To be guilty or not to be

Stella, whose eldest is fifteen, says she has been working longer with kids than without and claims to not remember what it felt like to go back to work after her first born. It was all a milk-addled, caffeine-stimulated, sleep-deprived haze. And fifteen years ago.

For me, it’s still feels quite fresh. In fact I can still vividly remember the hot tears pouring down my cheeks as I ran away from dropping my 10 month old love of my life at the nanny share that first time. Pickle herself couldn’t have been happier; gurgling and laughing with the nanny and being pampered by the lovely older children we share with. Six years later, they are now like her adopted big brother and sister.

I remember how I pondered and wondered and projected what was going to happen to me and my child; what was it going to feel like for both of us as I made the leap back in to work after baby bliss? If I was the ‘Supermom’ of media fame, I’d have been back at three months and would have already checked my emails and be focusing on the big meeting in my first week back. But personally I was more concerned with the survival level basics. For weeks before the day came, unanswerable questions would pop into my head in any moment of quiet.

What is to become of me as I peer over the abyss, into a strange new world?

How am I going to cope with going to work AND being a mum when it was a pretty full time occupation just keeping baby clean after yet another ‘poo explosion’ in a public place and making sure there was bread, milk and toilet paper in the house – all at the same time?

How will I be able to get in to work for 9am when for the last year I’ve struggled to get out of the house fully clothed before 11am?

How will I manage without my new network of mum friends who I have been through so much with (and eaten so much delicious cake with) over the last year?

How will I handle being away from my lovely, precious, vulnerable baby several days a week? How can she possibly manage without me?

How will I ever find someone perfect enough to fill the shoes of this very imperfect mother?
How will I know when I have found ‘the one’, and how will I know that they are still the one when I am not watching?

How will my relationship, just emerging, blinking from the murky world of sleep deprivation, cope with another new day in which I am not focused on keeping things afloat at home?

Will I survive at work? Will they notice that I have ‘changed’? That everything has changed.

What should I expect from this new life and, what do I actually want from it? My priorities may have changed but I’m not quite sure what the new ones are.

These were a few of the questions running round my head, invading my interrupted dreams as I headed minute by minute, closer to the office turnstile point of re-entry and possible self combustion.

This is what I thought I didn’t know.

Little did I know what I was to learn that I didn’t know, as the joyous, stressful, complicated and sometimes freaking dramatic life of a working mum has played out over the last few years. As I have gone from abandoning not one, but two, children to non blood child care and changed my priorities, principles and arguments time and time again.

What I’ve learnt is that you can’t really know what to expect or how you’ll react to your new life. My whole psyche has changed because of the little monsters.
I think differently.
I feel differently.

I used to walk around proclaiming ‘guilt is a wasted emotion’. And I genuinely believed it. If you didn’t like something, change it, I thought. If you felt guilty about something, either change the thing that was making you feel bad or move on and stop torturing yourself with it.

I didn’t take the full year off for my first maternity leave, and apart from the sadness of leaving my little one during the day I didn’t actually feel GUILTY. That would have been a waste of time, even silly, I thought.

The second time around I squeezed every possible hour out of my time off and was wallowing in my own gloom for a good few weeks before going back. How could I leave both of them? Was this the right thing to do?

I had begged, cajoled and ultimately failed to get the three day working week I wanted and so was reluctantly, and guiltily, going back four.

I had resigned myself to an uneasy and, I hoped, temporary truce between my guilt and doing anything about it. At the point of second re-entry it was too tiring/ pointless trying not to feel guilty (towards children, colleagues, partner, for providing uninspiring meals, often empty fridge, slow movement through the washing cycle, not doing enough exercise or doing exercise and therefore not being at home!). There’s too much stuff going on not to cock up on at least half of it. So, best to roll with it. Embrace the low level guilt.

That’s how I feel, some of the time anyway. And I know lots of working mums who share this feeling. Others frankly don’t. Stella claims never to feel guilty. She has a heart of stone (so she says. Which isn’t true by the way. It’s just a rep that works to her advantage on occasion). She says a job is just a job and the kids are perfectly happy with whoever is looking after them at any given time. She just says she misses them when she is away from them for too long. But being eaten by guilt is not her bag. And good for her!

We could probably all take some inspiration from the words of the erstwhile philosopher… err… Diane von Furstenberg, which one of my non-guilty friends generously shared with me: “I didn’t feel guilty once, not once, because I did the best I could and I was a mum. Guilt makes you look old and feel old, and it’s never going to get anyone anywhere.”

The truth is we can’t change how we feel: if we are the guilty type or the lucky type who float above it. But there is one important thing to remember and that is that most of us, to some degree, have made a decision, a positive choice, to go back to work. And we have also agreed to the schedule of that work – whether reluctantly or enthusiastically. We have signed our own contract. We are masters of our own destiny. Not pawns in someone else’s Machiavellian game to separate us from our offspring.


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