What I wish someone had told me about becoming a working mum

Learning how to be a good mother and good at my job at the same time is one of the hardest transitions I’ve ever had to make. For years, I’ve enjoyed my career. Just before I went on maternity leave, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to switch off and would miss my job while I was away. But in the newborn fuzz after having my daughter, work couldn’t have been further from my mind. I was suddenly entirely consumed with a new job. One with horrible working hours, terrible pay and a thankless boss.

For the next 7 months, I learned how to be a mum. It was a steep learning curve and some days it felt like the handbook might as well have been written in Ancient Greek. But we learned together: me, my husband and my daughter; our little family.

By the time I went back to work, I was ready to engage my brain again but I was still very much finding my feet as a mother. I was excited to step back into being ‘work Sarah’, so I was really positive on my first day back. I felt so free getting the train into London with a proper handbag and smart clothes, even if I did have a muslin and breastpump stashed alongside my laptop. Sadly, I quickly realised I couldn’t just snap back to the same place I was before I left.

For starters, the world had continued without me. The team I left had carried on building the business with my deputy taking on many of my previous duties. There wasn’t a Sarah-shaped hole in the company and working out where I would fit back in without treading on anyone’s toes was a political minefield.

Then, I had to take into account that I just wasn’t the same person as when I left. I was tired, my mind was slower and my memory was non-existent. I hadn’t spent more than 20 minutes focusing on one task in 7 months and I’d barely used a computer other than to stream re-runs of Friends. Not only was I not really needed for my job any more, I wasn’t even that good at it.

Feeling more than a bit deflated, I came home longing for a cuddle with my baby and to feed her. The first day I made it home for bedtime. The second day I watched my train pull out of Paddington station as I ran down the platform. Knowing I wouldn’t make it home, I sat on the concrete and cried.

At the weekend, I’d watch Carys go to Tom instead of me and when I dropped her off at nursery the next week, she happily crawled off without a glance back. She’d always had an independent streak, but from the safety of my watchful eye. Now, she seemed to be breaking that dependent bond, or at least learning to find it in others.

Within a week, I’d gone from a situation where I was totally needed and depended on by another human for their entire life to feeling like no-one needed me. That I was a spare part. Not capable of my job and not capable of being a good mother. I’ve subsequently come to terms with this period, but at the time I was absolutely crushed and felt utterly hopeless.

I struggled for quite a while during this transition, made worse by the fact I had to stop breastfeeding because I couldn’t express enough at work. However, I gradually learned how to balance the two major parts of my life more successfully. More than anything, I learned to accept that I couldn’t give 100% to everything. I set myself a lower bar at work, without trying to go over and above on every task. Maybe I wouldn’t set the world alight, but I’d be reliable and work hard. I watched Carys flourish in a setting with other children, developing skills so much more quickly than at home, and realised that nursery wasn’t just a holding pen, but a nourishing experience in itself.

In other words, I learned to cope with the mental load of balancing work and parenting. Each part of my life has at one time consumed all my attention, so teaching my brain to switch between the two was really challenging. I had to accept a lot of hard truths and be more forgiving with myself than I’d ever been before.

Now, I have two children to manage alongside work and the mental load is even greater. My memory is absolutely shocking and I know I don’t perform as well at work as I used to. But I know deep down I’m still good at what I do. And there’s no better tonic for a tired mind than a little voice squeaking “good morning mama, I love you” from the side of your bed. Even if it is at 5.30am.

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