For the past week I have been thinking a lot about children and career and guilt. It all kind of stemmed from taking part in a Channel Mum Twitter party alongside a television programme on Kids v Career. It was a great programme; it didn't draw conclusions about right and wrong but simply discussed some of the issues faced by parents when they have children and have to make choices about their jobs and childcare arrangements. That chat on Twitter was brilliant too and definitely seemed to define for me that "having it all" - and whether women can have it or not - is relative, and different for each and every family.
Honestly I'm not entirely sure that you can ever completely "have it all". Life is about making choices and compromising. Something always has to give somewhere along the line, and having it all seems to be when whatever you've let give is what was the best thing for you. For some people that's returning to work after having a baby to chase their careers, for some it's returning to work in order to keep a roof over their heads and pay the bills, for others it's part time work where they can find a happy medium between work life and home life, others still change career and work from home so that they can have the best of both worlds. For us, it was the somewhat old fashioned approach of my giving up work and my career entirely to focus on raising our children.
Telling people that you don't work... at all... at least not in the conventional "earning money doing a job" sense of the the word, is often met with suspicion, or pity, or admiration. While a generation or so ago it would have largely been expected, now it seems to be far more unusual. "What, so you don't do anything?" ... yes I just sit around at home all day, pop out to the shops, paint my nails. Because that's exactly what parenting is like, right?
Parenting is a tough gig. It's long hours, relentless and often totally thankless work. It means putting yourself at the very bottom of the to-do list; underneath everyone else's needs and requirements. An average day for me entails umpteen trips in the car taking my children to school, preschool, clubs and commitments; countless nappy changes and even more nursing sessions; organising nap times and housework around our other appointments; negotiating with tiny overtired terrorists at bath and bedtime. It means wrestling children into clothes and out of the door, only to realise on the school that in the rush I didn't remember to brush my own hair this morning, or even worse, my teeth!
Don't get me wrong I wouldn't change a second of it. And I feel very lucky. But it is neither easy, or hard. In fact I'd argue its not compatible with any other job... because it is your life in a way that no other job ever could be.
Before we had children, I was a teacher. A job I loved, a job I trained hard to get, a job I worked hard for, a job I was really very good at. But a job that I happily gave up and don't feel compelled to return to five years later. I'll gloss over all the political stuff that makes me wonder if I'll ever return to it, and simply say that I didn't want to put 30 other people's children ahead of my own. Because I know what it takes to be a really ace teacher, and once I had a little boy of my own to look after, I simply wasn't willing to give what it takes anymore. I knew the the price I'd have to pay in terms of his childhood and my motherhood too, and they weren't things I was willing to give up. I also wasn't willing to be half the teacher I knew I was capable of being. Being both a teacher and a mummy felt to me like I would compromising too much on my ideals for both.
But that decision to give up work and commit to being a full time mummy wasn't an easy one. Compromises had to be made. And lots of things have had to give because of it.
Disposable income was one of the first things to give, and was a thing we gave up for a long time. My husband could afford to cover our bills and living costs on his earnings but luxuries like holidays and lots of new clothes and fancy gadgets went out the window. For years we bought each other neither Christmas or birthday presents, focusing instead on things we needed, like new sofas.
Over the years our finances have gradually allowed for a little more fun, but that's because my being at home and dealing with all the childcare has allowed Rich to focus fully on his career and push himself to progress and climb. He works damned hard. It can be really hard on us all. I know he'd like to spend far more time home with the kids than he does. Heaven knows there are times I wish he could be here more, and I know that the children wish he could be. But I focus on my job so that he can focus on his. He just wouldn't have been able to commit to his job the way he has if I also worked, and his role and pay would more than likely reflect that.
He worries a lot, I know, about shouldering the burden of responsibility for keeping a roof over our heads by himself. I help, yes. Blogging brings in money, but nothing like what my teaching salary would have, even if I'd only worked part time. And I worry that he worries. We are lucky and are relatively comfortable. But we think carefully about big expenses and we aren't flash with cash.
Our living situation is another thing that's had to give. We really do not have enough room where we are, and we haven't for a long time. But my lack of earnings and us living in one of the more expensive areas in the country means that we've had to stay in a too small home far longer than we would have liked. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and hopefully we will finally be moving this year. But when we moved in here we'd planned to have one child here before moving; having five of us here, plus two cats was not the plan. I try to remind myself that the children have never known any different, that they love sharing a bedroom, and that they want for nothing... because all those things are true. But it doesn't stop me wishing that we could provide them with a little more space to call home. The kind of space that their friends with two working parents have... because keeping up with the Joneses is a real thing.
Of course my own career had to give. Don't get me wrong, it's a choice I made and still believe in wholeheartedly. I am happiest at home being a mother. Far happier than the classroom ever made me, and I loved being in the classroom so much while I was doing it, so that says a lot. But I do worry; about wasting my skills, my talents and my training; about how I'll ever return to it if I wanted to when so much has changed since I left. I worry a lot about the example I'm setting my children by not "working". I hope that they'll see that I did it for them, but maybe they'll think I was lazy. Maybe it will impact on them and they'll not be as ambitious and driven as if I was also chasing a career like their dad is. I would like to hope that they'll do whatever makes them happy, but would I be setting a better example by working as well as being their mum, even if that made me feel like I was doing two part time jobs averagely, instead of my one job to the best of my ability.
I do sometimes feel like I forfeit a big piece of my independence in giving up work. For a time I felt a bit like I lost a big part of my intellectual identity when I stopped being a teacher, but blogging has kind of filled that space. Blogging has allowed me to continue to learn and push myself so that I don't end up brain dead. But I definitely don't feel independent anymore. In fact at times my dependence on Rich to provide really irks me. I feel like I always have to ask to spend money, not because he's ever implied I can't, but because it doesn't feel like it's mine to spend. I will buy things for the children, because they are his children too... but for me, it feels awkward, and I always feel so grateful because I don't feel I've earned it. I guess I have, by being free childcare for his children. I'm the live in childcare that allows him to go to work early and leave late and take overnight trips as and when needed. But I don't feel like I do all of that for him, I do that because I love my children and because they are my job.
I guess what I'm trying to say with this post is that any choice entails compromise. To have it all something has to give.
I do feel like I have it all. I feel like a lot of people probably look at our family and think we have it all. We are lucky. And we do have what we want, but I'm not sure you could ever say that we have it all. We have it all in our own way, but it hasn't been without its price. A price I'd pay again tomorrow, but a price all the same.