A couple months ago I wrote a post about mothers with young children returning to work, citing research that found no disadvantage for children’s academic achievement and behavioural adjustment (except perhaps a small disadvantage when mothers return full time). Now that I am myself a working mother with a young child, I have been reflecting on the complexities of maternal employment and the advantages and disadvantages for mothers and for their children.
Above all I think that it will never be as simple as “children do better when mothers work” or “children do better when mothers stay home”. There are just too many factors at play that make every situation unique. Mothers return to work for different reasons and have differing opportunities for work-life balance.
For me it has been eye-opening to see how much my career forms part of my identity. I mean, it makes sense – I spent 10 years in university working towards my degrees and then spent years working in my field – my career has been the basis of my adult identity. But until this was temporarily removed from my life I didn’t realise how important it was to me.
Returning to work has been a return to myself. I feel happier, mentally healthier, and back to “myself”. For the last year my identity has been subsumed under the role of “mother”. Every minute of every day was spent mothering, or thinking about mothering. And while I absolutely love being a mum, that’s not enough for me. I need to have my own time and interests apart from my son so that I can be myself. The same person I was before who is now also a mother.
These are difficult words to write because I think it is often the opinion that once a woman becomes a mother that is what defines her. That being a mother is and should be the primary facet of her identity. But I think that is still the case for me – becoming a mother has been the greatest joy and accomplishment of my life, and it has forever changed me and how I view myself. It is just not the only aspect of my identity that I place value on. I now know that carving out some space for myself is critical for my own sanity and well-being.
And it means that I can make the most of the time that I do spend with my son and give him the best version of myself. We may not spend every minute together anymore, but every minute we are together I can enjoy and appreciate, rather than feeling overwhelmed and isolated.
It’s different for every woman, as we all define ourselves and find our identity through vastly different aspects of our lives. But I do think for many women these days it is important to maintain an identity apart from our children. The nature of parenting culture is intense and overwhelming and it is so easy to lose yourself in the pursuit of being the “perfect” mother.
For many of us, taking time for ourselves and our own interests (whether via a career or otherwise) is what allows us to be the best mothers we can be.