Time for yourself and the second shift

Women at work, beyond the 9 to 5: The untold realities of working mothers’ lives.

Sarah* is a mother of 3 kids aged 9, 10, and 16, who lives with the father of her two younger kids (who she calls her lover). We spoke about the work she has to do to keep the house flowing when she’s not there, how she makes space for herself and what she wishes people knew about being a working mother.

Pre-COVID, Sarah was working part time (9am – 3pm, 5 days a week), but then,

“I noticed my work had gone up during COVID but I wasn’t being compensated. I wrote to my boss that I was working way past 3pm and I’d like to go full time, and they just said, ‘ok’. (I expected there to be a push back).”

So now she’s full time, doing the work-family juggle like so many mums.

What ‘time for yourself’ looks like when you have 3 kids and a full-time job

What do you do that’s just for you, outside of parenting and work?

“Oh, you’re funny… There’s not a lot.”

Sarah’s partner is good at carving time out for himself to do things like long bike rides, and encourages her to do the same, but she finds it hard to make it happen. This is a pretty common dynamic, with research showing male coded activities take more time and are generally out of the house (think 18 holes of golf) while female coded hobbies fit in the home and around the edges of parenting (think painting, or doing yoga).

“I do need a push. Not because I don’t need some quiet time – because I really, really do – but probably because by the time I’ve done all the things, I don’t have the energy or desire to get dressed and go out. I just can’t imagine going for a four-hour activity on the weekend.”

A daily early morning walk with a friend to solve all the world’s problems and plan how they will support each other is a lifeline for Sarah – but it happens before anyone else in the house is even awake. And she loves her city garden.

“My walk is a game changer, I come back and I can exhale. I’m a bit of a plant freak, and I love pottering in the garden. I talk to them like they’re human! It’s a great way to reconnect with nature.”

Like many women, if Sarah wants to go away, she feels the additional strain of prepping everything for her absence.

“If I go for a weekend away, I will (unrequested) write a list of where the kids need to be and what they need with them. He doesn’t ask me to do that, but I know if I didn’t, he would go the easy route and probably say, let’s not go to sport today. I want them to have the option to at least go to sport.”

“But then, I could totally [do activities that take me out of the house]. I’ve got full autonomy and support to do it, but it doesn’t naturally come.”

Flexibility, opportunities at work and the challenges of being a working mother

Having children hasn’t affect Sarah’s career progression, but she recognises how lucky she is to not have been held back by child-rearing.

“I’ve never had to come back and fight for part time and work unreasonable hours. I leave at 3pm to pick up my kids, then come home and work and nobody blinks an eye lid. COVID and flexible working has been such a bonus as a working mother. It was an absolute sh!t storm during COVID when the kids were home learning, but the ripple effect for me has been incredibly positive.”

What do you wish people knew about being a working mother?

“Invariably, one of my kids is going through some sort of messy growth, and you’re helping hold space for that.”

After a big morning catching her oldest planning to cheat for an exam, followed by difficult friend dynamics with her middle child, Sarah started her work day.

“I got to work at 8:40, looked at the people around me who don’t have kids and thought, ‘you’ve probably had a lie in today, eaten some breakfast, gone to the gym, walked your dog, turned up to work 40 mins ago, are well into your day, know exactly what you’re doing next and have already knocked off some work’, and I’ve just dodged one bullet with the 16yo, supported the 10yo with some friend stuff…”

“It’s like being a circus performer. A little bit of juggling over here, and then over there I’m going to ride a horse, and then I’ve got to jump through a hoop… I don’t get it right all the time, at all. And then I have to go gently on myself, and say, it’s because you’re a circus performer, you’re going to drop things sometimes.”

“It’s just a constant. The word juggle is accurate, because there are so many things that you’re balancing, and then you feel guilty because you’ve dropped something.”

*Not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the fact that the state of women’s relationships directly affects the state of their lives and careers, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous.

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