Blending not balancing
“I’ll keep in touch whilst I’m off,” I said. “When they’re in school I’ll be back full time.” I said. And now, as I sit at the kitchen table with the washing machine whirring in the background, I eat my words. 3pm will come quickly today and somehow, I still can’t see how to keep up. I studied for a long time to do my job and have 20 years of experience to share. “I know stuff.” I say out loud. But does anyone want to listen if I can only tell you the ‘stuff I know’ between 10am and 2pm, 2-3 days a week, not in school holidays and not if either of them is ill. “Not much use,” I mutter before unloading the washer.
I’m a bit tired if I’m honest. I’ve done years of nurseries, child minders and after school clubs to make it work. The dregs of my salary, after I’d paid for the privilege, hardly seemed worth it either. But the truth is that I want to raise my children myself. I just do. Yet it got to a point that I couldn’t see how to, not if I want to work – really work. For a while my split existence meant that I couldn’t excel at either work or home and for one reason and another last year, I decided to resign and get some balance back. Excelling is important isn’t it? We all need to feel positive recognition for our efforts. Now though, at the end of my year at home and the see saw having tipped firmly back into my homelife, the prospect of returning to work now causes me considerable disquiet. My boobs and my confidence have both sagged; hell, I’m not even sure if my suit will zip up.
8 Years ago, a kindly midwife ascribed to me the god-awful term ‘Elderly Prima Gravida’. Simply, it means I had my babies late. It also means I’d had time to scale a few rungs of the career ladder before our two little blonde dots came along. But it also means that now I’m closer to the end of my working life than I am to the beginning. The job I do next feels like it has to be really grown up. Proper. Bright young things are chasing my tail and I need to stay contemporary, on the pulse, in the game. But this is only half the story.
Having children late also means that your parents become grandparents late. Sadly, too late for me it seems. I know so many women my age who are worried about their ageing loved ones, driving countless miles to see them, presenting non-compliant children for viewing, baking meals for their freezer and all whilst tapping an email to the office and stuffing a PE kit into a bag. Our parents inevitably decline; for some it’s a shock and for others a relief but whatever it is, it is without question, one more worry that has weathered this elderly prima gravida who is trying to win at life.
This piece isn’t meant to be melancholy though. To coin a common phrase, ‘it is what it is’. This is what countless women before me have done and the important part is what we do next. My parents have gone, my children (though I dread the day) will leave me too and I will look in the mirror and see my aged self staring back.
It seems to me that women are constantly recalibrating, adapting, changing gear and accommodating. It’s our bodies cultivating new life or our minds adjusting to a life without. It’s our cycles beginning, our cycles ending, our appearance enhancing or our fashion experimenting. It’s our resolve not to accept misogyny, a drive to be accepted in leadership or simply the determination to power through another inconvenient hot flush. I’ve had the good-fortune to have worked alongside some truly inspirational 50 something women and now realise that they did what they did whilst also feeling totally hormonally unhinged for a decade.
More recently, my daughter has been reading books for young girls that tell stories of strong women in history. Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, Anne Frank. I wish I’d had access to this information when I was her age. Looking back, the women I knew were housewives, vicars’ wives, nurses or teachers. All worthy roles and highly important but it strikes me that the women who surrounded me were, more often than not, people who were ‘helpers’, ‘supportive’ and ‘caring’. I rarely met women who were leaders or game changers. I’m proud of what my generation has achieved in the workplace; we’ve raised debates about the cost of child care, the insufficiency of paternity leave, the inequity of the gender pay gap with organisations now looking at their leadership teams and asking if they have enough women. I value, now more than ever, the joy of having strong men and women around me who appreciate the changes society has made, people who live in the real world like me but who have a grasp on what could still be done. These people are my allies for this next phase of life.
So, buoyed by the knowledge that the inimitable Michelle Obama once took her baby with her to a job interview (true – put her bundle of joy right there on the table with her), I’m filling out applications again. It feels like a leap of faith to re-join a world that has continued to advance whether I am there or I am not. But if there is one thing that surely must be true, my post baby, bereaved, peri-menopausal self has chalked up nearly half a century of experience and it’s clear there is more to come. The workplace is richer if people don’t have to partition off essential parts of themselves; that’s how we connect with others, it’s why people stay and how we grow. I want to find ways to ‘blend’ my work-life existence rather than ‘balance’ it at two ends of an oscillating see-saw. I am choosing to believe that my ever-more convoluted reality is something to be celebrated. Something to carry with me. I am more than an application form, I’m a woman who knows stuff.