Why Being a Working Mother is Like Eating Tapas

Baby and me

Baby and me

How many times have you been told that the modern woman can “have it all”? I’m here to tell you, you can’t. Anyone who says you can is either kidding herself or has a very different definition of “all” than I do. You know what I’m talking about; it’s one of the most common dilemmas for women today: career vs children.

Feminism and the women’s liberation movement have given us so many options that I sometimes feel like it would be easier to go back to being oppressed. At least when women had so few rights, they didn’t have to put unrealistic expectations on themselves. In many cases, they simply accepted that their lot in life was to raise children and look after their husband and household. Sounds gleefully uncomplicated, doesn’t it? (Note: I didn’t say easy.)

I being facetious; I don’t actually want to be a post-war housewife. But I never expected to feel so conflicted about motherhood.

My pregnancy was unplanned and came as quite a shock, even though in the back of my mind I’d always believed I’d eventually find the right time to have children. And in retrospect, it was probably for the best that it happened of its own accord, because there never was a “right time”.

So, despite being unsure I was ready, I took a deep breath and stared into the face of impending motherhood. For the most part, I was excited and looked forward to life with our new family member, but there was a niggle in the back of my mind that I really wished wasn’t there: the one that told me I was “giving up” and turning my back on my career, which I worked hard to develop.

It didn’t help that once I made the announcement, people immediately started to treat me differently. They weren’t rude or unkind, but they became a little condescending, making jokes about how my life was over now. Even other parents chimed in and seemed to relish in telling me how I would never sleep again, how my “glamorous international career” as one friend called it, would have to take a backseat to the new driving force in my life.

At work, instead of talking to me about the projects I was working on, people would head-tilt at me. “Aww, there’s the little mother. Look at that bump! So cute!”

Don’t get me wrong, I liked discussing my baby and my pregnancy. After all, it was a huge deal. I was excited, and scared, and I have always been the sort of person who likes to analyze things by talking them out. But again, that little voice was there, telling me this was who I was now. I was being put out to pasture; I was no longer a racehorse, I was a breeder. Around me, my colleagues were being promoted, or given jobs and projects that might otherwise have been mine, and it stung.

Then the baby was born. Everything changed. I no longer cared about my career, or anything that wasn’t directly related to my baby. I would find myself getting immediately bored whenever the subject changed away from parenting, and I’d have to mentally slap myself so I could stay focused on the conversation. I had become what I previously said I never would: one of those annoying people who have nothing in their life besides their child. And I didn’t care who knew it.

The career woman in me was still there, albeit gagged, stuffed in a box, and buried alive. I heard her muffled cries a few times, but was unsympathetic to her plight; she’d had her day, and was no great loss. I surrounded myself with other mothers, and lived and breathed babies for some fifteen months.

But one has to come out of that baby fog eventually, if only because most women eventually have to return to work. I’d taken as much time off as possible, and when I’m completely honest with myself, I must admit I was getting bored. And so was my daughter. There just wasn’t enough to keep either of us entertained, stuck at home alone together. Even though I arranged outings almost every day, and regularly spent time with other mothers, it wasn’t enough to keep my brain nourished. I started to want to talk about something else again.

When I did return to work, it was to a new position, a low-pressure job that was secure, flexible, and nowhere near as demanding as project work was. No more travel, no more late night teleconferences, no more working until late on Christmas Eve to satisfy demanding customers. And the new job bored me senseless.

Sure, it might have been possible for me to bottle-feed my baby, share the parental responsibilities in a different ratio with my partner, and return to work without missing a beat. But that’s not “having it all”, is it? It’s having little bits of a whole bunch of different stuff. But for me, well let’s put it this way: I never feel like tapas is a real meal, even if I’m full afterwards.

The difference between men and women in this situation is expectation. Men don’t generally expect to be able to spend all day, every day with their children. They expect that someone will take care of their child while they work, because they have always done it that way. Women, however, have to overcome history while the old expectations, desires, and feelings of responsibility fight with the new ones.

In the end, I changed careers completely, and will probably never be that high-flying career woman again. When I miss that life, I think what I would take from my daughter if I returned to it, and I know I’ve found my balance.

Modern motherhood is a table filled with small dishes, but if you think of each delicious bite as part of a whole meal, you might find you get full anyway.

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