In a surprising turn of events, Elizabeth Wilhide explains why working throughout her daughter's childhood had an impact she'd never anticipated...
When my daughter was a baby, the two of us were photographed professionally. I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor pretending to be on the phone (this was pre-mobiles, if you can believe it) and she’s lying on her tummy next to me, looking adorable. I’m wearing a pastel tracksuit, not an outfit I’d ever worn before or have ever worn since. I’m knackered, but as the camera often lies, you can’t see that.
The picture was taken to accompany text on working motherhood, in a childcare manual published by a company I worked for – as an in-house editor before I had my daughter (and later my son) and as a freelance writer afterwards.
At this point I had yet to discover the essential fiction of the photograph, and it wasn’t the pastel tracksuit or the (unseen) tiredness. It was how often work-related calls seemed to coincide with toddler meltdowns. (Note to office-based clients: 5 pm is not the best time to touch base with home-working mothers: their kids will be really hungry by then.)
Like most women I knew, I didn’t give up work when I had children. Instead, I swapped roles and juggled.
I told myself I worked because I had to – we needed both incomes to get by. Lucky I did, because sometimes we were down to one income and that income was mine.
But the truth was I worked because I wanted to. It was a part of who I was and I didn’t want to give it up.
It wasn’t perfect: juggling never is. There were times when I was over-stretched. Others, when the timetable went right out the window. But we muddled through, I thought.
Yet all this time I felt guilt. Not for failing to show up at school plays, parents’ evenings, performances or cricket practice – I never missed those. But for a kind of division of attention I could sense in myself. Evidence of this was strewn all over my desk, which was in plain sight in the kitchen bay window.
Recently my daughter told me she was always proud of the fact I worked. But sometimes she was sad, too.
My heart sank. Sad for what? I thought of a hundred things she might be sad about.
Yes, she said, I was sometimes sad you didn’t have an office of your own to work in.
The point is: if I’d kept my office job, I’d have felt guilty about that all these years too.
You do the best you can. #BREAKFREE.
Elizabeth’s new novel, If I Could Tell You, is published Feb 4th By Fig Tree at Penguin.