A few weeks ago, I had one of those awful working mum realisations. I discovered that an unavoidable work commitment clashed with my son’s appearance in his first Christmas play.
My son rushed out of school, so excited to tell me he’s playing the sleeping shepherd in ‘The Sleeping Shepherd’. I smiled at his wonderful news while my heart buried itself in my stomach and I struggled not to cry. I knew I had to be in London that day, meeting industry experts from across the UK and my co-workers from France. The meeting had been scheduled for months – it’s when we decide together which four projects we will all be work on throughout 2013. It’s the most important meeting of my year.
I have to remind myself that I am really lucky.
I have a stimulating creative job. And it’s a successful job-share that allows me to work just two days a week (in reality it’s more like three), mostly from home.
My son’s just started school and my daughter goes to a lovely nursery three short days a week. Apart from two week-long commitments in the course of the year, my work fits very flexibly around my children, allowing me to be there for them whenever they need me. Whenever they’re facing big life things like starring in the school play…
So this, this failure of mine, was a shock. I thought I’d made all the right choices to prevent it happening. I hadn’t. Because those perfect choices don’t really exist.
I am a passionate freelancer and a proud carrier of my children’s milestones. I work into the night to meet my work commitments and I wake to soothe my children’s nightmares. I fill each child-free minute with intense concentration, then concentrate on covering my kids in kisses for every minute lost to work.
I consciously try to inhabit all aspects of my life as fully as I can. Yet I still feel guilty for every moment I spend on one at the expense of the other. And sometimes, the compromise just doesn’t work.
Lost, I watched Brene Brown’s amazing TED talk again and it reminded me of the importance of being vulnerable and living honestly. And so I decided to come clean – to bring my personal life plainly into the professional environment. I told my work colleagues my son was in the Christmas play the same day as our big meeting.
And as I said, I’m lucky. They understood the significance, they were sympathetic, they suggested alternative dates. I checked out all the options – whether our meeting room was available, whether every attendee could make an alternative date, how any change would affect travel arrangements. All while feeling sick for inconveniencing everyone, for bothering them with extra questions they don’t have time for, for apparently putting my role as mother ahead of my professional life. Like that implied I didn’t value my work, or them. When I do.
There wasn’t another date that worked. And my son was at school when I realised that, and so this time I didn’t have to fake a smile, and I could cry.
Then my lovely co-worker suggested that maybe she could attend the meeting on behalf of both of us, and I could skype into some of it. I had a choice. After all my misery, surely my answer would be obvious? I could do both! I could see my son in his play, and I could join the meeting for a few hours.
But instead of celebrating a wonderful compromise, I immediately fell into self-doubt.
Now that I could put my mothering first, how did I really feel about stepping back from involvement in such a crucial meeting? About losing direct influence over the work we go on to do?
Have I built enough confidence in myself to relinquish the status that goes along with chairing the biggest meeting of the year?
Much as motherhood has changed me and my choices about how and where I work, so much of my sense of identity is still wrapped up in my career. That intangible sense of being an individual with other things to offer the world alongside being the best mother I can be to my children.
It’s more than just needing to earn money – although that plays a part. My ability to think, to lead, to analyse, to lighten the tone of a difficult meeting – these things define me too.
If I take a public step to choose my family over my work, will my colleagues judge me? Will they think I don’t care, I’m not committed, I can’t do a wholehearted job because I’m a mum? Will they think I contribute less because I have children? Or will they understand that I am more present in the hours I work? Will they respect that I’m making a human choice, a working loving mothers’ compromise?
What defines me? My work? Does my mothering? The opinions of others? Would stepping back now really mean I lose those other qualities and abilities I so value in myself?
In my work as a script editor, characters are always defined by their actions. Not by what they say, or what others say about them, but what they do.
Well, today is the day of the big meeting. My ego is still blustering and fearful, my self-doubts still worrying away at my self-confidence.
Here I sit at home wondering what is happening in London without me.
I am struggling with not having a voice, with not being there for my colleagues. But I am OK with my choice. My choice to define myself. To own the difficulties, the guilt, the awkward compromises. To be fully present in my working mothers’ muddle.
I skyped into the first part of the meeting this morning. I’ll join them again later this afternoon. Before that, I will be there for my son, and I will be there for myself.
I’m going to watch my little shepherd sleep.
Is this a story you recognise? To connect with other mamas facing the struggles of motherhood, come and join our private facebook group: Mamas' Everyday Retreat. It's a safe kind space for mamas to connect and support each other. Expect me-time encouragement, compassionate conversation, gentle motivation, and surprise treats. We hope to see you there.