A friend asked me if I could write about how it was being a self-employed mother who had to go back to work after 3 months, in a society where the mothers around us are for the most part taking a year's maternity leave.
Friend, like me, is a wedding photographer. And Friend, like me, gave birth in November and had to start shooting weddings again in the Spring when her baby was around four months old. I'd imagine though, that also like me, she started answering work emails and fitting in little bits of admin after only a few weeks. Not because she wanted to but because when your livelihood relies on bookings made 6 months to a year (or two in crazypants situations) advance you're painfully aware that the emails you don’t answer now are the weddings you're not going to be shooting a year down the line, when presumably, you're going to need some dough.
So, four weeks after W&P were born I started working again. Just an hour or two while they were sleeping. Let's back up and look at this situation from afar: four weeks after giving birth to twins, haemorrhaging, having a blood transfusion, spending a week in hospital, coming home with TWO BABIES that I had fuck-all idea how to look after and who spent most of the night awake, who were struggling to breastfeed, who I was struggling to breastfeed, who were complete fucking alien tyrants, I decided to start working again. More specifically, to start communicating with people, people who I wanted to think that we were capable of a) photographing their weddings and b) behaving like normal human beings at their weddings. It was a bad scene. But it was essential, both to our livelihood and actually, to me. I kind of enjoyed having a role other than 'mother' to fulfil. This might be when you ask 'why wasn't Nye answering emails? Aren't you a partnership?' which, yes. Yes we are. But Nye, the dear man, was up all night with the tyrants while I slept a blissful six hours on the sofa. So that I was capable of sustaining our business. The simple fact of the matter is that I don't cope well on interrupted sleep and he's painfully dyslexic. Reversing our roles so that I was up all night and he was writing to clients would have been a total shitstorm, (Quite possibly literally with TWO BABIES and a woman who throws things when she's tired and angry.) At this point I could write an entire essay on our mental schedule during the first year of the girls lives, but I won't because Friend didn't ask what it was like being two people who were trying to keep their babies and their business and each other alive. But that's a good story too.
What did she ask again? Oh yes, self-employed mother, going back to work. Focus.
So at four weeks I went back to answering emails and other administration stuff and Nye continued to look after the babies (after being up all night), patting me on the shoulder to (try to) feed them when they were hungry. I know who had the better deal out of that ride. The truth is, as I said, I enjoyed being back at work. But the truth also is that 'work' was a few hours of emails that I could write in my pyjamas, ten feet from the sofa I slept on and much more importantly that I had an immeasurably amazing partner who looked after the children and allowed me to get enough sleep that I was able to function. In fact I should probably just stop writing here because I have fuck-all idea how anyone does this shit without someone else at home all day. Show me a self-employed mother who is trying to work and look after her new baby while her partner is at work outside the house and I'll show you a fucking superhero. A crazy, tearful, unwashed superhero but a superhero nonetheless. I'm very very aware that our situation is fairly unusual and that I can't really talk for all those women who have just had babies and are still feeling the pressure not to let their businesses die a speedy death from neglect.
Let's assume you survive the first few months of parenthood and you find yourself at the point where you have to actually leave the house, and the baby/babies to shoot a wedding. Holy crap. Before the girls were even born I spent days and weeks fretting over this point, sobbing 'I don't want to leave them, I don't want to go back to work. How are we going to do this?' 'It'll be fine, don't worry' said Nye. Unsaid: 'we don't have any choice, we have to work so suck it up.'
The thing was, we worked as a team, so we both had to leave the house so we had to leave the girls with someone. 'Someone' was our parents, so at least they were being left with people who loved them, but that didn't alleviate the terror that a) the caretakers would forget to feed them/ drop them/ sit on them/ go out for a fag and let the door slam behind them (that none of our parents smoke is probably worth mentioning. This particular fear may have been born of hormone-induced insanity.) or b) I would cry through the whole wedding, aching with longing to be back with my babies.
I contemplated the logistics of combining working with feeding my babies; the babies would just have to come to. Whoever was looking after them would have to bring them to weddings and I would just pop out to feed them (because brides and grooms wouldn't mind that sort of thing at all). And the weddings that we had to travel overnight for? Well my mum would just have to come too and we would all share a family room at the travel lodge and it would be fine. HA!
Let's just consider this a parable in the pointlessness of sobbing over things that have not yet happened. In the event, by the time we shot our first wedding, I had given up on breastfeeding altogether, (it being just too soul-destroying to continue with) which removed that problem. The girls were happy to take bottles so there would be no need for me to pop outside to whip out my floppity milkers during the vows. Secondly, by March, when the girls were four months old, I was really really really ready to spend a day without them. REALLY ready. As we closed the door behind us to head off for our first wedding I did a little skip and a hop, feeling my charpei belly wobble under my work outfit (still Gap maternity trousers, FYI.) 'Are you worried?' asked Nye. 'Nope, are you?' 'No!'. I don't know that I've ever enjoyed photographing a wedding as much as I enjoyed that first one.
I hope I don't need to say this, but the internet is stupid so I'm going to say it anyway; I loved my babies and I loved being a mother but I also loved working and I couldn't and can't see a single reason to feel guilty about that. Maybe if I was leaving my kids alone with a couple of milk bottles tied upside down to the bars of their cot, like hamster water bottles, I'd have felt guilty. But they were being left with a kind, caring, terrified Grandmother, they were going to be fine. We worked all day and when we got home late that night I was absolutely ready to see my little bears, to sniff their milky necks and hold them close. Then go to bed while Nye stayed up all night trying to convince them to sleep. The next morning was tough, I got up at 6am to send Nye to bed for his 6 hours sleep and take over parenting duties and dear god, it hurt. Two weeks later we left for an overnight trip, two nights actually. That was pretty good too. I don't think my mum enjoyed it quite as much, when we got home she looked ready to flee, but everyone survived to tell the tale.
I don't understand the cultural noise that says we're supposed to want to be with our babies and our children all of the time, and I mean ALL. There is an understanding that leaving your baby with someone else, even for a few hours, is somehow not only shirking your parental responsibility but depriving your child and reveals that you are in fact, entirely heartless and unloving. Men don't feel this and I get it; breastfeeding. Breastfed babies have a dependency on their mothers that is important and undeniable, so swanning off on a week's holiday and leaving them with someone else is probably unwise. But even when they're older, when they're no longer breastfeeding we're supposed to want to be with them all the time and personally, I'm calling bullshit. I'm sure there are mothers who do feel that, who genuinely want to be with their offspring 24/7 and who would genuinely ache were they separated for more than an hour. It's just that I don't know any of them and I'm not one of them.
The status quo in the UK is for mothers to take the full year that they're entitled to on maternity leave and at the end of it to either return to their jobs, start a new career or to quit working and continue to be full time parents. I couldn't possibly say how many take which path, seeing as I went out of my way to avoid spending time with other mothers in that first year, but I feel that going back to the job you left is not the prevailing trend, I may be wrong. It seems that the freedom that a paid year of maternity leave offers rarely comes in tandem with the flexibility most mothers are after once their child is a year old.
To be completely honest, I don't feel qualified to provide any comfort at all to mothers who have to go back to work before that year is up and who are unhappy about that fact. I can offer comfort to mothers who are worried about this coming up and say 'hey, it might not be that bad! You might enjoy getting away from your kid for a while, AND THAT'S FINE!' But for the mothers who are actually struggling with leaving their kids at home while they go off to earn the readies; all I have is my sympathies. It sucks to have to do things you don't want to do and I'm sorry that there isn't an easier way.
Weirdly, talking about our parenting situations seems to be taboo, we are quick to be defensive or self-depreciating, to see other people's decisions as either an attack on or a validation of our own. It's only by having these conversation that we can begin to place our own experiences in context. I'd really love to hear other people's experiences of returning to work, or not, after their allotted maternity leave, be that a week or a year, is up.
* DISCLAIMER. Again, because the internet is Stupid, I'd like to say: I have shared my experience, my situation and my feelings. I am in no way suggesting that this is or should be anyone else's experience, situation or feelings. I am neither insinuating that everyone should be glad to go back to work or that those who don't want to leave their infants with a babysitter are in some way lacking and I have huge sympathy with almost any and all alternative experiences. Call my naive, but I do essentially believe that we are all just trying to get by and do our best. By sharing my experience I am not publicly validating it as either healthy or desirable. Just because I felt it was both is in no way to imply that you should. I am well aware that I may be deficient in many ways and that the chances that I am completely fucking up my children are high. In fact just yesterday I referenced a dog training manual in conversation about childrearing and was surprised when people laughed/baulked.*