If you can picture Dick Van Dyke dressed as a chimney sweep, bring to mind his terrible cockney accent and remember the tune of ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ then you can bring to life the words I’ve had floating round my head today. (If you can’t, brace yourself for some slightly random song lyrics from Mary Poppins):
Winds in the east, there’s a mist comin’ in
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.
(Ooooh, can you feel those tingles? Mary Poppins is on her way!!)
The seasons are a’changing. It’s true of national and international politics (about which I will make no comment here), it’s true in our garden, but it’s also true in our little family. Maternity leave has come to an end and the rhythms of our life are shifting. The shape of what’s coming is still unclear, but I feel excited; hopeful. I have been doing a lot of thinking in the past year, and especially the past months (you might have noticed the lack of blogs…), about what I want to do in the future. I thought I might have a roadmap by now, but it hasn’t arrived.
I find myself without a set timetable, or a fixed job (yet), but I have intention. I have thought about what matters most. I have thought about what I don’t want to do. I have found things I want to explore further. I have some strong instincts and I am learning to trust them, rather than needing exact plans. Just a few weeks ago I felt in turmoil over it all, but some convictions are settling.
If the idea of my maternity leave ending has confused you, since I announced in my last blog that I had quit my job, then let me explain. I am not going back to Tearfund or to my old job. But I am not staying in my maternity leave rhythms of full-time childcare. It’s maybe an artificial decision since I am still at home, but for me it is an important one. We decided on 9 months of maternity leave, and so I am moving into a different headspace. Jubilee has begun to settle with the childminder some of the week (very happily), and I have (the extraordinary gift of) some child-free space in the week.
I could tell you that I have mixed feelings about the end of maternity leave, but that’s not really true. I have loved having so much time (in fact, all the time) with our little girl. I am deeply grateful for this country’s maternity policies and the situation of our family that mean I could have nine months with some income whilst staying at home every day with our kids. But I am also really happy to be able to start to work a few days a week outside the home, and share the care of the kids more with Andy and our lovely childminder. I am more alive and fulfilled when I have something else to do in my week away from my children. And I am happier when I come back to them (which they love).
I once had a slightly eccentric colleague who thought that married women shouldn’t work outside of the home because they flood the labour market when there are men out there who need the money more (the implication being that married women can live off their husband’s earnings). I have all kinds of problems with that philosophy, but the main one is this – it assumes that the only reason people work is for money, for economic survival. I think work (both inside and outside of the home) is so, so much more than that. It is a way to find purpose, meaning and fulfilment, it is a way to contribute to the wider culture and society, to serve and to show our love for the world, to express the people that we are. I believe that the work we do raising our kids is all of that, too. Work confers dignity on people – I’ve seen it in many corners of the world. When we believe we have something to offer, and can thereby support ourselves and our families, we feel worth something (and I don’t just mean as a capitalist unit). I know it isn’t always all of that, and I undoubtedly have an idealised and privileged view. But it’s how I feel.
I believe that raising children is an extraordinary privilege. I also think it can be a brilliant life rhythm – when we (as women, at least) are of childbearing age, we also are at a point of life when we have the energy to change the world! (Or at least, we have some energy!) We could get ahead! And get stuff done! And then these tiny people arrive who demand every ounce of our energy. We have to switch gear and focus, and invest so much in the next generation. Having children upsets career paths and slows us down. But painful as that sometimes has felt for me (not that I even have a ‘career path’), I think it can also be a healthy life rhythm, and not just for mothers – if other members of the family also get involved. Andy’s life has certainly taken on a different, slower rhythm since Jesse arrived.
I believe in the work of raising kids, and I also believe it’s ok to want to be doing other things too. I want to go out into the world again and do some work beyond my family. Raising children is definitely the hardest job I have ever had, and I’m grateful that I can share that work with others (mostly Andy), and make some space for something else. If I have the choice, and I do, then there are other ways that I want to contribute to the world at the same time. There’s always a lot of chat about needing to go back to work after maternity leave for financial reasons. Maybe as women we feel we need to apologise for not being with our children full-time. (Did you see that BBC pilot, Motherland? Remember the impossibly perfect super-mum who says to the working mum demurely – “I don’t know how you do it, I just love my children too much”). Probably financial pressures do push a lot of women back into work sooner than they might otherwise choose. But I think returning to work can also be a positive choice, for a woman and for the whole family. It certainly feels that way for me, and (I think) for the other three members of the family.
In my next blog I’ll talk about what I’m actually going to do! And what I’m exploring too…but in the meantime I would love to hear about your experiences of maternity leave ending, or how you think about balancing family and work…