Before having a child, I joined into conversations about how working mums are so much more productive than anybody else. How having a fixed end to the day really focusses the mind. How much easier it is to prioritise when you’ve got important priorities out of the office. How you’ll be a better manager, as you can’t micro-manage, you have to delegate for the times you’re away.
I bought into it. I read articles about it. I came back into the workplace with all guns blazing, ready to pick straight up where I left off.
An exhausting 10 months later, I call bullshit on my former self.
It starts with just the maths of it. And I love starting with the maths of it. I work 4 days a week. Each of these days is at least an hour shorter than my pre-pregnancy, energetic days. Unless I was pretty slovenly back then, I can’t just concentrate a bit harder and chat a bit less to make up a day and a half each and every week. I might be more productive if you use the proper definition (output divided by time, or money – I’m paid a day less), but I cannot possibly actually produce more.
Focussing on the important things means that little things get dropped. A lot of these are fine; but the little things matter. That extra 10 minutes to chat to somebody that you later rely on for a favour. Or, more importantly, might have become an actual friend if you spent a bit more time at the tea point with them, or made it to team drinks. Before the little man, if I’d really needed a hug during the day, I could have found one. Now I have to wait until I get home: it’s a better hug, but the wait is hard.
Maybe my team appreciates the extra autonomy some days. I’m sure they can’t help but resent it on others. On balance it might work out in all our favour; but on balance means highs and lows that are higher and lower than before.
So what does this mean? If I’m not as useful as before should I not work? Should my employer not accommodate my demands to make my job fit around my life?
No. Not even for a second.
Life will always get in the way of work. It’s probably that work gets in the way of life…but either way round, it’s important for everybody that we allow people to have lives that are complicated, messy, lively and lovely. The stress involved in stopping this is excruciating, and the talent loss is immeasurable. Particularly as a civil servant, we need a workforce that represents the population that it serves. This population is diverse and interesting and unpredictable at times, and our workforce needs to be too.
So why even mention it? If a manager suggested this in a performance review, I would go apoplectic. If my husband tells me to relax or my mum says I might be less ambitious now, I can recite my feminist monologue without thinking. I don’t for a second think my experience applies to every working parent, and I don’t think that my experience will always apply to me.
I think this is a letter to my former self. I need to apologise to her that I’m slowing down. I need to tell her that it’s ok. That I mind. I mind enough to swap Netflix for emails some evenings; but I don’t mind enough to give up Friday mornings in my pyjamas with a chubby, cuddly boy on my knee. She still lives in my head, this former self, and some days her frustration itches the inner lining of my skull. I need to tell her to chill the fuck out on those days and just leave me be.
I need to remind her that she used to be kind to distracted colleagues, and ask her to be kind to me. I need her to forgive me for the fact that this isn’t how we’d planned it. And I need to forgive her for being so naive.