From guilt to growth: A working mum's journey

Caitlin Wright

Caitlin Wright

Caitlin Wright is a Sydney-based, award-winning copywriter and journalist who works with organisations and brands that care for others. She spends her days drinking lots of tea while writing about topics ranging from baby care to aged care and all aspects of healthcare and education in between. When she's not hunkered down in her home office, Caitlin enjoys bike riding with...
Updated on Jul 02, 2024 · 8 mins read
From guilt to growth: A working mum's journey

When I first put my daughter into childcare back in 2014, she'd come home with this particular smell. It wasn't a bad smell; it was probably just a bit of spilled lunch on her t-shirt, mixed with playdough, paint, and some of her educator's perfume. But every time I smelled it, I felt guilty.

The thing was, I hated that she was being cared for by others and not by her parents. We needed to work for financial reasons (hello, Sydney mortgage), but I still felt guilty. She’d spent her first year in our constant care, but now we’d left her within this world full of strangers—highly qualified, loving, and amazing strangers, but strangers nonetheless.

Before becoming a parent, I never knew guilt could feel like this.

Type A goes AWOL

Prior to her birth in 2013, I was working in my dream job as an online editor in a TV newsroom. I spent my days writing breaking news stories, posting alerts on social media, and getting quotes, sometimes all within minutes of getting to work. It was fast-paced, heart-pounding, exhilarating work, and it felt important.

When I got pregnant, I worried I would miss it. Spoiler alert: I didn’t.

I loved the slower pace of maternity leave. I loved being able to join a Mother’s Group and all the baby activities that went with it. I loved getting to know my little girl, going on long walks around the neighbourhood and spending days catching up with other working mums. After years of hustling and constantly working at full capacity, I adored just being in the moment.

The downside of maternity leave

Of course, it wasn’t all stars and rainbows. She was a horrific sleeper, and I spent the first few months in a constant state of bounce. She was a cat napper, so I became an expert at tidying, showering, and making a cup of tea in 30-minute windows. But overall, she was joyful, and we loved our time together.

But all good things must come to an end, and so did my maternity leave. I tried returning to news journalism, but it just didn’t work out. I couldn’t give what I used to. In the old days, if breaking news happened at knock-off time (which it often did), I would stay back until the work was done. That wasn’t an option anymore. After all, the daycare centre doesn’t care if they hear a leadership spill or a big fire; they just need me to pick my daughter up on time.

In the end, there were changes afoot, so I took a redundancy. I thought I’d lost my ambition at this point in life, but I was ok with that. As they say, the world will wait.

Being a part-time working mum

I took a part-time contract with a wonderful, family-friendly company for the next few years. It was just enough – a few days a week to spend with my daughter while using my brain and maintaining my career.

Although this was before the era of working from home, I still managed to get plenty of flexibility. I never received pushback when the inevitable gastro bug or cold virus whipped around the daycare and challenged my daughter’s immune system.

We even managed a journey overseas to visit my parents, who were living in the UK at the time. Let’s face it: We never could have afforded such an expense if I hadn’t been working. Sharing the world with my daughter and spending this special time with my parents overseas alleviated some of the working mum’s guilt.

Although I’d found a bit of a balance, it all changed after I had my second child. My contract role didn’t offer maternity leave. While I was finally happy for my toddler daughter to be in daycare, my mum guilt didn’t allow me to send my newborn baby quite yet. So I did what other journalist friends of mine had done and started my own business.

Running a business while being a working mother

I spent the first few months of my life as a freelance writer, working during my baby’s naps or while she played on the floor beside me. She was one of those babies who napped for hours and would happily amuse herself in a play centre. Yes, the unicorn baby!

On the good days, I felt like I was nailing this parenting/career thing. I remember doing an interview with an esteemed professor, and she mentioned with delight that she could hear my daughter happily playing in the background. It was a moment when I pondered that maybe I could have it all: a successful career and an awesome parent.

Of course, there were the bad days too, like when my kids were sick and needed my attention but I also had a deadline to focus on. I was constantly trying to find a balance between working and parenting. I felt guilty when I was working because I wasn’t spending time with my family and my young kids. I felt guilty when I was parenting because I wasn’t spending time on my work.

By the time we had our third child in 2019, I often felt I wasn’t doing very well either.

The mental load of being a breadwinner and home-school parent

It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that everything changed. My husband got made redundant and ended up going back to TAFE to retrain in a new career. It meant I was the breadwinner, primary carer and homeschool mother/teacher. As we all remember stories from this time, this was next-level parenting, and there was no time for guilt.

I got better at asking for support from my parents, parents-in-law and other working mums with businesses like mine. I also felt less guilty about being interrupted at work. If the children wandered through a Zoom every so often, so be it. All my clients who were parents were all in the same boat so it took the pressure off.

For the first time in a long time, I prioritised my body and health. I did weekly personal training sessions and went for runs whenever I could. I realised that my family depended on me in many ways, so they needed my best version.

Finally, I accepted that I couldn’t do everything. I could be a good enough mum and a good enough freelancer, but I couldn’t be perfect, and that’s okay.

The school-age phase

With two children in school and one about to start, I’m in a completely different world of working mother phase. Instead of daycare drop-offs and dealing with the never-ending illness cycle, it’s all about the mental load.

How can I fit in all my client work into school hours? Can I squeeze swimming lessons, soccer practice, and dance classes over two days to work longer hours on the other days? Do we have enough bread for lunches? Do I have time to head up to the school for reading groups, or should I sacrifice that? How do I stay up to date with all those damn school WhatsApp groups?

I’ve also now got the ability to literally work anywhere. I’ve done interviews from the car in the driveway, written stories beside the soccer field, and even on the balcony surrounded by washing. Anywhere I can get 5 minutes to myself and some peace and quiet to focus.

The evolution of working mums' guilt

Like most women, I still have mother guilt but I’m trying to find a sustainable work-life and parenting balance. I still have those days where I feel like I don’t have enough time for either raising my children or my career. However, instead of beating myself up, I’m trying to reframe it and accept it.

Sometimes I find myself feeling resentful about having to stop what I’m doing at 2:30 pm to do the school pick-up. I try to remind myself how grateful I am to have a career where I can be there for my family. After all, in a few years, none of them will want me at the school gate anymore.

With my youngest daughter about to start school, I now feel energised by my career and a desire to take it to the next level. I try not to feel guilty about occasionally telling my family that I have to work, and am proud to show them what success as a woman looks like.

And these days, when I smell that distinctive childcare smell, I no longer feel guilt. I feel a sense of freedom. Because without daycare, I wouldn’t have had the time and space to navigate my own version of professional fulfilment. Even though being a working mum is all kinds of hard, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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