The Mental Load as a work-from-home mum who can't work from home
We're born into a society that very early on promotes this view in which we see mothers in charge of the household management while fathers only executing instructions while the media portray men as heroes who go for adventures away from home.
- Adapted from a Guardian Article by Emma Clit
This article got me thinking about how as mums we often try to ‘do-it-all’ which I think the media sold to us as being possible but what they don’t tell you is that it comes at a big mental cost.
My journey as a work-from-home mum began in March last year- my son Leo was 7 months old. It had taken me a good three months to get over the trauma of a difficult birth and struggles with breastfeeding. It was only around about 5 months in that I started feeling a bit like myself again and like I had a *bit* of a handle on this mum gig. I was lucky in that my work as a freelancer for Skype meant I was able to start at 2 days a week and gradually increase my hours as I felt ready. The money was needed but we could just about scrape by without it- but that wasn’t the kind of lifestyle I wanted where we had to watch every penny. It was my decision to return to work and I felt I was ready. I knew I needed something else in my life- I have always enjoyed working on social good projects and I’m lucky my job involves connecting teachers all over the world via Skype- a great cause to help break down barriers in education.
When two worlds collide
However, as much as I cared about my job, the sudden change from being a full-time mum (not that it’s ever a part-time role!) to having to think about something other than what Leo needed/wanted was a shock to the system. But what was a bigger shock was how hard it was being so isolated. I’d basically drop him off to the nursery, come home to work…and, well… be totally ALONE in SILENCE. After the madness of running around getting everything ready and the inevitable last-minute nappy explosions, it left me feeling like the last thing in the world I could do was focus on a spreadsheet or task list. I missed the early days of maternity leave of popping out to coffee mornings with the NCT ladies where it was an accomplishment in itself just to get out of the house and we’d all congratulate each other and share parenting woes and joys. Yet I also felt I couldn’t have *another* conversation about weaning or sleep schedules!
Feeling isolated and alone
I would try to be productive at home, by writing to-do lists and scheduling meetings. My colleagues were very supportive, but they weren’t there in person- I just wanted to have those casual chats you’d have with work colleagues about what was on TV, how I was finding it hard as a new mum, how annoying the traffic light system in Twickenham is… you know the everyday stuff that just enables you to connect and get the fluff and anxiety in your brain under control. I felt like a failure- I’m mean surely I had the ideal set up? I had a home office and flexible hours… the dream? I didn’t have to get on a commuter train. If I or Leo was ill, I knew I could take a break and make up the hours another time in the week. I told myself to snap out of it. Maybe just drink another cup of coffee *then* I’d feel productive. Maybe I would just do a load of two of washing *then* I wouldn’t have to do it later… and maybe it made more sense to get my work done after putting Leo to sleep at about 7pm. I found myself somehow working from 9am to 5pm then again from 8-11pm or later.
I felt like I was never making any progress on my to-do list. No matter how hard I tried, I just always felt I had about another 3 hours of work I needed to do before relenting to tiredness and shutting my laptop and heading to bed. And I wasn’t going to the gym- I was sacrificing my health because I just didn’t have time to exercise.
At this point- around June last year, I started working more from local cafes than home, as I just couldn’t stand being home alone all day, but that also didn’t help with the bank balance or healthy eating intentions! Sometimes I also felt more lonely surrounded by people as I’d see groups of friends meeting up and familys together and feel a bit Billy no-mates.
What I came to realise over the next few months of doing this was that:
(a) I was basically doing 2 jobs- carrying on what I was doing on mat leave *and* working on my Skype job
(b) I needed to ask for more help – if I didn’t ask, no one would know
(c) Taking time away from my laptop actually made me more productive- whether for the gym or a networking meeting, I returned with much more energy and focus.
(d) I needed to set boundaries of working hours and block out me time as well
(e) I really preferred working at least half of the day out of home and needed to get out to be productive- preferably in the morning so I could come home and do work conference calls in the afternoons.
My Action Plan:
I asked my husband to take on more drop off and collections of our son. Honestly, I hated the nursery commute which was often stand-still traffic with a grumpy Leo. It was also so hard to just down tools and stop dead on the time to get Leo.
I reduced Leo’s nursery down by a day and agreed with my parents that they would look after him one day a week- we would drive the 30 minutes to them- to reduce to financial pressure of earning to cover nursery cost
I increased the hours our cleaner was doing from 3 hours every other week to 2.5 hours every week and got her to help with the laundry as well (never feel guilty for having a cleaner- best £25 per week we spend!)
I started regularly attending networking events and local mum meet-ups where I was able to connect with like-minded mums
The Seed of Mumming
As well as making these changes to my own life, it was during this time that the idea for Mumming was born- a co-working club for WFH mums like me who want a few hours of focus time with childcare if needed – working with other mums who get what you’re about. I couldn’t find anything like this available- there were great networking groups and nice co-working spaces, but nothing inbetween- more of an entrepreneurial community with childcare. It’s been my passion project to launch a website, grow the social channels and generally learn how to set up a new business from scratch. It did seem a bit counter-intuitive to take on extra work considering how I was already feeling very stretched, but in creating this co-working club I was actually solving my own problems of feeling disconnected, isolated and unproductive! I thought perhaps other mums might also have the same issues. It’s amazing how much more you get done when you change your environment and how much energy one conversation can give you.
Going back to the Guardian article- I realised what I’ve done which has helped me move forwards is basically reduce my domestic mental load and bring back more balance into my life. But I do think the perfect work/life balance is illusive- it’s a constant tipping game and I’m always making more adjustments as things changes or if it’s busy at work or if Leo is ill or going through a clingy phase. I do think letting things slide a bit sometimes helps your other half realise maybe they need to step in more rather than trying to keep everything running smoothly but letting your own mental health suffer because you never get a moment to pause.
What do you think? Do you talk about these things with your partner if you have one? If you’re not yet a parent, I highly recommend chatting through who will do what if you do plan to have kids so you can plan upfront and ensure both your expectations are aligned and you don’t fall into the trap of the ‘do it all’ mum.