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(introduction to series here)
My name is Penelope, I live in Auckland New Zealand and am the mummy to two gorgeous boys E (5) and G(3). I have a BA in French, Italian and Political Science; a first class honours degree in French; a graduate diploma in Communications and Public Relations; and a graduate certificate in ESOL . I went to High School in NZ but spent my final year studying in Switzerland. I also spent a summer on a scholarship in Florence, Italy. Before becoming a Mummy I worked as an Account Director in a Public Relations firm specialising in IT and T.
My husband and I meet in a Politics lecture at the University of Victoria in Wellington. The paper was called ‘The Politics of the Self and the Political Economy’. Needless to say I remember nothing about it other than the lecturer wore his pet cat to class around his shoulders. We were so proud at the time as we were our only friends who hadn’t met in a bar – how intellectual!
I had so many plans – I was going to be a lawyer, then a Diplomat and then a PR consultant which fitted well with my language degrees and love of talking J.
After seven years at university I took my career deadly seriously. I was at my desk by 7am and, as someone who naturally works very hard, found myself quickly promoted (three times in two and a half years) to be an Account Director. I was 28 and managing some of the largest PR clients and budgets in my country.
Unfortunately? I had always wanted to be a Mummy.
I loved the PR industry. I was surrounded by extremely high-achieving females all of whom, when they had children, came back to work and most full-time. I adored these women and many are still close friends, however I did feel like I was playing a role. I was ‘just like them’, or so it must have appeared except … except that since I was really little I have loved children and desperately looked forward to having my own. I was that child in my neighbourhood who could immediately sense if a new family with a baby had moved in nearby. I was that child who would be waiting on their doorstep for them to get home with my arms outstretched to hold their baby.
I have great-great-aunts who were among some of the original suffragettes in England. The right of women to vote, participate fully in society, to be allowed to be both mothers and workers was something achieved – not by some obscure history text book women – but partially by my women. New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote and growing up I definitely picked up that it is incredibly important, as a mother, to also work. Maybe not when your children are very young, but ideally as soon as possible after that and definitely by the time they start school. My absolute favourite sweatshirt was bright pink with the words ‘girls can do anything’ on it. It was a hand-me-down from our neighbours so a strong message quite literally circulating the area – although no one clarified it didn’t mean you had to do it all at once.
I don’t feel that any of the wonderful women surrounding me as I grew up told me I had to either stay at home or had to work. I had great role models on both sides: my own amazing mum stayed at home before we went to school but before that I remember her also doing relief teaching work while I played at other neighbourhood mummies homes as did their children when their mums worked part-time.
My Grandmother, also a teacher, worked when her two children were five. I think for both of them working and contributing financially was probably quite important (I remember my Mum telling me that, ahead of a seven-month campervan trip around Europe with my two year old brother, she worked in a restaurant at night to earn her own airfare). On the flip side is my best friend’s mum who is also an absolutely fantastic mother and chose to work full-time with nannies at home and paid after-school care at other women’s homes. I love their Mum and have strong memories of waves of perfume, power suits and feet which, confined for long hours in stilettos, could no longer fit flat shoes. But those were the options – New Zealand didn’t have childcare centers back then.
The working women I most admired of my generation often stated as a fact: ‘I have a brain and I actually like using it’. Here we have paid parental leave for 14 weeks and a year off for maternity leave. I think most people expected to see me within a few months. So rationally, pre-children, I decided I could probably squeeze in two children if I had them closely together. Then, by the time the youngest was say 18 months, the two of them could go off to daycare together. I had mental images of my two lovely offspring holding hands and walking through a childcare gate. Rationally, I concluded I could take maybe three years off? Rationally, I knew, even then, my career would be in tatters.
And then I had E. And even today I cannot write those words without catching my breath because that boy made me a mother. From the second he was born, six weeks early, within seven hours – everything changed. I no longer cared what anyone thought, who I might disappoint or even who I might make proud. I immediately felt an overwhelming, humbling, certainty that I had been put on this earth to be his mother and the fact that I could, hypothetically, ‘achieve so much more’ was the most false statement ever written and least important thing I could ever waste my time thinking about.
I got to be his Mummy.
My husband is a teacher, so our plan was to wait until E was born, sell our house over the summer, find him a job in Wellington and move into my grandparent’s house which my mother still owned. This meant we could have me at home for hopefully a few years. We put our house on the market the week before the Global Economic Crisis hit and there it sat. Selling our house was the only way could afford to have me at home as I earned about 60% of our income. It didn’t sell. We had offers but the banks weren’t lending and it kept falling through. I remember being shell-shocked and utterly terrified – my baby had just come home from NICU and I was facing the certainty that I was going back to work. I remember having a conversation with my mother where I sobbed devastated and uncontrollably, watching her heart break for me, as I told her we couldn’t make this happen.
The turning point for me was, however, not that moment, but the day a local warehouse had a huge fire. I stood watching the flames from my kitchen window. It was about 6pm and I was about to bath my baby when I realised that, because of the fire, our power was also off. I went into the bathroom to check for hot water and put my foot through the floor and realised our whole bathroom floor was rotted and this was just the first tile about to go. I may possibly at that point have said a very bad word very loudly but it was at that moment, profanity and all, I decided that I was going to make this happen or I would gladly die trying.
We cancelled all our bills that weren’t necessary, no cable for us, very basic internet plan that was so cheap and from such an obscure local company that more often than not we had no internet or landline, we wore layers of clothes rather than use heaters ,one car only used when necessary. I cooked exclusively from scratch (although my husband does remember the day I rang him at work to ask how to work our oven. We had already lived in our house for two years….). No new clothes, no coffees, no haircuts, if it wasn’t literally a basic need it didn’t make the cut. Even then we had no chance of breaking even and lived in savings for more than three years (thanks to money from my grandparents, a teacher and English professor, who spent their whole lives counting their pennies).
Still today when people ask how we can afford it I am quick to tell them “oh we absolutely can’t.” Now, as years lead to promotions and pay increases (my husband is now the head of English at a local highschool) we are in quite a different position financially. That said, staying at home has been absolutely financially crippling for us and we have quite literally watched every single dollar we have ever earned, or been fortunate to receive, pour down the drain. Thank goodness that drain is so cute J Only now are we plugging that drain and building things back up again.
Many of my friends work part-time, all are extremely careful about any childcare use and all adore their children as much as I do – but, and there is a but – I wonder if this being ‘just’ a Mum is getting the same level of encouragement as working does, particularly for those of us with degrees, with sparkling careers and prospects. I can’t help but feel there is a collective sigh of disappointment and wringing of hands over the waste when yet another Mum doesn’t return to the office. I wonder if I see it slightly differently though.
Going to university, in my family, might as well have been part of compulsory education. My grandfather had a PhD from Oxford and my grandmother went to the University of London. My father went to five universities, my mother two, one in NZ and one in France. My brother is a lecturer at the University of Cambridge. I was always taught that education was for education’s sake, it was because of, and with the express purpose of furthering, a love of learning. It was never to get a job. Sure it made getting a well-paid one much easier but that wasn’t the reason for the degrees. So if I think what all those lovely letters after my name mean and how I can best use them, it really is within the walls of my home and in fostering that love of learning to my children.
I have had friends grappling with what to do and while I absolutely know what is right for my family I choose to have a limited opinion about what the next family should do. Yet I know, that if you want to stay at home it is rare that it can’t be made possible, while still personally knowing women currently suffering the pure heartbreak of it being simply impossible.
However for me, it simply has to be me, it must be me with my children. Not for all those gorgeous toddler moments saying cute toddler things – I’m pretty confident any one could manage that well – it’s when they are sick or tired and quite frankly horrendous. It has to be me because I love them with a love so infinite that I can move mountains. Only I can kneel beside them, stare back into their eyes and have them to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I love and understand them better than anyone and I will do whatever it takes to work with them and make it o.k.
I want my boys to have a long, calm, confident childhood and grow up absolutely enveloped in the love we have for them, to know there is no place I would ever rather be even if that place has to be the now repaired bathroom floor singing songs and cheering on toilet training.
Everybody has heard the saying that no one, on their death bed, has wished they spent more time in the office and I can’t help but wonder if this might be a big part of the solution. My hope is that more women will choose for themselves to take a deep breath, to leave those beautifully framed, hard-earned, expensive degrees on the wall and close that office door. My hope is that women will come to know that its ok, it’s a valid choice, you are wasting nothing and you might just come to gain everything you’ve ever wanted. You too educated, successful women, get to come back home.