I feel as though I need a disclaimer to this post. Disclaimer: Prior to my son, I had never in my life spent much time around small children or babies. I didn’tlike children or babies. I had never felt that URGE to procreate, or been broody when seeing a tiny baby. I in fact had thought for the longest time that the ability to even have a child was beyond my body without “help”, after my diagnosis with PCOS at the age of 20. Until 2012, children were a far-off thought; something that I expected may happen (with said help) further down the line, but were not particularly welcome in my present life.
My son was a surprise and a shock and whilst I grew to fiercely want him I still had no idea what to do with him. I spent the first couple of months of his life in a constant cycle of tears, alternately wishing that life was still just me, my other half and the cat, and feeling horrendously guilty for having such thoughts. Even when that phase ended, everything was just so hard. He barely slept. He was incredibly active and would not play alone. He was never quiet or even medium-volumed. He was a High Maintenance Child.
I have worked full time since 2008, after university and a few illnesses. And apart from one job, I have always worked in roles that I adore. The role that I was in when I had my son was no different. Sure, it was a 25 mile drive away, along the M4, meaning that I was often driving (or sitting in traffic) for anything up to 3 hours per day. But I enjoyed my role, I loved the people that I worked with, I threw all of my effort into achieving results, and I felt appreciated and recognised by my colleagues and management.
I missed my job fiercely after the 5th month of maternity leave. I missed using my brain, I missed being in an office. I had a group of good friends all with babies of a similar age, but I didn’t see them every day. I missed adult interaction, the feeling of being successful at something other than distracting my son from his latest bout of frustrated crying, the opportunity to look nice and smart and be made up and professional each day. I could not wait to return to work. There were financial reasons as well – I simply had to return to work for us to be able to live comfortably, such is the cost of rent and general living in the area that we live.
I returned to work on 2nd October 2013. It was brilliant. Due to my accrued holiday and having Tuesdays off due to a lack of childcare, I was in at most 3 days per week until the start of 2014. I did my job, I remembered it all, I threw myself 100% back into the swing and still got one day at home a week to relax and one day with my son.
Where did it all go wrong? The main thing, I guess, was the illness.
Anyone with half a brain knows that a baby going into nursery, who has previously never been exposed to childhood germs, is going to be poorly constantly for a while. Friends had told me it would be about three months, and it was more like four. Four months of constant stomach bugs, colds, coughs, and high temperatures. And of course, that was not limited to just my son. Because I was also entering an environment that my body was unprepared for. Ten months at home with just my son? No germs there. An office full of other people? Thousands.
I was ill pretty much every week. Crippling stomach bugs, colds, two bouts of tonsillitis. On one horrific occasion cold sores broke out all over my face and I could barely eat for the pain. I forced myself into work where possible, but on the days where I was chained to the loo, or laying in bed with a temperature of 41 degrees, tripping out and watching the walls move, driving 25 miles there and back and doing actual work was just impossible. My immediate manager was understanding, which I remain grateful for. And I was of the opinion that eventually both myself and my son would stop being ill, and things would return to normal.
Instead, things just got worse. In January 2014 I returned to work full time. In a ridiculously short amount of time my daily drive of 50 miles and anything up to 3 hours would see me in tears in the car as I sat in yet another endless queue of traffic and thought about all the time this was stealing from me that could have been spent with my son. Additionally, it had become clear from the moment that I went back that I had been naive to think that my relationship with my colleagues would be the same. They had all had nearly one year together without me there – new bonds had formed, and even though they obviously didn’t intend upon it, I often felt left out and very New Girl, with little time to put the effort in to rectifying that. I was still putting in every single effort I had to my job role, you see. Trying to prove that I could not only still do the job, but do it better than anyone else and well enough to deserve more. I was still getting sick, and had even gone to the doctor to get blood tests to see if there was something underlying behind my health issues. I started avoiding anything that I had eaten around the time of each stomach bug, taking a ridiculous amount of vitamins, and completely overdoing the hand sanitiser.
But still, I even went for a promotion at work, figuring that the commute and everything else wouldn’t matter so much against more responsibility, learning new skills, more money, and a rung up the ladder in the brilliant company that I worked for. I figured eventually my health would get better, and so threw everything into the application process. I didn’t get the role, instead being passed over along with two colleagues for an external candidate. Not being an absolute idiot, I didn’t take any personal offence from this, since the person who got the job obviously deserved it. But it did make me wonder what exactly I was continuing to get out of this role that I kept travelling so far for, given that I was getting nothing but stress and misery out of the effort I put in.
This increased ten-fold following my second bout of tonsillitis, when I was called to a standard meeting to discuss my absences. I was expecting to have to explain my spells of sickness. I was expecting to be told that a formal HR meeting would have to be held if I continued to have absences due to sickness, as per the company policy. I was expecting the management to be understanding and take into account the hard work that I still did for them, the times that I still came into work when ill but not enough to prevent me from working. I didn’t expect to have every tiny detail of my illnesses questioned in the kind of suspicious manner that makes you realise that certain people just do not one jot believe you, despite existing medical notes. I didn’t expect to be told that I should get allergy tests done if my blood tests showed no underlying cause for the stomach bugs (of which I had had three since October) and that I should ask my doctor if I should get my tonsils removed (since I had had tonsillitis twice since October). I didn’t expect to be told that if I was ill again before November 2014, there would likely be disciplinary proceedings taken against me.
I was a wreck following that meeting. It was as if all of the stress and strain I had been trying unsuccessfully to ignore since returning to work was just dumped straight into my open head, now along with the feelings of being totally useless, a burden to the workplace that I had tried so hard to be a boon to, and totally unappreciated. What kind of prospects did I face in that company if the moment that I (inevitably) became ill before November I would be slapped with a disciplinary? I felt bullied. I felt slapped down. I felt threatened, and I felt miserable beyond belief.
At an appointment with my doctor the next week, I requested the allergy tests and tonsillectomy that my work had suggested, to be met with a shocked response of “Why exactly do they want you to ask that?!” And out everything came, the constant illness, the commute, the stress, the fact that I barely saw my son, the meeting. I was a bit of a mess. And the doctor immediately signed me off with stress, told me that my work had zero right to tell me to ask for a tonsillectomy, and that there was zero point in ordering allergy tests.
Of course, to me, being signed off meant that I would immediately face a disciplinary. I didn’t want that. But at the same time, I just could not face returning to that office. I didn’t want to have to be around the person who had treated me like that. I couldn’t be in an environment where I felt disbelieved and under suspicion. I rang my HR, who in that first telephone call were supremely unhelpful and cold, telling me that “If you aren’t at your job you can’t do your job”, that my management was acting in my best interests, and that I must have misunderstood what they had said to me. However, they did tell me that it was completely incorrect that I would receive a disciplinary. But of course, I had apparently misunderstood that anyway, which was entirely my own fault. I ended up in tears for the rest of the day.
I didn’t return to that job. I didn’t see how I could. I did not want to work for those people any more, and I actually started panicking and feeling like I couldn’t breathe whenever I drove anywhere near or along my commute. I did everything properly – keeping in touch, submitting doctor’s notes, speaking to HR etc. HR even eventually apologised profusely to me for the way that I had been treated. And on the day I emailed across an attachment containing my intention to resign (one of the happiest days I had had since returning to the office back in October), the same HR begged me to reconsider and promised me all sorts of “support” and actions that could be taken to ensure I was happy in my position. But it was far too late, and I finished at that company in April.
This isn’t a story that ends with me giving up work completely to stay at home with my son and finding inner peace etc. We can’t afford for me to stay at home and to still live the moderate lifestyle that we do now. And, as I said above, I love working. I love using my brain. I love success, and dressing for an office each day, and being around people, and although I love my son and my friends’ children I still don’t like children or babies. Instead, I am now thankfully in a job a lot closer to home, and along with the drastic reduction in stress and travel, my health appears *touches wood* to have stabilised. Sure, it’d be far more perfect if I could only work four days a week, but that’s not possible right now. Things right now are as perfect as they can be. Being a working mother finally makes sense.