I have a confession. I never loved staying at home when my children were young. Sleepless nights were followed by the drudge of never ending laundry, steaming and mashing food, breast feeding (painful, it never got easier) interspersed with the occasional joy of giggles and cuddles. Every day seemed to me like ground hog day and there was no appreciation by them for all the hard slog that was done. To the contrary, it all had to be done over and over again.
I realised this pretty early on and once regular sleep ensued I went back to work, albeit part time. The relief of stepping out the door leaving baby responsibilities to someone else so I could attend to adult work was palpable. I cared not a whit that my entire salary was devoted to paying for someone to care for my child. I looked upon it as a fair exchange: I was paying someone to complete tasks I loathed leaving me the opportunity to complete tasks that I enjoyed. My husband supported my decision. I was happier and more fulfilled combining work and motherhood.
This fair exchange continued for a number of years. I had three children, took a few months maternity leave for each and then continued to work part-time firstly as a political adviser and then as a lawyer. I found a niche area in law in which to practice and worked for a firm that was flexible and fair. The children went to crèche for a few days, and then school and I arranged for some home help too.
And then things changed. The balance shifted and the demands of the children became greater. Sound counter-intuitive? Not really when you think about it. As they grew older the children were no longer satisfied with a nanny or their grandmother picking them up from school and spending the rest of the afternoon with them. They wanted a parent to decompress with and not at a time convenient to me. If something important happened at school they wanted to discuss it immediately.
They wanted a parent who was switched on to their needs instantly. I was coming home tired, wanting a hot shower, some dinner, a quick chat with them and then some me time. Long, involved discussions about friendship groups, kids behaving badly and how to handle it or helping with homework were not tasks or conversations I wanted delve into at the end of a day in court or a protracted negotiation. By the time I had recovered (probably on the weekend) and was prepared to assist with an English essay or ready for a conversation about annoying peers, the opportunity had passed, the work was already done and the discussion had moved on.
My children were turning into young adults with complex emotions and I was missing out. The juggle of work and home responsibilities was not one I was comfortable with any longer. So after considerable reflection I quit. I didn't know what I was going to do next in my working capacity but a stressful career in the law (even a part time one) was no longer fitting the bill.
I spoke to many people about what to do next. I was unemployed for two weeks. And they were two weeks filled with relief of leaving behind my stressful job combined with uncertainty veering on panic as to what I would do next. My identity was wrapped up in my working life and not knowing what lay ahead was challenging and disconcerting.
In the end I fell into my subsequent job. A chance interaction with a woman I vaguely knew at gym led me to taking over her job as a program manager at one of my children's schools. I'm not practicing as a lawyer any longer so I'm remunerated at about 25% of what I was used to being paid. I work a similar number of hours but it's generally stress free. I got rid of the home help and now pick up my children from school each day. They now battle each other who can get in first with the details of their day. And I'm switched on, ready to embrace the intricacies of friendships and research projects.
Am I as challenged in my day job? Mostly not. Have I taken a considerable pay cut? Definitely. Am I more content with the balance? Without doubt. I've learnt priorities change as circumstances change. And once my children finish school, no doubt my priorities will change once more. I've retained my practicing certificate although a return to the law seems daunting and not particularly inviting. I also offer my time to organisations whose work I find meaningful. But it's the space I've found for my children that offers me the most meaning of all.