Grateful in a Broken System

Since returning to work from maternity leave I’ve been taking Fridays off. This generally means that I work pretty intensely from Monday through to Thursday. By the time Friday comes around, I’m ready to switch into a different mode. I’m ready to press pause on the many demands of my work, and focus my attention entirely on my little girls.

On Saturdays and Sundays Andrew and I will be parenting together. We’ll each be able to pop in and out, do some bits and bobs around the house, head out to meet with friends even, all while sharing the parenting between us. But Friday is my day, and after a busy week of work I lean into being nothing but a parent for a day. It wasn’t quite the same when I went from working in a full time job to all at once becoming a full time parent.

One thing that I never really grasped about babies was… just how much they need to be held! Having children for me has never been about having babies. It’s been about having kids, little people with their joys and sorrows, who’ll grow into adults as time goes by. But certainly, while I was pregnant, I dreamt of holding them. I imagined the pure bliss of the cuddles and snuggles and the realness of their little bodies in my arms. I just never realised how excruciating it could sometimes be.

It turns out that babies don’t want to be held in accordance with their parents’ schedules. In fact, sometimes, it seems it’s quite the opposite. I have never truly known the experience of being interrupted, continually, until my bundles of joy were in this world. I have never felt such desire to do the most mundane tasks. Bottles left abandoned, partially washed, would bob in agonising circles in my mind, when my excitement at completing just one task, any task, was dashed once again.

Pasted to the couch with a baby in my arms, thoughts would run through my mind of every other thing I could be doing at that time. I could be reading my book, and I could do that now, but I’ve left it on the other side of the room, just there, and out of reach. The TV remote is only just ever so tantalisingly out of reach of my hand. My phone might just, if I just reach over that way, but no – she makes it clear that I will not get away with moving that way. I’d hear something coming through the letter box and I’d know exactly what it was – something for them, of course, something I’m excited to set up for them. It falls to the ground, where it remains.

I’d see snippets of a whatsapp chat scrolling on my distant phone and catch the gist of the conversation. I’d think of a response which would turn out to be the wittiest thing I’ve ever come up with in my life. But the moment’s passing. Other comments are coming through. It won’t make sense any more by the time I’ve got my phone back in my hand. The moment will have gone.

To anyone looking in it would look the perfect picture of bliss. A happy mother holding her beautiful, healthy newborn. From the inside, it’s incredible what captivity can do to the mind. With arms full and decommissioned, thoughts of every other thing I could possibly be doing would invade me and fill me with urgency. Once released, once finally free to do whatever I should choose, the ridiculous thing is that I could easily have sat right back down in that very spot again.

When I was pregnant I was told, time and time again, “you’ll be busy!”. This didn’t concern me. I like to be busy. In the run up to their arrival, I was running at double speed, polishing and handing over things at work, and getting everything at home ready and organised. There was still plenty of organising to be doing with the girls now here. Yet I was going nowhere. Stuck to the couch, I was stopped in my tracks. It was not the sort of busy I’d been expecting.

I gained some important life skills in that time. I got better at stopping, remembering that what I was in the middle of doing or about to start, could wait. Remembering that I don’t get to choose to have a lovely snuggle in 15 minutes time, that that’s not how life works. Lovely snuggle is happening now, and I’d be fool not to soak it in. That she’ll never again be smaller than she is right now. And how unbelievable her little fingers, just so teeny tiny small, and so to just breath in this moment.

This is what you have to do, I’ve come to realise, when you’re in the role of carer. You need to put your own shit aside, and get right into the moment to be there with the person that you’re caring for. The only trouble with this is that having got yourself into that zone, a passing other, like say, a husband figure, will see your blissful calm and smile sweetly at you, and to himself, as he walks on by to go about his business. “Noooooooooo!!!” you might want to call, as you watch him get away. “I’m happy, but I could use a break!” “A wee would be nice!”. But you can’t raise your voice and your whispers will go unheard.

My urgency, in those moments, did become about little things, like looking at my phone, and sharing a joke with my friends. Larger than that, the change from being productive in a busy and fulfilling job, being self sufficient and in control of my life, my actions and the space I live in, was quite a drastic thing. Having a baby is challenging whatever way you look at it. But it’s when all the caring expectations fall to one person that it can become devastatingly hard. If the load was shared, if each person could have balance, the ability to split their time between caring for the baby and doing other important things, things could be very different.

I reflect a lot on why we don’t see more women speaking out for gender equality in parenting. One theory that I have is that we don’t want to be ungrateful, for what is, after all, the most wonderful gift. Becoming a parent is hard, and should not be taken on lightly. I waited 6 years for my family to start, and have been so incredibly grateful since that day when I finally learned I was going to have children. Having them in the world has been the greatest challenge and the most amazing, life affirming, fantastic thing I could ever imagine.

There is a separation though, between the wonderful thing of having children, and the broken system in which we are supposed to have them. Maybe there is a way that we can better enjoy the wonderful thing for all of its joy. Maybe having a baby doesn’t have to be torturous at all.

I Took Maternity Leave But At Least There Was Lockdown

Our daughters are now nearly 15 months old. They were born right as the UK was going into lockdown for the first time. Some time in mid March 2020, I left the office thinking I’d be going back in the next day. Then the message came through that women who were pregnant should stay at home. And when the girls were born, I started my year of maternity leave.

I was expecting to have this time away from the office and from work. Having two newborn babies, I was expecting that it would be challenging to get out of the house at all for the first three months. Then suddenly everybody in the world had to stay at home too. Concerts were cancelled, restaurants were closed. I wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was anybody else. In the whole world.

Taking the babies home in the uber and seeing how London had changed since lockdown had begun was a memorable experience

I should mention at some point here that I am not the easiest person. Some might say that I’m pedantic, persnickety, fastidious. I would probably quibble over the accuracy of those descriptions. I am a bit particular, and for that reason among others, when we’ve talked about having children, we’ve often imagined that Andrew, my other half, would take on more of the parenting responsibility.

Not so when it came to parental leave. I would take maternity leave, because that’s what women do. Andrew took the time that he could to be with us in the first few weeks, particularly as I was likely to be recovering from a c-section. After that he would return to work and I would take leave to care for the babies for the first year of their lives. It wasn’t up for discussion. I could get a maternity package, he could not. It was a done deal.

Introducing the babies to friends over zoom

I wasn’t complaining. A year away from work, being so privileged to be able to take a year away, seemed a great once in a life time opportunity. I expected it would be challenging. Work means a lot to me, a lot of my self esteem is wrapped up in my professional productivity, so I planned a bit around that and had a bit of charity work lined up. I tried to prepare myself a bit for the abrupt change that was about to turn my life inside out.

I understood that it was important to take some time to bond with the babies. And if I wanted to breastfeed, which I did, it would be important to be off work to do that too, at least at the beginning. I was aware of the professional impact that maternity leave can have. Stepping out for a year in your mid thirties is not the best way to climb the corporate ladder. What I hadn’t understood was what happens in that time at home.

Let me say that I loved my time away, falling deeply in love with my two little girls, and learning more things, both practical and profound, than I can ever remember learning in any single year before. I was keenly aware that while others struggled to stay in their homes, I lived in a perfect terraced house with it’s own small yard. While others were lonely and at a loss for things to do, I had my two new favourite people with me all of the time and I was busier than ever. I have counted myself very fortunate indeed.

Two sleeping babies was always cause for a smile

It helped, of course, that Andrew was never far away. Once he wrapped up his few weeks off, he was back to work but working from home. So he was with me and the babies right up until 9 and immediately from 5:30. And during the day between he could join us, give me a break when I needed one. Some people talk about this as a silver lining of the lockdown but I think it is much, much more than that. Him being more present than he otherwise would has helped to shape the foundations of our family dynamics.

While he was in the house, I was still the one caring for the babies throughout the day every day. Through this invested time I got to know my girls. What I hadn’t understood before, though, was how I would also get to know how to run the house around their care. I wore a watch at all times, and would refer to the time constantly, referring to their last feed, sleep and nappy change. I would know when it was crucial for clean bottles to be ready for an upcoming feed. I would constantly be thinking about where the various bits of kit were, to be ready for when needed next. And I got to know the girls’ sounds and signals, to be ready to respond. (This description omits mention of the daily mistakes that were made – you may assume that there were many of those too).

Even though he was in the house, it wasn’t possible for Andrew to learn everything at the same pace that I did. Not to mention that things would change so often, so that once he did learn something it would soon become outdated. Even I would struggle to listen to my droning voice as I gave him frequent updates on the changing nuances of their care. Blended with the constant chatter aimed at the girls, he would have been superhuman to keep track of the regular reports.

As I went back to work three months ago, Andrew dropped his hours to a three day working week, to spend two days caring for his daughters. In the run up to that we had what can only be considered a handover. I told him he had to wear a watch. And we spent a lot of time talking about laundry. After the first couple of training in days, he was absolutely exhausted.

When women are by default the ones taking leave to care for their babies, the work that they end up gaining the responsibility for is the work of domestic duty and the running of the home as well as for the care of the children. There is no reason for this work to belong to women rather than men. But once it does, and once that becomes the dynamic in the home, it is incredibly hard to change.

If men and women had equal parental leave, then this wouldn’t happen. And if it wasn’t possible for both parents to take leave together, wouldn’t it at least be wonderful to have some options? To have some discussion about who would be best suited to do what in the family and to plan the time accordingly?

Andrew and his two girls

Now I find I’m thinking a lot about two things. One is if I was returning to work without Andrew changing his work week and taking on more caring responsibilities, how would I ever be able to shift the balance? Now, finally, I understand how difficult it is for many mothers to return to work and balance all of that responsibility that they carry at home. Even though there is no good reason that it’s them that are the ones to carry it.

The second thing is how much worse would it have been if Andrew had not been working from home over that time. If he had been leaving the house at 7am and returning at 7 in the evening, like I know many front line workers have been even throughout the pandemic. In other words, if he had been absent through the girls’ entire waking day. I find it unimaginable and yet this is the norm that thousands of women have experienced for decades.

Now offices are starting to reopen and people are planning to start going back in for at least part of the working week. Meanwhile babies will continue to be born. I’m a bit frightened.