Can a working mum be as good at her job after maternity leave?

As soon as I walked into my daughter’s bedroom I knew she was ill. Rosie’s forehead was clammy and her little body listless. Instinct told me she should stay at home, yet in two hours I was due to interview an actress. As a freelance journalist whose reputation depends on reliability, I couldn’t cancel.

So I soothed Rosie’s brow and swiftly deposited her at nursery before her child minders realised she shouldn’t be there. With a knot of anxiety in my stomach, I rushed to the interview – only to realise, with two minutes to spare, that I was at the wrong studio, on the wrong side of town. The actress had to wait 30 minutes for me to arrive. Luckily she is a mother too, so more understanding than most. But as we finally spoke – my distraction so palpable that I pronounced her name wrongly – my mobile vibrated incessantly in my handbag. I didn’t have to look to know it was Rosie’s nursery calling.

Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Later that morning, as I cradled my feverish daughter, I sobbed tears of self-loathing – for being a negligent mother who put her career before her child, yes, but also for failing at my career.

That day flashed through my mind recently when I read about a study showing that more working mothers than ever are trapped in an endless cycle of guilt: feeling they are bad mothers because they work, and bad employees because they have a family. The research found that working mothers spend 25 per cent of their waking hours worrying – five hours a week more than working fathers. “This illustrates the double burden, the pressure to be ‘good’ mothers and ‘good’ workers,” says Shira Offer, the assistant professor who conducted the research at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

It’s considered unfeminist to admit we can’t cope, a betrayal of the modern myth that equates motherhood with invincibility. But the truth is I’m not as good a journalist as I was before I had my children, Rosie, three, and Felix, one. The glittering career I once envisaged for myself is crumbling quicker than my daughter’s bath crayons.

Dr Elle Boag, a social psychologist at Birmingham City University, says that growing pressure on working mothers – both external and internal – contributes to a feeling of intolerable stress. “We want to prove we’re capable of this dual role that’s expected of us, that we may have babies but we can still be the best employee, almost because we have children, not in spite of it. The pressure comes from the media and society, but mostly it comes from ourselves.”

She’s right. Perversely, I am more driven than ever, desperate to show I am not defined by motherhood. But my ability lags behind my ambition. Post-children I am distracted, indecisive and less confident. I am more prone to mistakes and often counter-productively manic in my desire to succeed.

I don’t think I’m alone. Surely no working mother can be as competent in her career as she was pre-children – at least no working mother who still wants to see her children and doesn’t have a house-husband or live-in nanny. On a practical level, we just don’t have the time. Even on the four days of the week when my children are at nursery I spend three hours a day getting them up, washed, dressed and fed. At 6pm I’m fielding editors’ calls while wrestling the children out of grubby clothes and reading bedtime stories. There is no “off” button in my brain that allows me to switch from one role to another.

In a recent interview, Stella McCartney was refreshingly candid about this: “You’re reading the bedtime story and suddenly you remember a call you didn’t make. The idea that you can have no life outside of that one moment doesn’t make sense to me.”

Then there is the crushing exhaustion that comes with motherhood. It’s not just the fractured sleep but the physical energy required that makes me forget even basic tasks.

And my children are inevitably affected; when I’ve done a poor job I’m irritable, when I need to meet a deadline I thrust the iPad in their faces. But the cumulative lack of confidence in both my mothering skills and career is self-perpetuating.

Maybe when my children are older it will feel easier. But I’m not sure. Rosie and Felix may be better able to look after themselves, yes, but they will need picking up from school at 3pm. There will be packed lunches to prepare, homework, school holidays and teen angst to navigate. My friend Nadia has five-year-old twins who have just started school. “My working day is dramatically reduced to five hours now,” she says. “Your career can never be the same after kids. You can’t commit in the same way. Your priorities change, whether you like it or not.”

Nonetheless, there is a widely held belief that motherhood improves our time management. In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran argues that mothers are by nature “superhumanly productive”, adding, “Give a new mother a sleeping child for an hour, and she can achieve 10 times more than a childless person.”

In a recent interview the UK shadow childcare minister (and working mother) Lucy Powell said, “We are not sitting on Facebook or coming in with a hangover. When we are working we are on it – and making the most of every day, because when you are at home with family you have got to be on it every minute as well.”

But such thinking distorts and romanticises the role of motherhood while ignoring the mental chaos brought on by exhaustion. “Whereas men can shut down and compartmentalise their work, relationships and children, women are wired to multitask and find it hard to switch off emotions,” says therapist Marisa Peer. “It is genetic. Our brains are built differently.”

My husband Chris, a financial analyst, copes better than me. Of course he does – his career hasn’t suffered. Because I’m the primary carer he can be at his desk from 7am to 7pm. He goes abroad for business meetings. He’s a brilliant dad, but sometimes I feel resentful. My salary may not be as high as his, but my job was no less hard fought for.

Why don’t working fathers worry in the way mothers do? Elle Boag believes it’s down to social conditioning. “Men are programmed to see their job as provider, so they don’t suffer guilt when they’re not at home. Even as preschoolers children learn that men – like Postman Pat and Fireman Sam – are the workers.”

I am lucky to have the option of quitting work, but I can think of nothing worse. Not one of my graduate friends is a stay-at-home mother. Our careers didn’t happen by accident. They’re too precious to squander.

And given that I have been a mother for three years and a journalist for 13, it’s not surprising that my identity is still as defined by my career as it is by motherhood. Why would I go to great lengths to get a first-class degree and fight my way on to the career ladder, only to give it all up a decade later?

I, like other working mothers of my generation, was set up to fail. The idea that we could “have it all” was a misleading fallacy.

And it’s a recent one. In 1975 only 40 per cent of mothers worked, compared with 67 per cent today. But we are better educated and more ambitious than our mothers’ generation – for most women, going back to work is now the norm and a financially necessary.

Yes, cheaper and better childcare would help. Employers could do more, too, by supporting those buckling under the pressure by offering flexible hours that don’t hinder career development. We also need to shift responsibility on to partners. 

Most importantly, however, we must lower our expectations of ourselves and realise that, whether we like it or not, motherhood will affect our potential at work. We must learn to say no when we feel overwhelmed, and stop beating ourselves up when our efforts fall short of perfection. We must be honest with our employers – and ourselves – about how much time we can devote to work.

We can’t expect to compete with women who don’t have children or perform as well as we did pre-motherhood. It is disingenuous and self-defeating to try. Accepting our limitations is the only way we will keep our careers, our families and our sanity intact.

- The Telegraph, London

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