When mothering makes working impossible

Annie Ridout discusses those days when motherhood stands firmly in the way of work. The extra childcare responsibilities, the mental load and the emotions…

(Originally published in 2021)

I want to write about my child, because that is all that matters today. But I can’t, not in detail, because it is not my life to discuss. So instead, I will talk around it. I will talk about the effect, on me, which is that I spent the morning either crying, or on the brink of tears. I made phone calls, wrote emails and tried to get some answers.

They say that you can only be as happy as your least happy child but that doesn’t accurately describe the actual, physical pain that you may feel when your child isn’t ok. Worry steals my appetite and my sleep. There’s a hard rock in place of my stomach that won’t soften, and my throat is blocked.

To distract myself, I decide to work. But first, I have to attempt to change a swimming lesson for one of the kids. I phone the pool and after half an hour of being put on hold continuously, the man decides that it’s too hard to help me change the lesson over to another day, so he puts the phone down on me.

I head to my bank app and cancel the direct debit, feeling mildly gleeful about taking matters into my own hands. Until I remember that I’ve essentially thrown £50 down the loo. And now we have no lesson to go to at all. I wonder why it’s so hard to book a swimming lesson in my area; to learn this potentially life-saving skill.

By the time I’ve made all the calls and emails and cancelled direct debits, that’s my ‘work’ morning over. It’s midday and the childminder is leaving so I take over from her, though my toddler is napping so hopefully I’ll have a few hours to actually do some work. I wonder if I should write some of my novel but decide it’s not the right day for that.

Instead, I write an Instagram post. Alongside my writing, I’m a coach and I have some spaces available for new clients. I work with lots of mothers, and they always mention in their feedback that they find it reassuring working with a coach who has kids, because it means I understand the challenges they face, in terms of balancing work and family life.

As I write about the benefits of coaching, and share some nice feedback from a lovely client, it occurs to me that the hardest part of my job is having to fit it around my kids. And not just that I’m wedging it into a few hours each midweek morning but that some work days are entirely swallowed up by family admin.

I think: mothering is a full-time job. How can I work a full-time job in part-time hours, while also mothering full-time? Those hours spent phoning and emailing and sorting out my kids’ lives are hours I’m not speaking with clients, or writing my novel or pitching to have an article published.

But I need to earn. So I resolve to commit tomorrow morning fully to working. Only, I never know what might come up. And sometimes, just the underlying anxiety that my morning’s work may be interrupted by illness or upset or phone calls is enough to distract me from working. And so another morning passes.

And I feel guilty for not working. But when I work, I feel guilty for that too. I think: am I damaging my children by attempting to balance paid work with motherhood work? Would they be better off if I sacked off the paid work? This thought is short-lived, though, because I live in London and we have bills to pay and both need to contribute, financially.

Once my youngest is at school, I’ll have all those wonderful 9-3 hours. Well, 9.30-2.30. Minus the phone calls and emails and sorting and clearing. But still, more hours than I have now. And I won’t be paying for childcare. So there will be less financial pressure and more working hours in the day. Then I think: why am I paying for childcare now? Maybe I should be a full-time mum and save a few hundred pounds a month. Except it’s not just the money, it’s the time. I like working. It enriches my life.

Children enrich my life too. But in a different way. They fill my days with colour and noise and laughter and tantrums. They teach me patience and impressive negotiation skills. I watch them observing the world through young innocent eyes, and it reminds me to be amazed by the beauty of our planet and its inhabitants.

They teach me about myself, as they are like little mirrors, reflecting back all the best and worst things about me. When one of then shouts “shut up!” I know that they learned this from us. It sounds harsh, and unkind. But when they reach out tenderly to an upset child, I know that this came from us too. Likewise their love of singing, dancing and music.

When I break down their lives, and all that we give them, I feel the guilt dissipate. Fuck, these kids are lucky. They have so much. Safety, love, comfort, creativity, opportunities. I tell them that they can be and do anything they want, and I believe that. Because that’s what my parents told me, and I still think it’s true.

Now, what I want is to work and mother and give enough to both. And to have some time for myself around the edges. To have a haircut, maybe. I love having my hair cut because that’s a time when no one can expect anything else of me. I just sit, silently, and watch strands of wet hair drop to the floor.

I believe that you can have it all but only if you delegate. If you say: I need a certain amount of time to work, I want a certain amount of time with my kids – and in order to achieve both those things, I need time for myself – for rest, play, creativity, friends. Then you have to find someone who can pick up the slack.

And that’s what’s hard: finding that person and either persuading or paying them to do it. Because as women, we’re told that we shouldn’t ask for help; we should just get on with it. Asking for help is ‘nagging’. So pay for it instead. Except often we can’t, because we need the help before we can earn. So it’s back to persuading.

I feel lucky to work as a writer and business owner and coach. These are three things that I really enjoy doing. When I have sufficient time. But today, my thoughts have been consumed by my kids’ needs. And balance. The juggle. The sometimes seemingly impossible task of being good at both work and mumming.

It’s not impossible. But it can feel overwhelming. And that’s why I’ve written this essay, because ordering my thoughts on paper can help me so see my situation for what it is. And that is: busy. It’s all just quite busy. There’s lots to do, always. And so I will continue to do it. To do the best job I can. Or maybe the least bad.

And that starts from now, because the toddler will wake shortly and I’ll get him dressed to do the school run in the rain. We’ll collect the older two and go to Tesco garage to buy dinner, as we do every day, and return home for painting and TV and snacks and then dinner. Tomorrow, I’ll have more time and focus for my work. Hopefully.