The return to work is a huge fork in the road for a mother. When to return and for how many days, perhaps whether to return at all. For me the decision was rather different as there was no job to return to after the birth of Felix. My career in art was impaled by an unexpected arrow in the same week as discovering my pregnancy, bringing my professional life to a distressing halt. Post birth I found myself on an indefinite maternity leave, leaving me free to absorb the asteroid impact that is new motherhood. I quickly learned two things; firstly that no job, apart except from perhaps rebuilding the pyramids with your bare hands, is as relentless and exhausting as being a new mum, and secondly that after a while you start to crave a return to work. The professional part of your brain, the one that has gone walkabout while you cope with night feeds, colic and god knows what else, suddenly pipes up. 'Hey, remember me? I'm your work brain. You might have forgotten me but I've not forgotten you. One of these day, sunshine, we're gonna have to have a chat'. As you stumble from sore nipples to shitty nappies it grins at you inanely, a distant reminder of who you once were. And then all of a sudden months have passed and for many it is abruptly, shockingly, time to go back to work.
Motherhood is transformative; it takes a woman and changes her permanently and in ways that may be unexpected. From what I have seen it generally makes people better; softer, kinder, more resilient, less selfish, which is all well when it comes to baby but perhaps not so good when it comes time to return to the hard edged world of work. I have seen stoical and determined women brought to their knees by the process of settling their baby into nursery, unprepared for the crying and the heartache and the guilt. Is this OK, should I be doing this, is this the right thing for me/my family/my baby? All questions to keep even the most resolute mother awake at night. Happily the babies in question have settled in beautifully to their new routines in time, but it has brought up a lot of questions in my own mind about childcare. We are very lucky in that my mother and doting grandmother of Felix lives a stones throw away, providing endless hours of grandmotherly care from day one. This however does not negate the wish in me to return to work, to immerse myself in the cloistered, idiosyncratic world of art. Not to mention the urgent need to get some extra income into our cash strapped household. Early on I had a kind of false start, an opportunity so perfect it was like a wish being granted. In the event in turned out to be more of a soap bubble, an iridescent mirage that burst as soon as soon as I grasped it, leaving me with a sticky residue and not much else.
And then an offer came along that made me question exactly what I value and forced me into a decision. A very fine gallery that I had been temping for had an opening, was I interested? My heart leapt with joy but as the proposition was outlined a blot smudged my ardour. The role was full time, five days a week, no weekend days in lieu possible. The gallery is a dream, centrally but discretely located, well established and successful, the kind of place I would love to work. But how could I even consider accepting, what would happen to Felix? Full time nursery was out of the question financially and my dear mother was already hard pressed to manage two full days while worked part time at a dull showroom. I arranged to go in for an interview, formulating my proposition with fervent hope. A job share, three days a week, flexible working….but in my heart of hearts I already knew. As I left the gallery I was crestfallen, knowing that the job would go to someone who could commit to the role in a way I couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t. I was like a sailboat steaming along on full sail suddenly finding every breath of wind had dropped, and now found myself drifting helplessly on a dead calm sea.
But I had realised something in the process, something beautiful and vital. No job would ever be worth giving up Felix for. A week has only seven days; would I really want to be apart from him for four of those, let alone five? The answer, for me, is no. The soul searching had defined my own thoughts as clearly as the sun striking a sun dial, had made me appreciate my time with him in a way that only sacrifice can. In the week or so between being offered the job and realising I would have to turn it down I realised just how much I value the everyday interaction with Felix. I want to be there on his daily journey, to help him make the tricky leap from walking aided to running free, to teach him the colours of the rainbow and the words for happy and sad and cat and dog. I want to be the hand that steadies his as he learns to draw, tie his shoelace, to eat his own lunch with a spoon. Every day a tiny piece of the mosaic that is his forming personality is forged, and I have realised I care more about the emerging picture than about my career. However much the money would improve our lives and give us means we simply do not have now it was still not a fair trade off. You only have one chance to raise your child and my job, the most important I will ever have, is to be his mother, whatever material sacrifices that may mean in the short term. Any work would have to fit around that, not the other way around. Three days a week maximum or bust.
And so I found myself back at square one, hammering the phone while Felix had his morning nap, sending CV’s and speculative emails aplenty. For a while I was convinced I had turned down the ideal opportunity but I continued nevertheless, as dogged as a gambler ploughing coins into a fruit machine. And then one afternoon a perfect conversation happened and I allowed myself to dream again, buoyed by hope and renewed determination. Weeks passed and nothing materialized but I dug in, biding my time and issuing gentle but persistent reminders. In the meantime I made the most of every day with Felix and strove to appreciate the work I was doing, trying to find within myself the higher qualities of patience, faith and gratitude. Just when I thought the soil was in fact barren, that the seed I had planted had rotted under an overenthusiastic torrent of water, a green shoot burst through the brown mud. A day a week at a wonderful gallery, an opportunity to prove myself and make myself indispensible. I am over the moon and simultaneously cautious, fortified with the knowledge that resilience and tenaciousness have triumphed over despondence. More so than this I am armed with the understanding that the deepest river that flows through my life is motherhood and that I would sacrifice almost anything for my baby. He may only be fourteen months old but already he has changed me for the better, and I couldn’t be happier.