To have my cake and try to eat it aswell. Can I really balance SAHM with working mother’s career, and not lose too much in the process? I guess I’m going to find out the answer to that soon.