Just four short weeks after having my baby, I was back in my home office, ploughing through freelance gigs in a milk-stained dressing gown. Trying to crank my brain back into action, the only clear thought I could muster was: what on earth am I doing?
After three months, I was back at work full-time. And just a week after that, I drove from Sydney to Canberra for a friend’s birthday celebration, breast pump in tow and a two-hourly reminder to pump set on my phone. My friends congratulated me for making it “all work”.
I cringe when I look back on those moments and the image I put out: a new mum who had it all figured out, who was dedicated to her career and could leave her baby for a social event. In truth, I found the praise unsettling. What people couldn’t see was the overwhelm that simmered just below the surface. I was willing myself to hold it together, clinging onto my professional and social identities and terrified that if I dropped a single ball, the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.
I felt obligated to prove I could do, and be, it all. None of it was asked of me, of course. Encouraged by no one, I pushed myself to the brink of burnout, accepting social invitations and chasing career milestones before I was ready. Not doing so, I told myself, would be a bad decision.
My social life and professional accomplishments provided a salve for a worry that had been gnawing at me since I gave birth — that motherhood would make me invisible. Even in modern society, there is little room for women to be both mothers and “career women”. For an array of fiscal, biological and societal reasons, climbing the ladder is often in direct opposition to starting a family. And once you do become a mum, you’re relegated from dancefloors and pub tables to rhyme class and play groups, or so I told myself. Convinced the offers and invitations would dry up if I turned them down, I tucked away the truths of new motherhood and seized any opportunity thrown my way.
Looking back, I’m somewhat proud to have muddled through those early months of my daughter’s life while continuing to do what I love. Strangely, I felt more driven and more creative than ever after giving birth. But I wish I had been kinder to myself; a new mum, the first of my friends, away from my UK-based family and the friends I’ve known for decades.
I am not alone, of course. The multifaceted pressures placed upon women, by society and ourselves, result in a sort of universal desire to do more, be more, achieve more, more, more. Despite changing attitudes to parental roles, the percentage of stay-at-home dads (three to four per cent) has barely changed since 1991. Our mindsets have shifted, but in practice, women are still expected to shoulder much of the work associated with the home. And there’s an abundance of research to prove this reality. Even with 100 years of feminism under our belts, fewer than seven per cent of couples, according to a 2019 study from University College, split the domestic load equally.
Despite all the precious advantages of middle-class motherhood, the modern mother has less support than ever; the so-called village that helps to raise a child is all but extinct. At the same time, mothers of today are expected to do more than ever: to find professional fulfilment, exclusively breastfeed for the WHO-recommended 12 months, produce home-cooked organic-only meals, and never, ever rely on screens. And that doesn’t scratch the surface of basic hygiene (let alone self-care), a healthy relationship and any semblance of a social life. It is the perfect storm for bias against women.
But trying to do and be it all is not something that only afflicts mothers. Parent or happily kid-free millennials (especially women) are a generation shackled to the notion that no matter what we achieve, it’s never enough. Both at work and in our personal lives, we are locked in a race to success; our hobbies must be lucrative, our self-care paid for, our spiritualism performative. We “rise and grind”, “hustle harder” and optimise every inch of our time. All of which are symptoms of our obsession with overachievement.
The truth is, you can’t have it all. As hard as you try, you’re not going to have the enviable career, the well-adjusted kids, a healthy savings account, a thriving relationship and sprawling friendship group, free-time to pursue hobbies and a passport stamped with a thousand destinations. It does not exist. To be clear, I’m not suggesting women can’t have a professional life and kids. It is somewhat possible (if your household income can afford childcare) to balance the demands of a career with the demands of motherhood, but there will be sacrifices.
Something, a lot of things, will have to give. There will be work days when you yearn to be hunched over a crib and nights hunched over a crib that leave you less than switched on at the office the next day. There will be eye bags and piles of washing, and sometimes you will feel like you’re failing at it all.
What I mean to say is, life is about choice — whether it’s climbing the corporate ladder or fulfilling your inner nomad. A thirst for life is inspiring, but an insatiable greed to do, be and achieve every last little thing is a one-way ticket to burnout.
For me, becoming a mum and continuing my career has meant pushing a bunch of other stuff off the priority list. I don’t have the time I once did for socialising or cooking or self-care, and childcare is a sure-fire way to erode your savings account. I cannot remember the last time I visited the hairdresser and the inside of my oven looks like a crematorium.
I don’t say these things to glamorise them. There is little glory to be found in martyrdom and to be frank, I wish I had more time just for me. But six months on from dragging myself back to my home office, baby in tow, I know my worth is not measured by how much I “achieve”. Pressing pause on some of the things I once valued has made space for my greatest achievement of all — my daughter.
By trying to do everything, I was ruining the enjoyment in any of it, existing in a guilt-edged chaos that felt nothing like goals actualised. When we fixate on “having it all”, when we equate our success with our value as human beings, we leave little room to focus on having just what’s important. Committing to a choice, whatever that is, is what makes it special.
Charlie Hale is an English-born journalist based in Sydney, where she writes about a plethora of things women care about — from pasta to politics and everything between. Charlie is also the acting editor of WILD magazine.