Work, bitch (or why Sheryl Sandberg can suck it)

So this was going to be a post about how we’ve reached the end of our shared parental leave, and the changes that are afoot now Darien’s back at work. Darien’s employer had other ideas, however, and decided to make his entire department redundant about a month before he was due to return; this has actually ended up being a good thing, as the publication is being outsourced to freelancers (including D, who is now doing the bits of his job he actually liked and not the rest). So now this is a post about how we are navigating the joys and jubilations of being a two-freelancer household.

Work is not a sudden new arrival in either of our lives; it’s been encroaching for the past few weeks and months in various guises and to various extents. In fact – owing to a combination of an interviewee getting back to me about a week later than expected and our daughter’s arrival six days ahead of schedule – I ended up completing and submitting a feature from the hospital bed the day after she was born. Despite the almost total lack of sleep I’d had in the preceding 30-odd hours, that went OK in a kind of needs-must, adrenaline-fuelled way (but don’t ask me too much about the content of the piece; I remember as little about it now as I do about the birth itself, which you really do forget as completely as they say).

That accidental exception aside, we’ve both been sliding back into contact with our workplaces since Christmas, and that’s had its various challenges. Challenges like:

THE PRACTICAL STUFF
Nobody can know this before they try it, and as usual #ymmv, but I think 6 months might be more or less entirely the wrong point in time to try to return to work. In many ways, I think it’s easier to work around a relatively static, mostly docile, largely asleep newborn than it is to work around a very active six-month old who keeps trying to throw herself off the sofa or tangle herself up in the standard lamp cable if you take your eyes off her for an instant.

When Darien was still on parental leave and both of us were in the house, it was relatively easy for one of us to hand Scarlett to the other and get our heads down for an hour or so. Now that there are weeks when he’s back in the office, getting more than 20 uninterrupted minutes in a row is a real challenge. It’s also recently become harder to work (even one-handed) on a mobile device; previously Scarlett showed little interest in my iPad, now she wants to play with it and/or eat it every time I pick it up.

We’re still finding our feet, but planning is key if you want to have two people earning money in a household with a baby – not only planning your own work (which, juggling multiple clients, projects and deadlines, I’ve always done) but planning how to fit it around your partner’s in fairly minute detail. “I’ll write this funding application tomorrow morning” is no longer the plan; “I’ll hand her to Darien at 10am after breakfast and a nappy change and once they’ve gone to the shops or park I have one hour to get 800 words written. No Facebook, no cups of tea, no episodes of The Good Wife – gogogo!” is the plan.

THE EMOTIONAL STUFF
Although I largely work from home, sometimes my job requires me to attend meetings in venues away from home (including some in places that I thoroughly disrecommend trying to get to from N4 even if you don’t have a young child to hurry back to). There’s simply no two ways about this – if I head off out of of the house on a client meeting, I feel guilty. Guilty, and a little sad for myself because I would in all honesty rather be cuddled up to my daughter at home. If I work from home, I feel double-guilty: that I’m not paying my daughter enough attention if I stick my head in a speadsheet, and that I’m not doing the best job I can for my clients if I play with my baby. Guilt, it seems, is the natural condition of the working parent.

As someone who has worked with children and young people for over a decade, I’m well aware of the importance of consistency in routine and communication. Scarlett’s maybe a little young for anything approaching discipline, but I’ve already caught myself making my being busy up to her by allowing her to do things I normally try to encourage her not to (pulling my hair is the big one at the moment). This is something I have to sort out with myself; there must be a way to shower my daughter with affection when I come back in the door without letting her do things she shouldn’t. There must be a way to balance work and family life, the way millions of parents have before me. I just haven’t worked it out yet.

THE SOCIOPOLITICAL STUFF
So, yeah, it would be great to take five years off and just be a mother, the way my mum did and her mum before her. In the 21st century, however, few of us have that option so I just suck it up; but as I suck I mutter darkly between my teeth about anyone who has ever encouraged another person to lean in. Leaning in is for sucking suckers who have bought into the myths of the capitalist patriarchy, and I say this in the full knowledge that I am one of those suckers right now.

Do I feel like I’m letting the sisterhood down by not demanding my right to a stellar career, all the while juggling bibs and Pampers? Nope, not at all. I grew up in the 1980s, when women were encouraged to “have it all” (which looked a lot like working two entire full-time jobs for less than one salary) and I think we’ve become as collectively disillusioned with that idea as we have with big hair, shoulder pads and denationalised industry. Now I think the choice of what to have is important, but I don’t want it all. I want just the right amount. The achievement of this is a work in progress.

THE JUST PLAIN BEING TIRED
Yeah, trying to file coherent copy when you’ve been up all night with a teething baby is no walk in the park (especially when you’d rather be actually walking in the park, see above). Balancing a career and parenthood is a pain in the brain. This very post is two weeks later than it was meant to be, partly because I had paid work taking priority, and partly because I’ve just been zonked. This is probably not news to millions of working parents across the world, who frankly don’t get the props they deserve for being awake in the daytime, let alone productive.

There may be parents reading this who feel none of the above applies to them. Career and work are yet another two of those highly individual, highly context-dependent issues that allow for a vast array of experience. And it’s not all bad: work, as well as being a source of income, also provides opportunity for social and intellectual stimulation and allows each of us an identity outside of parenthood. But I also know from private conversations that there’s still a lot of quietness on this issue – especially from those returning to work and fearing the consequences of not playing by their pre-family professional rules. It’s something I’m still working out for myself, and we’ll have plenty more to work through in the coming months.

Send your comments and suggestions on the back of a P60 (or in the comments below).

 

7 thoughts on “Work, bitch (or why Sheryl Sandberg can suck it)

  1. Good luck. One advantage of six months over older ages is that they haven’t hit separation anxiety yet! The toughest thing I found, doing a 9-5 type job part-time, was having to work after a bad night though – even once they are sleeping through, you still get the odd bad night when they are teething, under the weather, or just deciding to wake up for the hell of it.

    I think it is also difficult to work without using childcare of some description as they get older. As well as the increased mobility (which you can handle a bit through careful childproofing and gating) and desire for attention, they also gradually drop their naps. Of course, they also get to the age where you can stick them in front of a television or tablet, but you don’t necessarily want to do that day in day out. I certainly can’t imagine getting any work requiring focus done with our three year old around. And making important phone calls is something I would still be wary about attempting with my five year old around!

    • Thanks for this. I have a feeling this may never become truly easy; the next few weeks will be a bit of a trial (as in an experiment) of how we figure out how to fit two work schedules together. An additional challenge is that one of us has clients somewhat more predictable than the other’s…watch this space!

      • By the way, top tips for when you get to the more mobile stage – remember that you can put a play pen around yourself instead of round the baby (we had the computer gated off for quite a long while in the living room in our old house, also stair gates can go on doors as well as stairs) and that some leisure centres have both crèches and cafes if you need an hour or two of ad hoc childcare without the commitment of regular childcare. I know a freelance journalist here who has managed to keep her work going without using a nursery (although she is about to start her younger one at preschool now he qualifies for his free hours) so is possible!

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