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Motherhood and Work: 'I accept that I'll never be Superwoman – I'll be Mediocre Mum'

‘Having it all’ can really mean ‘doing it all’ – and that’s just plain exhausting. So don’t put so much pressure on yourself.

Claire Micks

I STUMBLED ACROSS a paperback in my mother-in-law’s a few weeks back. ‘Superwoman’, by Shirley Conran. I recognised it instantly from my own childhood. My mother had it, as did countless others of her generation. So I remembered the Seventies style brunette and bold emblazoned letters across the top of it quite vividly. And it brought back memories of my own mother bending over it, apron on and a bowl of boiling water and sliced lemon to the ready, following its advice on stain removal as though it were gospel.

It was a cult book of its time. A practical aide-memoire to the burgeoning era of feminism. First published in 1975, it became a bible for mothers of that generation. It was described as an encyclopaedia of ‘household management for the modern woman’ (at a time when men didn’t feature in such matters). It claimed to guide hopeful young women of the day on how to be a ‘working wife and mother’, when that was very much the exception, not the rule.

The first real generation of working mothers in Ireland

Working women of that era, my own mother included, truly believed that they were blazing a trail on their daughter’s behalves. They were the first real generation of working mothers in Ireland and they really did have to make it up as they went along. There were no microwaves or disposable nappies. No parental leave. No maternity leave worth talking about.

And yet they managed. Just about. Stuck it out despite the difficulties they encountered. I think because they truly believed that they were carving out a better future for their daughters. That the path they were following represented a worthwhile ideal. And that, as a result, we would have options that they never even dreamed of. Whilst De Valera would have had us cailins ‘dancing at the crossroads’, our mothers were going to make bloody sure that future generations of Irish women would be more than just decorative features.

I still struggle

My mother was a grade A student from the west of Ireland. The eldest girl of eleven children raised in a two-up two-down. She got a scholarship for secondary school and then for teacher training college. And she was grateful to get it. But she recognised that she could have done more, had she had the option to do so. And she always, always encouraged us to pursue those options and stand on our own two feet. To reach for the skies in everything we did and never let our gender get in the way. And so we did. I did.

And now..

Now, I’m knackered.

Sorry, Mum. But I am. I’m wrecked.

I’ve two kids under three, an elderly father and a career (of sorts). And no life worth talking about.

I have a great husband, a very understanding employer who allows me work part time and two healthy children, but I still struggle to fit it all into the 24 hours we are all granted in any given day.

So, no, Shirley, I am not Superwoman. In fact, most of the time I feel like entirely the opposite. And I’m sorry, Mum, but I think I may have failed. Despite your best efforts to grant me the opportunities you were never afforded.

The other evening it finally happened. One month after returning to work, and after a busy day in the office followed by a particularly difficult evening of domestics, I keeled over. Literally.

I got up in the middle of the night to go to the loo, and next thing I knew my husband was standing over me trying to rouse me from the bedroom floor where I had cracked my head when I landed. And do you know what thought ran through my groggy head as I heard his muffled pleas for me to wake up, and the kids roared in unison in the background?

‘Somebody else’s problem’.

How horrendous is that?

To be fair, I had just pretty much knocked myself unconscious. I could actually feel myself sinking into a warm, cosy pit of nothingness and, in truth, I was perfectly happy to stay there in whatever unconscious world I had knocked myself into for a bit of a rest. I actually remember thinking. ‘At last, a break’. God forgive me. As if he didn’t need one too.

Having it all = doing it all

But it did wake me up to an uncomfortable fact which I kind of already knew, but which perhaps I hadn’t truly accepted. That whilst, yes, I want it all, and my brain, for one, really needs it all, I’m not sure I actually have it in me to do it all.

I seem to spend my whole life ‘making up for lost time’. In the office, for the time I’m with the kids. With the kids, for the time I’m in the office. I am quite literally burning the candle at both ends. Living a double life but within the same 24 hour day.

Most of the working mothers I know are exactly the same. The ones that appear to have it all are very few and far between. Most of us just stretch ourselves as thin as is humanly possible and muddle through. And that’s not to say that stay-at-home mums aren’t tired also. They are physically far more wrecked than those of who are cosily parked at a computer all day. But there is a unique form of mental exhaustion that comes with having to adjust to two entirely different roles of a day.

I absolutely struggle to wind down from the madness of the latest e-mail bombardment in work and readjust to my toddler’s pace of life where he doesn’t expect me to spout buzz words or go into bat on whatever the ‘burning issue’ of the day is. He just expects me to give him a hug and wipe his nose. As soon as I walk into the house I have to remove my ‘office’ head, and replant my ‘mummy’ one. My two lives are entirely different, requiring completely different skill-sets and personalities, and that, whilst liberating in many ways, is also exhausting.

So Mum, thank you for the opportunity. And thank you for blazing a trail so that thirty-odd years later I would have the option of following it.

But, I will never be Superwoman. I will be Mediocre Mum. And mediocre staff member. And that, I’m afraid, for the moment at least, is the best I can hope for.

Claire Micks is the mother of a (reasonably behaved) three-year-old girl and an (entirely spoiled) 15-month-old boy. She survives by day and writes by night. Croaks rather than tweets, but despite that somehow manages to get her ramblings published on occasion.

Are you a father that stays at home with the kids? Would you like to write about it? Get in touch! Email voices@thejournal.ie

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Claire Micks

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