This year hasn’t been a vintage year for me work-wise and that’s not something I’ve advertised on social media or elsewhere. Whenever I’ve mentioned it to friends or family, they’ve all said the same thing: ‘you’d never know from the outside.’ So much of real professional success is about how you personally evaluate yourself and how you find your fulfilment rather than the outside perspectives. Often successful people aren’t so open about the missteps and setbacks that are part and parcel of any career. It’s just so much easier to gloss over the disappointments and promote your shinier moments. Here is where I think I’ve gone adrift and why (having a toddler is part of, but not the entire story).
Instinct is a funny concept. While it describes innate biological responses—a dog shaking pond water from wet fur, sea turtles making their bid for watery freedom—it’s also shorthand for a sense of primordial decision making, a one-step hack to always taking the right road and making the correct choice. Eighteen months ago I became a parent, and since then I’ve been told to follow my gut—that supposedly intuitive second brain located just south of your navel—more times than I can count. “What does your gut say about this nursery/ that rash/ which sippy cup to buy?” The problem is I’m not sure I have a gut anymore. It seems to have been replaced by an unending black hole of uncertainty. That inner anchor, barometer and compass has fallen deathly silent and it has made me feel unmoored and lost in way I’ve never experienced in adulthood. The basic maternal instincts, i.e: feed baby when it cries, are all in place. It’s the part which isn’t actually instinctual—the part that relies on my decision making skills, swayed by the time of day, hormonal levels, amount of sleep and random things I’ve read via Google—that have gone up the swanny.
“We don’t publicise the bad news either IRL or online, so it feels like you’re the only one struggling to get back on the tracks. But all of us have knockbacks, rejections, heartbreaks.”
Feeling gutless (and I don’t mean it in the cowardly sense, simply the state of being sans gut) is contagious. It started with the decisions I was making as a mum and it’s spread to decisions I’m making about my career, my holiday plans, which clothes I put on my body in the morning. Feeling disconnected from your ‘sixth sense’ has a profound impact on both the big and small of every day. Should we move house? Should I get some new curtains? Do these shoes go with that dress? A lack of clarity about the micro choices has amplified into a lack of clarity on the big picture choices and instead of moving forward, I feel stuck in a perpetual holding pattern of indecision.
It definitely hasn’t always been like this. Pre-baby I was a woman with a plan almost Stalinesque in scope. I’ve always been driven and aside from the odd wobbles here and there—notably when going freelance, going through a divorce etc—the onward movement to the next goal has been pretty much unassailable, which is probably why this new experience of disconnection has felt so jarring. It’s definitely easy to blame motherhood, that all-encompassing identity shifter, but it’s only one element of it. For sure, the stumbles I’ve made during first-time parenthood haven’t filled me with self-confidence. One of the problems is that you don’t have time to digest and forgive your own misjudgements before there’s another decision on the horizon and every single stage of baby and childhood has its own complex rules of opaquely relative right (attachment?!) and wrong (sleep training?!) which are hard to navigate. It’s not a question of perfectionism, it’s more like turning up to an exam and realizing you haven’t read the set text and it’s in Hebrew. You’re probably not going to make it to a solid C, let alone a shining A*.
“When you work freelance, you don’t go back post-maternity leave to a desk or workload. You go back to the potential of workload. And if you’re off your hustle, that potential is dramatically diminished.”
But the area which I think has been fundamental to the loss of gut-connection has been how I’ve combined work and motherhood and more than anything I think it’s because I had such a fuzzy plan about how it was going to work before I had a baby. I’m the only one amongst my friends to have a child and my mum worked a 9-5 office job, so generally I lacked up-close role models doing a similar career to me. When you work for someone else, in many ways you have a clear structure about how motherhood and work are going to co-exist. Being out of control of many of your choices conversely makes you very clear on which steps to take. If you have to be back in the office after 52 weeks, if you’re only given flexibility for a 4 day week, if you return to your desk with a distinct job role and workload waiting for you, ramping back into things follows a delineated, albeit often extremely compromising path. While there are so many cons to mothering while working a full-time desk job, the ladder is still there to climb, your boss still there to set the deadlines.
“What it has meant for me is paying a huge amount for childcare, creating time and space to work, without actually having any work to do.”
For me the opposite has been the case. I have had the fortune of seemingly limitless options, yet no real map to the best course. The first choice I made was to get back to writing immediately after giving birth. The second was to complete a book three months after birth and publish it another three months later. All, in retrospect, not particularly sensible. After that experience, I decided that 2019 was going to be a quiet year. I felt bruised by my vulnerability and how much pressure I’d put on myself the year before, so I decided I’d keep my head down, only take jobs which paid well and allowed me to spend as much time as possible with my baby at home and basically hide for a bit. The rawness that I felt both professionally and personally was blistering and I knew I needed a break from putting myself ‘out there’. The problem is, it worked. Eight months later I sometimes feel professionally invisible. All the work that I turned down, or didn’t seek out no longer comes my way. And the problem with choosing work for how much it pays rather than how much it fulfils you, or exercises your talents, skills and internal self is that you lose contact with your talents, skills and internal self. When you work freelance, you don’t go back post-maternity leave to a desk or workload. You go back to the potential of workload. And if you’re off your hustle, that potential is dramatically diminished. What it has meant for me is paying a huge amount for childcare, creating time and space to work, without actually having any work to do.
Behind the scenes this year there have been a litany of professional disappointments. I’ve written three interviews for this site which I spent weeks on, pouring my heart and soul into only for the subjects to decide they didn’t want them to run. I’ve always maintained that my interviews are collaborations and I’ve always given full picture and copy approval to my interviewees because they are sharing intensely personal experiences and the very last thing I’d ever want is for anyone to be heartbroken over the way their story was represented. It’s what I hated about traditional journalism–part of the gig always seemed to be to get a line out of an interviewee that they would later regret and lose sleep over. It felt like the opposite of sisterhood: the elevation of my reputation at the expense of (generally) another woman’s. But giving this level of approval has in the end made keeping the interview side of the site running impossible. I’d been so excited to re-inject energy into my site and re-establish a space which I still think is so important. Instead I wasted nearly a month on copy and photography which will never see the light of day. Going forward, I’ve decided for now at least, this site will be focused on my own writing as it’s just not sustainable to create content that isn’t monetised, that I have to pay for childcare to work on and in the end doesn’t even get published.
“It is soul destroying after a 15-year career to feel like you’re back at square one.”
I was also slated to work on a ghostwriting project which fell through—a project which I’d spent my Christmas break with my family working on for no payment. These things happen to everyone and you have to shake it off and move on. Still it was a bit of kick in the stomach. I also wrote a 25k word pitch for a book which was rejected. Since then, I’ve contacted nearly my entire black book of features commissioners and very few of them have been able to give me work. It is soul destroying after a 15-year career to feel like you’re back at square one. One of the recent commissions which came through offered me £75 for 1000 words which is 0.075 per word. I dwell on all of this not because I believe my career is over—running your own business you get used to the rollercoaster of ups and downs and I know it’s just been a bad run—but because I know that from the outside I seem to be just a successful as I ever have been. We don’t publicise the bad news either IRL or online, so it feels like you’re the only one struggling to get back on the tracks. But all of us have knockbacks, rejections, heartbreaks. There’s almost a sense that if you’re honest about a bad run, you’ll put people off of working with you, as if a smell of desperation will gather further propelling you in a downward spiral. But it’s just not true.
The reality of working for yourself is that there are often hard times and we need to be more honest about that. With the flexibility which so many parents crave come challenges and we need to talk more about what that looks like. Re-establishing a freelance career in a competitive industry after a baby is tough. It’s not just the logistics of childcare and work-life balance. It’s rebuilding the rhythm of your work life and the confidence to put yourself out there that is critical. Your workplace hasn’t been ticking by without you, it’s ground to a halt and it take a monumental amount of guts to get it back on track. I wish I had made the low paid, yet personally fulfilling work more of a priority, because while covering the mortgage obviously comes first, the stuff that fires you and your future career trajectory has to be a close second.
I’m currently 35 and supposedly in the meat bit of my life. I’m too young for a midlife crisis, too old for a quarter life version and yet, I’m not sure where I’m going, what I’m meant to be doing or fundamentally who exactly it is I am anymore. And that is a terrifying admission. Motherhood can be incredibly derailing simply because I’m not the same woman I was 18 months ago, but I haven’t had the bandwidth to work out who has emerged. I remember thinking that I would go with the flow after having a baby and let the wind guide my sails. But it was naïve to believe that I might not blow off course. Being the captain of your own ship is fundamental to your sense of confidence and feeling connected to that direction is where you get your sense of esteem from. All parents go through their own bespoke struggle trying to balance the apparently two contradictory forces of infant nurture and professional success. The struggle obviously still often falls more heavily on women. While there is no doubt that the gift of a child is worth all the sweat and tears, sharing our stories of both success and failure when it comes to getting back into work is the only way future first time mothers are going to be equipped with the information which will really make the difference to their choices. Then they won’t need to rely so much on their gut—especially one that’s gone AWOL.
(Written August 2019)