A few weeks ago I read a blog post called “Just Don’t Think About It” by Katharine Welby Roberts. Katharine is a talented writer and speaker and also mum to a gorgeous wee boy called Elijah. She has been very open about her struggles with her mental health, in particular with depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue. She also happens to be the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Because of my own experiences of depression and anxiety, I have read fairly widely on these topics. Much of that reading has been informative, academic even, but it is always the personal accounts of other people’s suffering which impacts me the most. I read Katherine’s article and was very moved, not just by the content of what she wrote, but, more particularly, because I felt I could have written it myself five to ten years ago.
Katharine explains how, despite having a strong interest in returning to work after having her son, her limited energy levels associated with her fragile health means that this is probably unlikely, at least in the near future. She then goes on to discuss how this realisation is affecting her psychologically. Perhaps the saddest sentence in the blog post is; “I feel that I am failing at being a modern woman.” Those words hurtled me back ten years to when my children were about 4, 3 and 1, and I was experiencing those very same emotions. I was struggling with my health, I had no extended family living within 200 miles and my husband’s job took him all over the country, and sometimes further afield. I was very thankful that I was not under financial pressure to return to work because I was frankly permanently exhausted, but still felt a pressure to do more. To BE more. To be juggling. To have a career. To be taking work phone calls and drafting contracts while I was changing nappies. You see, that’s what a truly enlightened woman does. As modern women we are thoroughly drilled in this stuff from an early age. Not directly of course. Nobody sits us down and gives us a lecture with bullet points on the requirements of being a successful woman in the modern age. No, it’s far more subtle than that. But still, the cultural messages ring out loud and clear like never ending sirens. Get a good education and a fulfilling career. Fall in love and get married. Next, have a batch of cute, clever and well behaved kids. Then successfully blend all ingredients together forever. The End. Honestly, what utter crap.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this narrative is the readiness with which so many of us buy into it. We rarely question it. If we find ourselves unable or unwilling to pull off all these modern aspirations simultaneously and seamlessly, we think it’s our fault. That we are sadly lacking. I know I did. Instead of daring to ask if the cultural messages might possibly be flawed, I thought it was me who was broken. It took me a long time to wake up to the fact that I had been sold a dangerous lie by the culture. No matter that Katharine and I share a faith tradition which teaches that we are worthy of love and belonging just by being precious human beings and not because of anything we have achieved, I was into middle age before I dared to start living as if this might actually be true.
When I look back on all the agonising I did about work, motherhood and identity, so much of it was unnecessary. Not all of it, to be sure. When I made the decision to leave my corporate job, that was a significant change of direction for me, and, of course, I needed time to process it. I was leaving a position which I had worked hard to achieve, which gave me a good income and provided structure and purpose in my life. Those are not small things and I had to adjust to the change. I needed time to accept that with every choice we make, there are other choices which cannot then be made; other paths that won’t be taken. That is reality.
But I do regret so much of the agonising and here’s why. I realise now that I spent years asking myself the wrong question. I allowed the culture to tell me what question to ask instead of having the courage to frame my own. The question I asked myself back then, over and over, was this: “Who am I if I’m not working?” (Of course, that question is factually wrong for a more basic reason; anyone who has cared for three children under the age of four knows that it takes the concept of work to an insanely hard core level. But I digress.) The question I wish I had asked was; “I know who I am. How do I continue to be me, in this season of my life?” You see, here’s the thing. Despite what the culture was screaming at me, I was the same woman, with the same gifts, abilities and interests, when I was a young mum at home, as I had been when I was working in the legal profession. I just had to figure out how to carry on using those gifts and pursuing those interests in that phase of my life. Lots of women do this by going straight back to their careers. Many of them are my close friends and I cheer them on. For some of them, this is an economic necessity and I acknowledge my privilege in not being in that category. But what I would say to my younger mum self is this. “You are in an exhausting stage of life right now. But you are still you. Keep going. Keep looking for ways to be yourself and to use the talents that God gave you.” The irony was that I was already doing that. I just didn’t sufficiently value what I was doing and the contributions I was making. I have done so many different things in the years that I have been raising my children. I’ve written stuff, I’ve volunteered for stuff, I’ve educated myself on a lot of topics, I’ve been involved in music in various ways and much else besides. None of these endeavours have been paid, but they have all been meaningful. Sometimes the hours that I could give to them were few, because of the demands of my family and the limitations of my health. But that was ok. I was still being me, in whatever way I could.
So to any young (or not so young) new mums out there, wrestling with this stuff, I have four pieces of unsolicited advice for you:
1) Get a copy of the book “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown, and read the chapter on Meaningful Work. (A wee shout out to my dear friend Lindsay, for reminding me to do just that every time I have a wobble with this stuff.)
2) Ask yourself what you really enjoy doing. And start doing it. Today. Even if you only manage 5 minutes. Repeat tomorrow.
3) Ask yourself what you are really quite good at. (This may be the same as your answer to number 2 but not necessarily.) No false modesty. We all have at least one talent in life. Newsflash; your talent is not for you! It is to be shared. Find a way of offering it to the world. Start small if you have to.
4) And finally, and most importantly, stop berating yourself about the decisions you’ve made about work and child rearing. Just STOP. Enjoy your life, however it looks right now. It will all be ok. I promise.