I am returning to work in a little under a month, after having a year of maternity leave. The guilt is very real, very upsetting, and very much being pushed aside.
I want to say this now – this is possibly one of the most raw and vulnerable pieces I’ve ever written. Bear with me through this, as it will be confusing and confronting.
Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was have a family. I had the dream of raising my children, being a stay at home mum, my husband bringing in the dough, owning a house, having little family holidays, all the nice things in life. The perfect little nuclear family, with cooked dinners and baking and play dates and happiness.
As I’ve grown up and become a working adult, I have come to understand how excruciatingly unrealistic that is.
I need to work. Simple as that.
But then why do I feel so guilty?
Yep, going to start with this one. This seems to be the main driver for women returning to work. All you people out there who say the woman should just stay at home, downgrade her expectations for life style, etc etc etc – keep those opinions to your narrow-minded self. There are so many reasons women need to bring in an income, so just don’t even go there.
This is a topic so very guarded by so many people. It is not a comfortable one, as everyone seems to judge your worth based on your income. I, however, couldn’t care less if you knew exactly how much money I earn, how much I spend, how much I save. I couldn’t care less how much you earn, how much you spend, how much you save. Your judgements on me will not change the way I live, and I actually genuinely don’t make judgements on you based on your finances (unless you are being detrimental to your children in order to have more for yourself). So with that in mind, I want to discuss finances.
I want to work to provide financial security for my family, as raising my children on government support is out of the question for me. I understand and appreciate that it is a necessity for so many families out there, but it is not what I want for my own, and I have it within my power to not go down that road. Besides, my husband earns enough to make us ineligible for support, and we won’t lessen his workload just to get it. That seems very backward and unnecessary to me (in our circumstances anyway, yours may be different).
I want to work so that we can one day buy our own home. We don’t want to rent for our whole lives, and we would love to have our own little slice of the world. We want control over the house we live in, and the security that comes with it. We want assets in case something happens. Note I say ‘we’, because this is a joint dream that we are both striving for and working towards.
I want to work so that my children won’t have to go without. I don’t want them to miss out on things when they are at school, and I will work so that my husband and I won’t have to go without in order to provide for them. We are accustomed to our lifestyle, and by me returning to work we are able to happily continue it with little adjustments to include our child.
Yes, my husband works. You bet your butt he does – no way I was going to marry a bludger! And yes, his income is quite good. We could live off it happily, with some lifestyle changes. We are not rich, but we don’t do without. Me bringing in my own income will allow us to be so much better off.
But it’s not all about the money.
I need to work for me. For my own sake.
It came to my attention very starkly after visiting my new school to pick up resources for next year just how much I need to work, for me.
I love being a mum. I truly do. It fulfils part of me so completely, with all those lovely warm fuzzy feelings. I feel right being a mum.
I love our little human so damn much. He is as close to a perfect pre-toddler as anyone could ask for (except for the early wake up time perhaps). He is learning so fast, soaks absolutely everything up to the point where I am now having to watch my actions and words. He surprises and delights me in new ways every day, and watching him grow into a child is a bittersweet experience. He is the absolute light of my life.
I don’t think being a stay at home mum is the right choice for me any more. I’ve done it for a year, and I am being completely honest, open, and vulnerable when I say I haven’t been my happiest self this year. Part of me is fulfilled in a way I didn’t fully realise was possible, but part of me is gaping wide open. And I hate myself for it.
As I said, all I ever wanted to do was be a stay-at-home-mum. No way was I letting someone else raise my babies! I’d live the dream of that life, and by gosh I was going to be so damn happy doing it.
But now the thought of continuing that endless cycle of our daily routine, no end in sight, all these negative emotions peeking their heads around the corner every now and then – it’s crushing. I can’t do it. But so is admitting that. I’m supposed to be so happy, and I am, but I’m also not.
It is breaking my heart to write this, but it’s the truth, and I can see that now. Post-partum depression, lack of sleep, lack of direction, weight gain and loss, anxiety, feeling trapped in routine and trapped in the house, boredom, FOMO – all these things have contributed to a less than stellar year for my mental health. I’m 1000% sure most mums feel these things at times, I can’t be the only one. Kudos to those mums who delight in the baby stage, who soar and glide through the hardest parts of being a new mum. I was not one of those. And I hate myself for it.
Looking back on it now, I don’t think I actually enjoyed the baby stage. Maybe you guessed that with what I just wrote. The older he gets, the more I enjoy being a mum. I’m not sure what it is, but the fact that he is able to interact with me, and that we are both getting good sleep now, those things definitely are helping!
And, you guessed it, I hate myself for it. I hate that I’m not as happy as I assumed I would be. I hate that this isn’t my perfect life. I hate that I need more.
Realising that I wasn’t happy with that dream is as heartbreaking as having a dream shattered for you by someone else, perhaps even more so because I shattered it myself.
But it is also relieving and enlightening. I didn’t realise how much I was spiralling until I went into my new school to pick up resources and meet the staff. I came home so happy, invigorated, and excited. I couldn’t wait to tell my mum and my husband about all the things I did in that hour-long visit, all the things they’d given me, all the plans for next year.
My husband actually stopped me mid-sentence, tears in his eyes, to say he hasn’t seen me that happy in so long. He didn’t even realise it until it happened, and I didn’t realise it until he told me. He knew before I did that I was missing something that being a stay at home mum couldn’t fulfil.
I was happy in a way I hadn’t been all year. Suddenly I had familiarity, direction, objectives, challenges. All these things I’ve had as a mum, sure, but they didn’t make me as happy as having them as a teacher does. If that makes any sense.
I realise now it is because I was fulfilling that non-mum part of me. The part that I’ve been for 28 years before becoming a mum. The part that I’m not ready to banish.
Even with the shattered dream and the relief, there is so much confusion and guilt swirling around in my head.
He’s my baby. How can I leave him? How can I hand him over to someone else and walk away? How can I turn away from his beautiful little face, not responding to his calls and cries?
And for what?
So I can go and be happy somewhere else, without him? So I can work?
The guilt is real, and it is all-consuming. It’s overwhelming, actually gut-wrenching, crying-at-night, anxiety-inducing, depression-setting guilt at the thought of returning to work and putting my baby into daycare. Just writing this is sending my heart into overdrive, my eyes over-bright, my hands shaking.
I know it’s fine. He will be fine, I will be fine. I know the benefits of social interactions, learning, etc that being in daycare will provide for my baby. I know how happy I am at the prospect of working again.
That doesn’t stop the guilt. Nothing stops the guilt.
I was talking about this with my own mum, and she put it so eloquently. I am going into a stage of mourning. I am losing part of my life, and in that loss I am experiencing a kind of grief. Every stage of your life, every new opportunity and closed door, requires you to move on from the past, and in doing so you are losing something. That’s not to say you aren’t also gaining something, but the gain doesn’t squash the grief.
Some days I am perfectly fine, even happy and excited, with the idea of returning to work and putting our baby into daycare. Other days I feel like the worst person in the world, selfish and cruel, like I’m abandoning him. Some days I’m a horrid mix of these both, with a dash of extreme anxiety so powerful I cannot move.
Does the desire to return to work, to have a bit of my old identity back, to do something else with my time, make me a bad mum? I don’t think so. Maybe it does, I don’t know. What I do know is that I need to at least try going back to work. I need to see if it will be as fulfilling as it used to be, or if I will crumble under the stress of it all.
Should I even feel guilty? Can I help it?
I wonder how much of the guilt I felt/am feeling was due to societal pressures. Because even now women are expected to raise their babies. But we’re also expected to work. That contradiction is surely weighing on more hearts and minds than my own. Many many parents don’t even have an option – it’s work or starve, and no actual parent will let her children starve if she can help it. The guilt is surely real for more women and more men than just me.
But I have to push the guilt aside. I have to. Some days I can, some days I can’t, but I have no choice. Time is ever moving forward, and with it comes closer my working start date and the daycare start date. They will come and go, regardless of how guilty and scared I feel.
Can I be the mum I always wanted to be, but also be a working woman with hopes and desires separate from my mum-self?
Can I actually do both? Am I allowed to? Am I able to?
Will the guilt ever subside?