Working full time, after 18 years out of the workplace, has been a brilliant but, at times, slightly strange experience.
I know lots of women can find being at home with their children very stressful, whilst others can find it very boring and not challenging enough – but I absolutely loved it. I loved being with my children all day. I was always busy – with the children and with all the other stuff I took on (over the years I studied for two Masters Degrees, supported E through setting up a business, helped out at the kids’ schools, fostered kittens for the RSPCA, worked on the committee for a local Festival, and coordinated several house moves as well as our relocation to Singapore and back) – so I always had plenty to do, but I also relished every moment I had with my children. There was no schedule for me to follow (apart from, in later years, school day times), no rules other than mine, nobody to account to but myself. It was a world of hugs and tears, of nit checks and bath times, of homework and school clubs and it was a world where the children and I were at the absolute centre of each other’s lives. I’ve never been happier.
When the children were little I didn’t join lots of toddler groups or take them to endless activities, I just used to potter around at home with them. We would bake, go for walks or to the park, read, play, make drums with saucepans and wooden spoons, paint and draw or just cuddle up on the sofa watching Cbeebies. I spent many a peaceful hour with a child fast asleep on me, enjoying the warm weight of their bodies on my lap, wondering at the length of the eyelashes resting on their cheeks and twirling their baby hair in my fingers. I did sometimes miss the grown-up-ness of my career, and I occasionally felt very left behind when I saw what old colleagues were doing and how far E was progressing in his job (unfettered by any childcare issues and able to put in what hours he needed whenever he needed to), I also know that my self-confidence was knocked over the years because I felt I was ‘just a Mum’, but I never once resented or regretted the time that my children took. I knew I was very lucky that E earned enough to allow one of us to be at home full time, and whilst I knew my career prospects were slowly fading, I felt only a vague pang of regret at this not a sense of loss.
In later years, when the kids were all at school, and as Cbeebies disappeared from my consciousness, and the toy box was eventually replaced by the Xbox. I began to love the way my home wrapped me in silence from the moment the children left for school until they got home and filled it with their noise and chatter again. I never felt lonely, or felt or oppressed by this silence – I found it comforting and energising. It was my time – my time to study, to try and build up my writing business, to cook, to clean, to plan and to just ‘be’ without the challenge of fitting in with or having to explain myself to anyone. I used to joke that whole weeks went past when I didn’t speak to anyone except E and the kids – but I never thought this was a bad thing, I was very happy in my own company. One of the things that worried me most about working full time – being with other people all day – was the loss of that silence.
If I’m honest, I have found the loss of that personal space a challenge, and there are days when I would give anything for an hour of the uncomplicated quiet I used to enjoy every day, but I have gained so much from the experience of working full time that I think it has been worth it. The job I do now is about as far from my previous work in corporate communications and publishing as it could be. These days I’m ‘just an administrator’ and whilst I miss the responsibility, the challenge, the pressure, and the salary of my previous work, this job was exactly what I needed after everything that had happened with E. The people I work with are lovely – they’re understanding, supportive and just nice people to be with. The office is a 20 minute walk from my home, and the company I work for are ok with me taking time to take the kids to doctors’ appointments or having to take time off if they’re ill, which, given that E lives too far away to help, is perfect. The job is also term-time only, which is perfect, because, until Youngest Son is a bit older, I’m just not comfortable leaving him home alone for the whole of a school holiday even with (actually, especially with) Youngest Daughter and Oldest Son at home to watch him. E’s hours always used to mean he couldn’t help much in school holidays, but now, because of where he’s chosen to live, he’s very much just a weekend Dad. If he lived locally, I would ask him to help with school stuff, or to take a day off himself if one of the kids is ill, but he’s too far away to make that practical. To be fair, the girls don’t want to see him and I don’t think the boys would be comfortable staying with him for any length of time – especially as they haven’t even met P yet (they still don’t want to meet her) – but it does mean that school holidays are 100% my responsibility now.
The first thing I noticed when I started work was the eating. I’m not sure if all offices are like this, but in mine someone is always eating something. There are biscuits downstairs in the kitchen, biscuits and sweets upstairs, there are cakes for every occasion and every now and then we have ‘chip Friday’. As if that wasn’t enough, on special occasions we order in pizza. I’m amazed that everyone who works at my office isn’t chronically obese (on the contrary, in fact they’re all slim and fit). Whilst I love my food I’m not a snacker (although, having been here for over a year now, I have developed something of a habit with the sweets in the corner… it’s a slippery slope). I didn’t even start buying snacks in my weekly shop until Oldest Daughter was about four and her friends started looking slightly crestfallen when they came over and realised that there were no biscuits. When Oldest Daughter started school, I was totally flummoxed by the insistence that she took in a mid-morning snack as well as her packed lunch. She’d never had regular snacks – obviously she’d eat in between meals if she was hungry, but she rarely was – so it wasn’t a part of daily life for me. In the end she caused an ant infestation in Reception Class – I’d dutifully sent her in with a piece of fruit every day, but, because she wasn’t hungry, she’d push it to the back of her tray every day. A few weeks’ later the school followed a trail of ants to Oldest Daughter’s tray full of rotting fruit (after that, they accepted that perhaps she didn’t need a snack after all).
I’m also learning pretty much everything I need to know about the menopause. Weirdly (and only just), I’m one of the younger women in my part of the office. it’s only by a couple of years, but, as the oldest child of two oldest children, I’m usually the oldest of my generation in any family setting, also the only other parents I see regularly these days belong to friends of Youngest Son so I tend to be the oldest there too, so it’s a really, really, nice change to be (slightly) younger than everyone for once. I haven’t hit the menopause yet, but, thanks to my colleagues, I am becoming increasingly aware of what’s coming, and am slightly nervous. Before starting working here, all I knew about the menopause were ‘no periods (yippee!) and ‘hot flushes’ (gah!), but now I’m slightly scared. From one colleague’s description of lying naked on her bed, with a fan blasting, unable to move due to a hot flush, to another’s concerns over memory loss, to yet another’s experience of headaches and low energy, I’m beginning to see that what lies ahead is a scary tangled forest of hormonal changes that will take years to get through and will spit me out the other end feeling slightly frazzled and probably looking ancient (apparently oestrogen is partly responsible for youthful looks – something else I’ve learned). At least I’ll not have periods anymore though (still very much ‘yippee’!).
I’ve also learned that ‘layers are key’ in terms of dressing for work. It’s entirely possible to walk through at least four different climate zones on the way to my desk – I’ll walk from the cool of outside, into the warm of the office, past someone with the windows shut and wrapped in a cardigan because she’s chilly and then past someone else with the windows open and a fan blasting because she’s having a hot flush. Our floor of the office also heats up, sauna-like, as the day progresses, so on summer days it’s entirely possible to start the day wrapped up like Scott of the Antarctic and end it feeling in need of a bikini, a towel to sit on, some birch twigs, and a ladle to chuck water on some hot coals.
But the thing that stands out most about my new job is the support and friendship I’ve been offered. Obviously there are stressful days and obviously nobody is perfect, but working with the people I work with has proved to me what I’ve long suspected – never underestimate the strength of a middle-aged woman. The women I work with are funny, intelligent, occasionally brilliantly sweary and they have offered me a new perspective on my new life as a single Mum. They are also united in thinking E is a total prick – which is very comforting (another thing I have learned is that they would be very honest if they thought otherwise, so it’s nice that people I respect have share my opinion of someone I don’t).
All in all working full-time is great. I’m still trying to build up my freelance writing and editing work (which means that weekends and evenings can get busy, as this is the only time I can fit that in) and it can be tiring doing two jobs on top of having sole responsibility for four children, a house and all the stuff that comes with that. I don’t have E, or any family that can help, nearby, and sometimes the weight of everything I’m carrying can feel overwhelming, but that’s not because of working full time – I think I’d have felt that way anyway. In fact, if anything, the support and friendship I’ve found in my new job has made things easier. I’m still working on building my writing empire, but until that earns me enough to pay the bills, and lets me retreat back to the soothing silence of my home during the day, I’m happy where I am for now.