As a mother, one of the hardest decisions we are faced with is how to manage motherhood and working. As primary carers for our children, the moment we give birth our workload doubles as we become a full-time parent as well as having to consider our careers and work life.
Many of us are not in a position where one income suffices, yet we are still criticised for returning to work.
I had my daughter via emergency c-section and the next day was sending emails from my hospital bed. Just five days later, I attended a meeting with international media freedom organisations with her asleep in a sling, strapped to my chest. Of course, I was criticised for this- for not staying at home, for not being available to receive uninvited guests, and for not stopping to enjoy my daughter.
The truth was that my work is a part of who I am, as is my daughter and it was important to me to find a way to combine the two from day one. This does not make me less of a mother, rather it allows me to provide for her and her future, as well as to keep my brain active and my sanity intact.
But I had a choice- we could have lived on savings for another year, substituting it with my partner’s income, but I didn’t want to be deprived of my passion- writing, investigating, and discovering. If my daughter can be a part of that- attending meetings with me, inspiring me, and making me laugh when the stress gets too much, then that is the best decision for us.
I knew I wasn’t alone in this attitude- the idea that yes, as mothers we can have it all. It is entirely possible to choose to be mothers and to choose to work and neither of these choices mean we are failing our babies.
Charity from England told me that she went back to work a month after having her daughter and one week after her son. With both, she worked up until the day she gave birth and she intends to do the same now she is pregnant for the third time.
“I think maternity leave is boring. I wasn’t interested in sitting around doing pointless classes, I would rather be at work as you will be tired and hormonal whatever you are doing” she said. “For me, working is better than being sat in a baby cafe. Yes I have cried from tiredness but the thought of being a stay-at-home mum bores me out of my mind.”
For those women that have studied and worked since the age of 17 or 18, the thought of giving it up to stay at home with a child can be a daunting prospect. When work shapes your identity, your personality, and your life, giving it up can have devastating consequences for self esteem and mental health.
Stay-at-home-mums are more prone to depression, both postpartum and chronic, and it is estimated to affect around 25% of all stay-at-home mothers.
Danielle from America said “It’s like cabin fever after a few days, except it is your everyday life.”
Many women end up feeling trapped, scared to go out, resentful of what they are missing out on, and mentally unstimulated by taking care of an infant.
“I went nuts at home- the routine of changing nappies, making bottles, burping, napping annoyed me,” says single mother Daniela from Malta.
‘I have a nice lifestyle and it isn’t cheap, I work hard to maintain it for both of us. My shift patterns are 8am-8pm two days on, two days off and I make a good salary.”
She tells me how she has been criticised for her choices with people saying her child is not a priority and that she only cares about herself. Daniela says confidently that “when I am free, I make sure it is quality time, not just sitting and staring at each other. As long as we feel ok, it’s no one else’s business.”
Another mother, Jori from Albania tells me how other women were the harshest critics of her decision to work and have children.
“I was working from home at 6 weeks, back in the office at 3 months, and at the disposal of my clients needs. I was very productive and managed to breastfeed until she was just over two years old, but I faced so much prejudice from other women.”
At 32, an ‘older mother’ by society’s standards the decision to step away from working can be even more difficult. By this age, many are established in their jobs and are at a crucial point in their careers where it can be harder to take a step back.
Natalia was 36 when she had her daughter. She explains how he had been a very career–oriented woman who travelled and worked a lot, but that her life changed 180 degrees after her daughter was born.
“I became very precious, I think of my daughter first in everything I do but I think that as an older mum my accumulated wisdom was a big benefit.”
She added “in my mind, I have my life before and after motherhood. After pregnancy and two and a half years of sleep deprivation, my body broke down- it was very stressful for my body.”
My own mother was 43 years old when she had me. She had lived in Hong Kong, travelled through America, become a successful teacher, explored Europe in a VW, saw Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Fleetwood Mac live multiple times, dated celebrities, and partied her way through London in the 1970s- then she settled down and had me. She worked throughout my childhood whilst being my primary care-giver and providing for our family on her salary. Was it easy? No. Did she manage? Yes.
And most of all, what I always think about my mother is the vast amount of life experience she was able to impart on me, as well as a strong worth ethic and a hunger for independence.
Danel who has just had her first daughter told me that she felt that the “cut off” age for having a baby was 35 and she felt pressured to catch up. She fell pregnant at 32 and tells me she is happy it happened later rather than sooner as she had the opportunity to work and travel abroad with her husband before settling down.
But criticism is not reserved just for those that choose to go back to work, stay-at-home mothers are on the receiving end of criticism as well.
Emma from the UK explains how people sneered at her when she said that she would quit her job as a lawyer to raise her son until it was time for him to go to school.
“I was made to feel like I was taking the easy way out and being lazy. People commented that my brain and intelligence would suffer, as if staying at home with a child would have a detrimental affect on me”.
“My professional friends barely talk to me anymore- I feel like they think they are above me now and that we would have nothing in common to talk about but this is not the case, I am still the same person!” she adds.
It seems that as women we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Women that choose to wait to have children are pressured and criticised, women that choose to have a career as well as a child are considered bad mothers, and yet those that stay at home are looked down upon.
As far as I am concerned, I believe that however we decide to spend our time is entirely up to us and I do not judge one woman for her life choices. We all do the best we can for our children and if that means going back to work days after giving birth, not going back at all, or waiting until we are in our early 40s to procreate, then so be it.
There is life both during and after motherhood as well as before it, and it is up to each individual woman to define what that life should be and whether she wants to be a mother at all.
The next time someone asks you an uncomfortable question about your life choices, tell them to mind their own business.
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.