Gillian Harvey: On being a working mum

Read our first column on the trials and tribulations in trying to have it all, by freelance writer, author and mum-of-five Gillian Harvey.

I’ve always worked. In my time, I’ve been a teacher, a barmaid, a shop assistant, a cashier in a building society, a legal secretary and, latterly, a writer and journalist.

But the biggest change in my working life was definitely post-motherhood.

In the world of work, becoming a mum is the ultimate game-changer. And I’m not talking about the setbacks some women face after maternity leave, or the need to work part-time or flexibly. For me, the biggest change postpartum is the way work makes me feel.

Before being a mum, put in a good day’s work and you feel satisfied, and as if you’ve achieved something important. You may decide to slip off your shoes, put your feet up and reward yourself with a glass of vino, a chocolate bar or an indulgent bubble-bath – after all, you’ve earned it!

Once you’ve squeezed out a sprog or two, the aftermath of a hard day’s work is not vino and bubbles, but having to shoulder an ever-growing burden of guilt.

It doesn’t matter how you rationalise it – yes, your work puts food on the table, pays the mortgage, keeps them in shoes. But were you actually there, playing Lego, reading stories or congratulating them for having a life-changing bowel movement? No? Then, no matter what your brain says, you feel as if you’ve failed just a little each time you shut the office door.

I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home in my current role, which takes care of some of the logistical nightmares outside of school hours. But working at home when the kids are at large has its drawbacks – despite my husband’s best efforts, I’m besieged with interruptions. Because, in my kids’ eyes at least, there is no-one better qualified to toast bread or wipe bottoms.

When your kid asks you for help and you have to tell them to go away, believe me, it leaves you feeling wretched.

Worse, I’m guilty of the ultimate motherhood sin. I like work. I enjoy what I do. I like stepping out of the role of mum and stepping into the world of writing. Whether I’m scribbling the text for a brochure, or writing a medical piece on coping with haemorrhoids, I enjoy crafting sentences and seeing an article take shape.  

What kind of mum would want to write about people’s bum problems rather than play with her own children?

Worse, when I exit my office after stealing an hour or two to catch up, I end up apologising. “Sorry I had to work,” I say. All the time, wondering whether I mean it and worrying that if I don’t, what it says about me.

Of course, like most mums, however frustrating things get, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It took rounds of IVF to achieve my family. But I also can’t (and don’t want to) give up my work. In fact, even if I won the lottery I’m pretty sure I’d still want to write (although maybe not about piles).  

So I’m stuck living the perfect life, but pulling behind me the weight of knowing that whether at work or play, I’ll never feel as if I’m getting the balance right.

Gillian Harvey is a writer and mum-of-five. Her debut novel Everything is Fine is out with Orion in May 2020.