Not Having it All

imagesC5LBIXZ1Recently, my husband came home with the happy news that he has been promoted at work, with an accompanying pay rise. I am genuinely very happy for him and glad to see his undoubted ability rewarded. It’s good for me too, obviously. He has never been anything less than extremely generous and entirely fair.

It made me think, though, about how things have changed for me. I’ve certainly made some poor career choices in my time, but I also feel compelled to have a small foot-stamp about how hard I have found it to be a mother and a professional and to try to justify to myself why I’ve failed at combining the two.

When we met seventeen years ago, I was in my late twenties and was his equal in career terms. We were both educated at a prestigious university and had both gone on to professional roles in our twenties, after elongated periods of study. I was a qualified solicitor working at a City law firm, with all the earning potential that came with that. I was buying my own flat in London, I wore suits and heels to work, I hung out at upmarket wine bars after work, drinking white wine spritzers and eating marinated olives and artisan bread with witty, public school educated colleagues.

I never quite felt I belonged though and hadn’t yet gained the wisdom to know that very many people think that whilst putting up a convincing facade. As a northern, state school educated girl, I was never quite able to shake the feeling that I wasn’t measuring up to the elite. I knew I could not justify the extortionate hourly rate that my work was charged at, even as a junior solicitor, and found billing clients excruciating and intolerable. I had also had time to take a good look around at the women of the private, city centre law firms. There were plenty of bright, thrusting young women trainees. Plenty of youngish, recently qualified female solicitors. And then only a few senior women, only one of whom had children. I already knew that having a family was important to me and so I sought a way out of the commercial world and found myself working as a lawyer in the Civil Service.

A few years down the line, I had my first baby. I was entirely happy to be at home with him for a year’s maternity leave and dreaded going back to work. However, the Civil Service was a great employer to have and it was no difficulty to negotiate a return to a three day a week role. I do recall, though, that on my first day back at work, I got telephoned by the nursery where I had reluctantly placed my son to say that I would have to go and pick him up as he had conjunctivitis. With no family in the area to call upon, I made my excuses to my boss and left. In retrospect, I am astonished that it did not occur to me to ring my husband, who had dutifully gone in to his job every day of my maternity leave and who could have made his excuses more reasonably than I could, but it did not occur to me and I cringe now at the impression I must have given.

Less than a year after going back to work, I became pregnant with my second child and, together, my husband and I made the decision to move out of London. Whilst he applied for jobs around the country, I worked into my pregnancy until we moved to a strange city when I was seven and a half months pregnant.

I think that, had we stayed in London, I would have returned to my well paid, part time Civil Service job. I suppose, having had my daughter, I should then have looked for a job in our new home town, but I was exhausted looking after a toddler and a newborn. Although I can see that it would have been the ‘right’ thing to do, to continue a professional career, it felt completely impossible to me at the time. Having left London, I had no job to go back to and I knew no-one who could help me get my foot on a strange ladder.

Then, when my daughter was seventeen months old, I became pregnant with my third child and that made any vague thoughts about working go completely out of the window. It was all I could do to get through the day with three children under the age of five. If I’m being honest, I really didn’t want to work and no longer felt capable of it. Sure, I felt guilty about not doing so, but not guilty enough that I was going to do anything about it.

But as the children grew up a bit, I felt lost and ashamed at what I perceived to be my lack of status. I didn’t readily tell new people I met what I had done before, as the reaction I got when I did was astonishment that I was content to be a stay at home mother.   I looked jealously at the many grandparents hanging out in the school playground, making working life that bit easier for my friends and felt a complete failure.

When my youngest child started nursery at the age of three, I volunteered at a local advice centre. I got offered some paid work there after a while and so I did that. Then I fell into the job I am still in, working part time for a charity. I couldn’t see a way to work longer or harder with all the other boring, repetitive things that needed to be done. Not just the obvious cooking and washing and driving to activities, but let’s not forget the constant thinking about food, the daily stream of letters and emails from schools, the buying of replacement clothes, uniforms and kits, the planning and organising of birthday parties, the buying of the many birthday presents for other peoples’ birthday parties, the Christmas shopping, the Christmas cards, the homework, the play dates, the dentist appointments, the travelling hundreds of miles to visit distant grandparents.

In many ways, I have a great job which I am fortunate to have. It is interesting and worthwhile and I work directly with the vulnerable in our society. I work school hours and have a good deal of flexibility to manage school assemblies, vomiting bugs, Inset days and all the other difficulties of the working parent. However, I am paid considerably less than I was in the 1990s. I have not had a pay rise, not even inflationary, in the three years I have worked there and I have no prospects for promotion. From earning a similar amount to my husband, I now earn a fraction and it feels unjust. I work hard as a part timer, as do my (predominantly female with children) colleagues.  I don’t even take a lunch break, as I finish at 3pm and have to race against the clock to make it to the school gate on time. My husband, on the other hand, regularly goes for a swim in his lunch hour.

I have found it hard to reconcile myself to a parallel universe I can imagine for myself. What could my life be now, if only I could have been the kind of person who made the effort to go back to work after a second child, who perhaps thought more carefully about the impact of a third child, who did not suffer the catastrophic, disabling lack of confidence after years out of the workplace, who had seized opportunities at the right time, without taking the easy option, who had been happy to consider a nanny?

I see now, too late, that the time to push yourself in your career is probably through your thirties and forties; that the time when children are actually easiest to combine with a career (although it doesn’t feel like it at the time) is when they are young enough to go to nursery and preschool; that once they go to school, things get a whole lot more complicated with childcare after school and in the school holidays – especially if your children are in different schools, with different holidays, as mine currently are: that when they become teenagers, they can need you just as much as they did when they were toddlers.

And yet, if I am expected to work until I am 67, what on earth am I supposed to do with the rest of my working years? My skills are out of date and jobs which I am interested in will not consider part time or job share opportunities (I have tried). I could retrain of course, but the prospect of having to fight for my space, competing with those young enough to be my children, ruffles my feathers.   I could carry on doing what I am doing – working in a worthwhile but undervalued part time job, mopping up the Government’s public sector cuts and volunteering in my spare time.   Or I could come up with a miraculous solution to my first world problem, which hasn’t yet occurred to me. What I will definitely be doing is talking to all my children, boys and girl, about their career choices and their views on how they might achieve a meaningful work/life balance (with my support) for themselves and their future spouses.

My conclusion is that, contrary to the message I was given in my all girls grammar school in the 1980s, I can’t have it all. Some people seem to manage it, and hats off to them, but I’m not one of them. I’m going to try to stop feeling guilty about it and focus on the many positives. I recognise that I am very fortunate to be a co-parent with a financially sound partner, which has allowed me to work part time. I know there are very many women, and men, working full time and still doing everything else as well who would love to be in my position. And most importantly, I’ve had the invaluable opportunity to spend lots of time with my fabulous children, which I wouldn’t have been able to do in my parallel, high achieving fantasy world.




Filed under parenting

25 responses to “Not Having it All

  1. jan

    Having my own experience with parental leave I have enjoyed reading this. Honest and well-written.

  2. louisek2014

    Thank you for reading Jan and for your comment

  3. Great post, and you’re definitely not alone in feeling like you can’t have it all. My son is 21 months old and my career is on the back-burner, even though I always said I wouldn’t let it. I feel bad and frustrated about that on some days, but I’m just not willing to see less of my son to get it back to where it was or beyond that. I honestly think that, for many women, there is no ‘perfect’ solution for this.

    • louisek2014

      Thanks for reading and I agree, I’m not sure there is an answer for many women. I think the difficulty, too, is when a temporary period of ‘back burner’ life rolls into another and another, which I think is what I have done. Enjoy your time with your son!

  4. Last January I went to talk to my husband. I want to go back home in the Philippines and have a career and an income that I cant have here as my degrees equal here is BTEC. We fought and he won. He doesnt want the family to go on separate places. He doesnt know how to live w/o us anymore and stuff. But the marriage is not the same anymore. I am looking for self growth and I cant find it here. Your post just made me nod. Everything in here is so true. I envy people who can balance work and family. #mmwbh

    • louisek2014

      I hope you manage to find some opportunities that enable you to grow in the way you want/need. I do understand how frustrated you must be – good luck.

  5. Interesting read! My girl is nearly 2, I went back go work part time when she was 10 months old. I had the chance for a few jobs I turned down due to work/family issues, and recently have had another opportunity I wanted to take and have had heated discussions at home about, but in the end I have to concede, mainly due to our arrangements. Sometimes I wonder why it’s me that has to make all the sacrifices, all the things I have to miss out on, but on the other side, I am pleased I have had some sort of work/home balance over the last year, but now feel it’s time to do something for me #pocolo

  6. joyandpops

    I’m afraid I don’t have any great pearls of wisdom as I find myself thinking similar thoughts sometimes.
    I’ve had some really good career opportunities but my path has been dictated by my three pregnancies and my husband’s business taking precedent – obviously I don’t blame my pregnancies, I’ve chosen to take this path!
    I have a very good degree and a patchwork style but reasonably impressive CV but I can’t imagine going back into a work/office environment. I did it too many times between babies or leaving to help my husband and then going back. I’m trying to build up a freelance consultancy now, so I can still work with my husband but also fulfil some of my own ambitions.
    You’re right that we are so lucky to be able to work part time/stay at home but sometimes It’s like the choice was never even there. It’s so easy for others looking in to think you could have made better decisions.
    Great post, one I needed to read today.

  7. Thanks for sharing this honest post about attempting to have it all. It’s never easy is it! The only way I held onto my career after having twins was to go back to working full-time when they were only 3 months old. It was my husband who gave up work for a year and that was our compromise! I’m not convinced there are any easy options, I guess we have to make it up as we go along.

  8. What an interesting read. I guess life takes us down different paths, and you choose the best thing for yourself and your family at the time, and you just have to make the most of what you have. I guess many look back and think what if…

    I know I can’t have everything and I can’t have it all. I’ve chosen to focus on my career, but that also means commuting to London, staying out of home most of the day, and the occassional late night. But as long as I think that over the long run it is the right decision, I feel happy about my choice 🙂

    • louisek2014

      Yes I absolutely agree, it’s about being able to be happy with one’s decision – I’m pleased to hear you are happy with your choice

  9. This is such an interesting, thought-provoking read and so honest as well. I have to say that I think that there will always be one side that suffers in their career more than the other. I still get annoyed that Grace’s father was able to work without worrying about searching for child care and able to do whatever he wanted whilst I was the single parent. But I also look at the benefit of the fact that I was able to get closer to my daughter. Thank you for linking to PoCoLo 🙂 x

  10. What a greatly written and bravely honest post hunny. I think you will find you are not the only one that feels this way at all. It’s a fine line trying to push that career and being home with your kids. I feel and think all this way too often that I could have been more successful but I choose motherhood. It’s hard I agree. Thank you so much for linking up to Share With Me #sharewithme

  11. This all rings so completely true (except the financially sound partner :/)
    – at 42, I earn considerably less than I did when I was thirty. Like you I am working part time, but also like you I do really enjoy my job with a Housing Association and I am massively grateful that I am able to work flexibly and pick the kids up from school three days a week. I wonder if I should have rushed back to the ‘career’ job when they were small, but to be honest I do not see how I could have held that down in any sensible fashion through the post natal haze. I’ve given up worrying about it and am enjoying the here and now, I figure there will be time enough to spread my wings when they’re older and can’t stand the sight of me!

  12. Such an interesting post to read. I’m a part time working mum too and your description of all the little things we do which pretty much go completely unrecognised by our partners/society/the workplace in general are so many and so varied. I guess I’m lucky to be able to say that I never really made a career for myself so I don’t miss what I never had. It must be so much more difficult to have had that high-flying well paid career and not be able to reconcile it with motherhood. It would be nice to be able to make a suggestion or offer a solution but of course I can’t! I just hope that you find a way back to a more satisfying career as your children get older because you clearly have the qualifications, experience and ability to do so. And thanks so much for linking up to The Truth about… with me this week – you guys are really good writers – I’m going to subscribe right now! 🙂 #thetruthabout

    • louisek2014

      thank you very much for your encouraging comments. I don’t think there is an absolute solution – good luck to you too!

  13. So interesting, and all so true. I still struggle hugely with identity now that I have chosen to stay at home. I worked (all but) full time with my boys, they both started nursery at six months, but I gave up work after I had my daughter, as it coincided with my husband having the opportunity to work in the US, and with me realising that I needed a change anyway. I have written a few times about identity in motherhood, about juggling it all, concluding that it isn’t possibly to have it all, at least not all of the time! And, you’re right that it’s school that completely screws you 🙂 Incidentally, the first day that my oldest was at nursery we got the same call, conjunctivitis. But, I did call my husband and get him to pick him up! I worked in construction, taking maternity leave was enough without going home my first day back… #thetruthabout

    • louisek2014

      how funny about the conjunctivitis! and I can only imagine the difficulty of working in the construction field. I will look out for what you have written Sara and I hope your mum/mom life continues to go well

  14. This was a great read! Although I have stayed home with my child from the start, I often find myself wondering what I’ll do when we have completed our family and our last child starts school. By then I will have been out of the workforce for quite a few years. Sometimes it seems as though going to college was a huge waste of my time and money, although I am grateful for the experience and the knowledge I attained. It’s a tricky thing.

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