I love you so much, now be quiet so I can work.
By Helen O'Connor for The Big Share
I love my baby so much. I have never, and will never, love anyone the way I love her. Unless we have another one, of course. Although I can’t imagine how I could possibly love the next one as much as I love Lucia. But apparently, you do. I love her fat thighs and her funny little teeth and her ferocious, bone-shattering screams when I accidentally give her the wrong spoon for her Weetbix. I love it all.
I also love my job. I’m a freelance writer, with a handful of amazing and very understanding clients. I love being creative, although it’s not always easy when the house is filthy and there’s nothing for Lucia’s dinner and I’m running on two hours sleep because Lu is teething or having nightmares or singing Wiggles songs at the top of her lungs from 10pm ‘til 4am. I love having an income, even when it’s a bit sporadic, and feeling proud of the words that flow out of my fingers. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, worked hard to reach a place where I feel confident in what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. My work means a lot to me – but now that Lucia is here, I’m struggling to make it all fit.
Before having my daughter, I had no idea how hard it would be to balance being a mum and being a bad-ass businesswoman. I imagined myself dropping her off – smiling, both of us – at day-care, before whipping out my laptop for an uninterrupted day of flawless creativity. Not that it was like that before having Lu. Not even close. There were ups and downs (lots and lots of downs) and countless moments when I considered packing it all in. After wanting a baby for as long as I could remember, it took me 14 months to get pregnant. 14 months of anxiety and exhaustion and fears for a Lu-less future. Sometimes, work had to take a backseat. Sometimes, work was the thing that kept me sane. The area had been grey long before she arrived.
When I eventually saw the glorious double-lines on a pregnancy test, I thought I might pass out with happiness. Finally, I had some clarity: a timeline, a goal, an end-date. I knew how much I needed to earn to get the government maternity pay, and I planned on smashing it out in the first six months to relieve a bit of the pressure. Then, five weeks in, it hit me. The all-consuming, bed-confining, can’t-eat-can’t-sleep-can’t-look-at-a-screen-or-move-a-single-muscle sickness. Work was out, curling up the fetal position with an uneaten box of nuggets while waiting for the good lord to take me was in. Clients were let down (again) and my career heaved itself down the worryingly familiar toilet bowl.
Thankfully, after about four months, it passed. I dusted off my laptop, reached out to the few very patient clients who were kindly waiting for me, and worked my ever-expanding ass off. Two weeks before my due date the maternity pay threshold was reached, and I could finally relax and enjoy the thought of my upcoming baby-leave. I’d done it.
From the moment Lucia was born, people began asking me about work. ‘Are you getting lots of writing done?’ they’d smile, as she gnawed at my crusted nipples for the thousandth time while I tried not to weep into my very cold coffee. ‘It must be lovely being a writer,’ they’d say, ‘able to dip in and out of work while she sleeps. You must be so inspired.’
Um, sorry? More often than not, I was struggling to remember my own middle name, let alone take on an urgent deadline for a non-existent client while my brand-new baby absolutely did not sleep. I tried to swallow my rage and focus on the fact that I was doing the right thing for me – spending all my time with my beautiful girl who I’d dreamt of, desperately, for years. Six months in, when the government money ran out, I had to entertain the idea of ‘dipping in and out’ again. I nervously emailed a long-standing client and very, very slowly crept back into the world of work.
Today, Lucia is 20 months old. She’s at day-care four part-days a week, and I’m doing my best to manage my new multi-faceted life. While work has always had its grey areas, since having her those areas have become a bit more complex. Now that she’s here, we need more money. We have a mortgage, which means we have a home to live in – which is something I will never, ever take for granted – but it also means we have a huge chunk of money going out every week, no matter what. We have a fast-growing toddler who needs to be clothed, fed, entertained and kept warm and safe. We have day-care to pay for, even on the days when she’s not there (which is so many days, thank you winter). I have worn-out body parts to rehab, a post-baby body to clothe (although I do still spend an embarrassing amount of time in my maternity trackpants) and endless appointments with a pelvic floor physio. We have lives to live and needs to be met. So, we need money. My husband’s salary isn’t enough to cover everything, which is where I come in. While I’d love to be a serious earner, able to provide for my family no matter what life throws at us, the reality is that I’m not. I’m the primary caregiver, the flexible worker and the one who puts our daughter’s dinner on the table each night (which she then throws on the floor, but I’m trying). My role, at this time in our lives, is to top up the financial tank and take care of our precious little family.
While this allows me some freedom – I’m not the one who has to leave the house at 7.30 every morning and carry the burden of the main financial stress, although sometimes that feels preferable – it also means that I’m stretched in many different directions. Mentally, it takes a toll. On any given day, my mind is filled with a thousand little conflicts. Do I want to focus on building my career, to be the best and most successful writer I can be, or do I put it on the backburner and focus on raising a beautiful human? Can I do both? Am I a bad person for wanting a baby so viscerally, to then put her in the care of other people? Can I find time to write that best-selling book I’ve always dreamed of, or is it more important to soak the shit-stains out of her sleepsuit in time for her next nap? Is she happy at day-care? Could I give her enough stimulation at home? Should I be better at crafts? Are other mums making their own organic playdough? What the fuck even is organic playdough? I’ll Google it … no, I don’t have time. Could we survive on one income? Would I be happy enough without work? Why is my hair still falling out? Is it ok that she only eats chicken sausages? Do my clients think I’m flaky? Why do we keep getting gastro? Do I have time to meet this deadline, go to the supermarket, change our sheets and do some form of exercise? Oh wait, day-care’s calling, they think she has an ear infection. Shit.
None of this is new. No thought I have is ground-breaking. Parents have been struggling with these decisions for as long as they’ve been having babies and trying to make money. I’m not special, I’m just muddling through the age-old problem of work vs family and all the guilt, resentment and fear that comes with it. And in the midst of it all, we’re trying for another one: staring down the barrel of unfunded IVF which means – you guessed it – more money (and more sickness, more clients to let down and more gaping holes in my career trajectory). The treadmill keeps on cranking.
Is this a piece about money? Kind of. Money underpins so much of our lives, whether we want it to or not. But it’s also a piece about conflicts. About attempting to fill your own cup while keeping the family’s cup from crashing to the chicken sausage-covered floor. About the sacrifices we make – in our careers, our bodies, our freedoms – and the decisions that shape us. It’s about feeling pride in yourself, whatever that looks like to you. For me, work makes me proud. Doing a good job makes me proud. Having a clean-ish house makes me proud. Having enough money to give my daughter a great life makes me proud. Having a happy child makes me feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. I may never figure it all out, in fact I definitely won’t. But I won’t stop trying, and even though it’s hard, I won’t stop writing. Unless, of course, I’ve just given birth.
Written by Helen O’Connor.