I am Rachel, a mum of three. I have George (six years old), Esme (four) and Ted (eighteen months). I am also a Deputy Head of a primary school and work three days a week.
I’ve been a teacher for sixteen years. I entered the profession as a fresh faced 21 year old, full of optimism and enthusiasm at fulfilling a childhood dream. I did five and a half years as a class teacher with some middle leader roles and then took on the role of Deputy Head at 26. I have stayed in the same school for all that time; I looked around for other jobs after about seven years but this coincided with us getting married and our decision to start a family. I felt that I was better placed to do that and subsequently come back to work in a setting I knew and so decided to stay put. I also had ‘all the guilt’ about potentially moving somewhere new and then disappearing on maternity leave a few months later; unnecessary over-thinking as maternity leave is a right, not something you have to prove yourself worthy of! Also unnecessary as fate wasn’t on the same page we were and it took us three long years and a round of IVF to get our precious boy here anyway!
After the first two were born, I had roughly ten blissful, sleep-free months of maternity leave at home. I returned to work after having George.. pregnant! There are only 18 months between the two of them so the two bouts of absence sort of blurred into one. After Esme was born I requested a reduction in hours and dropped to 3.5 days a week. Even working fewer hours, I found this return to work tricky. The end of maternity leave is an odd thing; if you had taken a year off work with a serious illness you would be gradually reintroduced to work. But somehow, even though your life has been turned completely upside down by the arrival of a new baby; even though you’re probably knackered and drained and still a bit of an emotional wreck; even though you are a completely different person to the one who left work up to a year ago, you are very often expected to just slot back in as if you’ve never been away. Lots of things had changed including people and systems- I was constantly on the back foot and I hated it!
Fast forward a couple of years and things had started to slot back into place at work and we’d found some kind of rhythm to it all. I’d rebuilt relationships, got back up to speed with things and finally started to feel like I knew what I was doing again. The kids were almost 4 and 2, sleep deprivation had peaked and we were starting to come out the other side of the ‘difficult baby phase’… or so we thought! When George was 4 and a half and Esme had just turned 3, our glorious ‘surprise’ baby boy was born; (a cautionary tale to anyone who finds themselves complacent after infertility!). We certainly had not planned on having three but fate knew that there was a great big Ted shaped hole in the universe that needed filling and along he came to complete our family jigsaw.
I returned to work after his arrival in September last year and it’s fair to say it’s been a tough transition back for us all. I’m generally not a negative person. I am productive, I usually take workload and pressure in my stride and have a ‘can do’ attitude. But the last 6 months have left me feeling a bit broken with depleted levels of resilience. Returning to work properly, alongside balancing a new life with 3 kids, the demands of a baby, a husband who works away and the hassles of everyday life has been a real struggle.
Ted was a thriving healthy newborn but he started nursery in September and this heralded the change in the viral resistance; nothing major but tummy bugs and viruses have abounded ever since. He also struggles with digestion which causes him to be really unsettled at night and scream for hours at a time. We’ve spent ten months living on an average of 4-5 hours sleep a night spread over short bursts. This is the most prolonged period we’ve had without sleep and it’s definitely the closest I’ve come in life to being exhausted. I’m short tempered and emotional. I’m not productive because I don’t have the energy to be; I get to 2 in the afternoon and I hit a wall where I struggle to keep awake. I crave carbs for energy and have zero motivation to exercise- not a good combination for keeping in shape!
Balancing it all is becoming my ultimate nemesis. Work is good when I’m there; but getting everyone up, dressed and fed, leaving the house and getting to work in a morning feels like a full time job in itself. My job involves having to do some work at home but finding time to do that when I’m not going through a bedtime routine or helping with homework or falling asleep on the sofa is nigh on impossible. I get in from work around 6 and ‘mummy guilt’ leaves me feeling like I have to fit in a full day of parenting into an hour when I’m running on empty.
So… the time came to do something about this situation to make life better for us all. The difference in this scenario to my usual approach to life is that I need to do less, not more. For the first time that I can think of, I’m saying I can’t… I can’t fit it all in and I can’t manage at this pace and I can’t do it all. I need to feel like I’m doing one thing well instead of lots of things half-heartedly or badly. We can’t do anything about the demands having 3 kids places upon us… what it boiled down to was a change around work.
I love my job and colleagues and I’m good at what I do, when I’m awake enough to do it! I’ve worked hard to make a difference to the children I’ve taught but also to build a career for myself. A career that I’m proud of and that I’m not ready to walk away from. Also, if I’m being brutally honest and said in the knowledge that I love the very bones of my children, I’m not sure ‘being a mum’ is enough to keep me sane… I need to be busy and challenged, to interact with people (grown up people!) and to think in creative ways. Yes, being at home with young children is full on and hard work but I suspect my personality needs something else as well. I also feel odd about not contributing to our household financially – we’ve always had a joint account and ‘chucked it all in’ but I’ve always contributed, whatever the percentage. The fiercely independent part of me would struggle with earning nothing.
I narrowed down my options to one of three… I could hand in my notice and walk away (Gulp!). I could request to further reduce my hours (but would that just mean more work at home and being paid less to do it?) or I could request a year’s sabbatical…relatively unchartered territory in the world of teaching! I sat down and spoke to my Head about how I was feeling and the options I felt I had in front of me and then put in a formal written request under the ‘flexible working policy‘, asking for a year’s unpaid sabbatical. It would start in September and last for an academic year. A year in which Esme will start school meaning I can get her settled. A year in which Ted will turn 2 and hopefully get over these bugs and underlying medical issues and start sleeping at night. A year where I can focus on being a mum and get our life more balanced instead of worrying about answering emails while I’m cooking dinner or how to maximise the hour of time I get in an evening when they are all finally tucked in to achieve the 6 hours’ worth of jobs that I have to do!
And my request was granted!
I know I’m in a privileged position to be able to make this decision. I have no real idea of how I will transition into this new me. If I’m honest, the prospect of a blank year stretching ahead of me could feel a little overwhelming and I’ve already starting thinking of things to fill up the diary; classes for Ted, offering to volunteer in the school that the big two go to, home decor projects etc.
Being a teacher has been such a huge part of who I am but I can’t wait to be able to give myself permission to focus purely on being a mummy. It’s not just the 3 days a week I’m gaining back, it’s the headspace that will be freed up by not having to worry or think about work as well. I will have time with Ted in between the school runs but he will probably continue doing two half days at nursery which will give me some regular time on my own for the first time in 6 and a half years. Inevitably, some of that time will get sucked away with cleaning and supermarkets and life admin but I’m hoping I can carve a little bit out for me. Time to write or to bake or to read or to enjoy a hot cup of tea.
I may hate it … I might miss the busyness and pressure that I have previously thrived on. I may be climbing the walls by October, craving adult interaction and begging them to take me back.
But then, I may not.
One thing’s for sure, I can’t wait to find out!