The purpose of this article is to describe how having a baby felt for me; in my particular working environment with my particular set of beliefs, insecurities and worldviews. It is written in order to nudge employers, managers, colleagues, and ‘the pregnant’ to ask questions, to endeavour to understand what ‘the pregnant’ feels like, is worried about, is excited about, where their boundaries are and, above all, to know that the answers to any one of these questions may not be the same week on week or even day on day.
Stay curious, stay conscious and don’t make any assumptions about how much or how little they need – ask them.
Let’s start from today – I have a nearly four year old and a 9 month old, and they are awesome. They are funny, kind and clever – well at least the older one is, the youngest is yet to prove himself but we have high hopes. I adore them, and although I would lift a car off them or stand between them and a crash of stampeding rhinos – they are not #myworld. My world is bigger than my children and I need more than just them to be happy.
In fact I would go as far as to say that if they were all that was in my life I suspect I would be pretty unhappy, and I wouldn’t be a very good mother. That is not true of all parents – this may be just me.
In my twenties I knew I wanted kids at some point but I was utterly terrified of when it would happen and how I would bear them without applying the breaks even a touch to my career progression. If I am truly honest with myself, I think I aspired to be someone who didn’t want kids, didn’t feel the need or the draw to have them – I would rather have been unencumbered by the desire to procreate and become a mother. I saw colleagues who had to leave on time to pick up their kids and I never wanted my work to be impacted like that. If you haven’t guessed it yet I was entirely driven by productivity and a constant need to be seen to work longer and harder than everyone else. Likely fuelled by overwhelming imposter syndrome but we’ll leave that for another article.
I wasn’t very understanding of those with family commitments, and by that I mean I assumed they would rather be at work late with me than heading off to spend time with their children. I think this is a myth that many businesses often perpetuate – ‘leaving on time to pick up the kids is a chore’. It rarely crossed my mind that these people might enjoy spending time with their offspring and actually want to wrap-up on time.
And although research says that fathers are picking up more of the slack than previously, and my partner is an incredible 50/50 parent, the reality is still that generally mothers do more of the home and child ‘work’, while also carrying more of the emotional load of the family. And at the same time the employment rate for mothers in 2021 was higher than either women or men without dependent children, and has been since 2017. Mums (and dads) are all over the workplace and yet most organisations haven’t really got their heads around how the two roles (parent and colleague) may exist in harmony.
When I found out that I was pregnant the first time I was working for a great company and my direct boss was a lovely guy whom I had known for many years and who had two kids himself. You would think I was in an environment where I would feel calm about announcing my pregnancy, and it probably was – except that I brought all my own sh*t along for the ride.
I was in a male heavy industry and so I was constantly fighting to be seen and measured against the same masculine attributes I perceived to be valued in others – limited emotions, direct (verging on aggressive) conversations, limitless working hours and endless energy for the work.
When I told my boss that I was pregnant I cried and apologised. I apologised for being pregnant! I felt awful that I was putting more work on him when we were all already so busy. I felt I was asking him to support me, to pay me in my absence, to recruit for my role and to manage all the work that we had planned that I now wouldn’t be around for.
He couldn’t believe that I was apologising and reacted brilliantly by telling me how wonderful it was. And it wasn’t for show – I believe he was genuinely and utterly chuffed for me. But when the voice in your own head is so loud, it’s difficult to hear the voices of others.
I hate the phrase ‘mum guilt’ – this guilty feeling that you aren’t putting your child above your work or personal life. Right through my pregnancy I had ‘work guilt’.
I just want to reiterate that most of the discomfort I felt during my pregnancy was based on well intended actions or assumptions from others, amplified by all of the things going on in my own head.
I remember as I got larger people seemed to have access to my personal life in a way that they hadn’t before. I was in a large organisation and people who I didn’t know well, or had only said ‘hi’ to before, were suddenly asking me about my due date, the baby’s sex, my sleep, my eating habits, my legs and my back. Suddenly everyone felt they had a right to speak to me and ask me about anything and everything regarding this huge shift my body was going through. Some people even felt they had a right to touch my stomach! As I said, these comments, questions and belly rubs were all well intended but what I struggled with was that having built a clear work persona my personal life had crept, grown in – and there was nothing I could do about it.
I was dissolving into someone else and I couldn’t stop it.
I felt myself getting defensive to comments like “oh, are you struggling to sleep?” I would respond clipped and coldly with “no, I sleep fine.” When asked how I was and knowing that the person meant ‘in my pregnancy’ I would shut them down with ‘fine, how are you?’ and ignore their obvious reference. It was cruel of me, but these new boundary breaches were unsettling. My pregnancy made me feel feminine, and having worked so hard to embody more masculine qualities (because that’s what I thought was needed ‘in business’) this femininity made me feel weak.
I wanted to come to work and ignore that I was pregnant, in fact mostly I did. But no one else could. By the time I went on maternity I was exhausted and at 38 weeks pregnant I stayed in a horrible pub overnight to avoid the two hour drive home because my body was aching so much. No one made me go to the office, no one expected that of me, no one but me put me through all of this.
Well, except I did often feel that people were making excuses for me. They pandered to me a little, expected me to be tired, to want to sit down and to want to only talk about the pregnancy. There was a shift in their expectations of me from capable peer to ‘baby brain’ – and that really drove me crazy. I remember once in my second pregnancy I sent an email with a typo in it and a colleague suggested it was ‘just baby brain’. I wanted to explode! The idea that I had only made a mistake because I was pregnant was infuriating, and inferred that he had never made mistakes because he had never been pregnant. I am, and was, human – and humans make mistakes too.
At the same time, and with a cooler head, I could recognise that at times I was struggling with my memory, and have certainly noticed a marked difference in my memory since having my second child. But it’s hard to be open and honest about that when it feels as though people are either excusing you things because they assume you have lost your mind, or using it against you.
Another colleague was also expecting his first child when I was and it was painfully noticeable how little he was spoken to about it, how people hadn’t expected him to be obsessed with the pregnancy or to have taken his eye off the ball. His two weeks paternity was treated as a ‘holiday break from work’ which would happen within a certain window. I both felt sorry for him for the lack of attention at such a life changing time; and was utterly jealous of him that he seemed to have more control over how much of his personal life was shared, and when.
I continued to feel guilty about taking time off and about the cost to the company, of the jobs that went unfinished (by me at least) and the projects that didn’t start. I became paranoid about others drifting into ‘my space’ while I was away. About everyone finding out that I wasn’t very good at my job and seeing me for what I was, ‘a fraud.’ I have spoken to many other women either in the lead up to the birth or during their maternity leave and the biggest fears I hear is that their maternity cover will be better at their job than they were and no one will want them back, that everyone will have realised they ‘weren’t very good anyway’ or that when they go back they won’t be able to keep up.
I felt my work persona was so changed by the time I had my son that I knew I would not return to the same company after my leave. I felt that my bump had blasted through the barriers I had put up, let weakness rush in and cost me the respect of my peers. 4 years on I know none of this to be true, but it was true for me then.
What a mockery this made of my beliefs and values – that everyone should be as much themselves at work as possible – but I was caught up in the swirl of the corporate world and what I thought it needed from me.
I fell in love with my son. Not immediately, I was exhausted from a long birth, but a few days in. And I loved being around him, but I quickly got bored.
Something they don’t tell you in antenatal classes – babies are boring!
I was twitching to have my grey matter challenged, I was itching to work! It was all I had known for so many years, it was my profession, my vocation and my hobby; and someone had just lopped it off and replaced it with this beautiful but largely unentertaining baby.
So I began working with a few charities locally, doing pro bono consultancy or leadership coaching – and taking my son along with me. It was the perfect blend of maternity leave for me.
I got to work, think, converse and have quality time with my son. He attended meetings with me and became very comfortable with cuddles with ‘clients’ – I was lucky because both of my lads were super chilled babies. I know that had my kids been unsettled or screamers my whole experience would have been very different.
When I did return to work my eldest was 10 months and I started a new role in a new company. This was perfect. Although people knew I had a baby they hadn’t witnessed its literal and physically blatant development, therefore they didn’t see me as a ‘mum’ but just as a new person. I didn’t feel changed to them because there was nothing for me to change from. I bleached my hair, had an undercut shaved in and worked hard to be as ‘unmumsy’ as possible. It was like moving to a new school or starting uni, an opportunity to reinvent myself.
I was a Director at work and a Mum at home – and never the twain shall meet. I had reverted to my pregnancy view of the world “don’t see me as a person, see me as a machine – but I of course will see you as a person, support you and ensure your work life balance is respected.”
One rule for one and one rule for the rest.
When he was 16 months Covid hit, I was made redundant, as was my partner, and everything changed. I started my own business and got back to the beautiful blend I had had on maternity. I worked in my home office and then popped downstairs for tea breaks, cuddles and lunch with my family. My son appeared on calls and became a fixture for certain client catch ups. I let people see all of me (apart from my legs of course as everything was on zoom) and I let my life flow. Work into home, home into hobbies, hobbies into work.
Some days I laid in bed with my partner and the baby, reading books and drinking tea until 10am – because that’s what was most important in that moment. Other days I was working on presentations at midnight in the office because that’s what was most important in that moment.
I found my work / life balance when I stopped trying to have a balance but instead acknowledged that I don’t like the severance of me, but I am at my best when I am my whole self and in the flow, everywhere. This is my experience of having a career while having and raising children, and although it’s different for every parent – mother or father – it’s important to find your best self, your whole self, and embrace that; be that at work, at home, in a meeting or even a ball pit. And forgive yourself quickly when you’re not, after all, you’re only human!