The other day I was sitting at my desk writing up some meeting notes that needed to be sent off within the next half hour when I remembered something crucial. It was fancy dress day at school on Friday and it was already Wednesday. My seven year old was insistent she was going as Pippi Longstocking and I had done nothing about it. If I’m really honest I didn’t even know what Pippi Longstocking looked like. I spent the next ten minutes furiously googling stripy stockings and pinafore dresses, paying over the odds for next day delivery and hoping against hope that she would actually deign to wear them. Only then did I finish my notes and send them off late with a woolly apology about getting caught up in some work crisis.
That sums up being a working mum. You do your presentation, you work hard, occasionally say some interesting things, but there is a always bit of your other life that seeps into your brain and gets in the way.
If you like your job you probably forget about your children the minute you get to work. Let’s face it, it’s fun to talk to people who, when you hand them a pen, don’t scream, throw it, and then themselves on the floor shouting that they wanted the yellow one and not the red one. It’s nice to hand your colleague a chocolate biscuit and not have to shout “don’t get it on the sofa” – and then get on your hands and knees with a dust pan to sweep up once they’ve finished eating it.
But then out of the blue the fact that you have kids can come and grab you.
When my children were tiny it could be something as simple as seeing a woman pushing a buggy while I was nipping out to get some lunch and feeling a terrible longing for my baby. It could be suddenly remembering in the middle of a meeting that you haven’t called the school to tell them someone else is picking up your child – and it’s already twenty past three.
It seems to be something that happens to women and not to men. Men seem to be able to compartmentalise this stuff, but I just can’t do it. I can pretty much guarantee that my husband has never looked out of the window at work, seen the rain and thought “shit I sent them to school without coats” and then spent the next hour being totally distracted from work by imagining the children shivering in their cardigans, in the playground, in the driving rain – while all those children with more organised mothers stand nearby in their raincoats laughing at them.
We spend a lot of time with our kids at the beginning of their lives and it makes you feel really bonded to them in a way that no one else is. For the beginning of their lives we are inseparable from our offspring, day or night. And the truth is it’s hard just to switch that off. The friction between working and motherhood isn’t just about the career disruption of maternity leave. It’s a long journey of running out of work early, texting the child minder in a meeting and answering party invites whilst on conference calls. It’s reading a tiny article about something sad to do with a child on the train to work and partaking in some involuntary discrete crying, with the effect that you regularly arrive at work red eyed or ‘a bit sniffly’.
It means that when you finish a meeting a bit early, rather than go to the pub with your colleagues you want to sneak off and see the children, as I did the other day. I went home imagining how nice it would be to be home before tea time and how pleased everyone would be to see me. Of course what actually happened was that within five minutes my two younger children screamed at me for not being Daddy, my eldest accused me of losing his Spanish homework and the cat had been sick on the sofa. Ah well at least I was there….