This week I’m feeling really down. I’ve been looking back at what I was doing when I worked full-time, trying to juggle three children, commuting into central London and what I found to be a very unsupportive workplace. I decided in my wisdom to send my third child to a childminder instead of nursery as I did with the other two, which meant three different drop-offs in the morning – nursery, school and childminder. I don’t regret it for a second. My daughter thrived in a family environment and is the happiest of the three girls. Perhaps she was just born that way. Our first daughter used to cry every single day when I left her. Even two years into nursery she would cling to my legs and had to be dragged off. I lost count of the times people said five minutes after you’ve gone she’ll be fine. People like to believe these things. It’s the lies we tell ourselves when there is absolutely no other course of action open. And I’m sure she was “fine”. I’m sure she did stop crying and buckle down to the inevitable.
When you are pregnant, people tell you in great detail of the sleepless nights, but what they don’t tell you is any of the emotional stuff and just how deep children’s need for you is. And when I say you, I mean you, the mother. If I have been at work for the day, I can’t even get through the door without being jumped by all three girls, demanding attention, often highly emotional, tired, needy. My partner gets none of that. He can walk in and they barely look up. He can go to the corner shop without being accompanied by all three children on every occasion. He can go out for the night and not have people screaming and trying to tear the door down to get to him. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a two-way street and, although terrifying when you think about it sometimes, it is quite something to feel so needed. My youngest child still likes to sleep with her cheek touching mine. It makes her feel safe – her little body gives out a sigh of relief as soon as it finds that mummy skin. It cripples my back as she lies across me when she comes into our bed in the night and I know I’m encouraging bad habits, but it’s only for a short time.
The truth is my need for them is as much, if not more, than their need for me – even though sometimes it’s all too much and I can’t take all three of them wanting me all at the same time – the 7 year old for long conversations where I tell her things she doesn’t know [I am the fount of all wisdom, although I have to admit I’m winging it on questions like where does fish poo go], the 4 year old for make-up sessions and the 2 year old for cuddles and discussions about socks and all three of them for food at all times of the day.
Which is why I changed my work and moved out of London. I simply couldn’t stand it any more. It felt some days as if I would have a heart attack just from the stress of getting to work. Of rushing to nursery and dumping the second daughter, never finding a parking place by the school and having to run uphill holding the baby and the first daughter’s hand, dodging the non-working mothers on the way out and hurtling to the car, driving like a bat out of hell to the other side of Walthamstow to dump the baby at the childminder’s [when you do everything in a rush the only word to describe the drop-offs is dump], dodging traffic on the way to the station and ending up leaving the car miles away and haring down the road to find the ticket office closed and a long queue for the machine and missing the train by 30 seconds so dreading going into the office late AGAIN to see the smug faces of the [mostly] men who had been sat there since 9am while their lovely wives for the most part did the lion’s share of the childcare [one told me that I had better not claim any special rights because I was a mother as we were all parents…] And I’m not even getting into the office politics. Suffice to say that I was once told that my work was not up to standard because “you say you are tired”! This was when one of my daughters was teething and I had spent the weekend reading 94 essays for work.
Anyway, I left that job. A friend was going through the same thing. She woke up one morning and just couldn’t stop crying. She has moved to Stoke. What kind of barmy world are we living in that expects so much from women and yet still manages to criticise them for every last thing they do [or don’t do]? It would be good to end on a positive note, to say that I have found nirvana working outside London, but sadly I have not. Yet. I’m stitching together a patchwork of jobs: to balance the juggling act as a mother, I juggle jobs too! But there are more different options out there now and maybe one day the kind of jobs that recognise women’s skills – not only their experience in the workplace but the substantial skills they have from juggling work and family life – and pay them accordingly will be available on a flexible basis. And hopefully flexibility will mean equal flexibility for employer and employee – I’m afraid I take offers of ‘flexibility’ with a pinch of salt given a host of friends’ and my own experience of flexibility working very much in favour of the employer rather than the employee. At the end of the day what is needed is a full-scale revolution in the way we work, in our expectations of women and our expectations of ourselves.