What is work?

Will I ever go back to work? It’s a question I’m asked now and then by various people. For anyone who doesn’t know (and sometimes the person asking doesn’t know this either), here’s a brief history of my “career” to date, because it explains how I’ve come to do what work I do now.

After graduating from the University of Nottingham with a first class degree in French and German, I took a year out to think about exactly what I wanted to do with it. I worked in a supermarket to pay my rent that year, and decided to apply for a Masters degree in linguistics. I was accepted by the University of Cambridge, and completed the Masters the following year. Thankfully Tom, my then boyfriend and later husband whom I’d met when we were students in Nottingham, came with me. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do beyond studying, so I applied to do a PhD, to continue the research I’d started in the Masters thesis. I dabbled a bit in publishing, doing some vacation work for Cambridge University Press. Towards the end of my 2 and a half year stint as a PhD student, I applied for a job as a postdoctoral researcher, because it seemed the perfect fit – the project applied the area of theoretical research covered in my PhD to real life (children with language impairments). I got the job and started a week after I handed in my PhD thesis. 

I also found out I was pregnant just a few weeks into the new job, did my PhD viva in the midst of early pregnancy sickness, and our eldest child, Andrew, was born 9 months later. I took 9 months maternity leave and returned to the research job 2 and a half days a week. Although I found the research itself interesting and my skills were well suited to the job, I struggled with working part-time in the highly competitive workplace that is academia. I’d never had a long term goal of anything like getting on the tenure ladder, being a lecturer and working up to professor status. I was there because I enjoyed what I did at each stage, never really looking far beyond it. Research-only posts like the one I had were short term contracts (1-2 years, 3 if you were lucky), and the thought of always having to be thinking about the next one whilst bringing up a young family was very daunting. I was on a decent wage for my age, and Tom and I both juggled our working days so that we only paid a childminder for 2 days whilst I earned for 2 and a half days, but still I didn’t bring home that much money, even with just the one child. I felt I wasn’t doing either job (research or mum) the justice it deserved. 

I was pregnant with our second child just after Andrew turned 1 year old. My contract was due to come to end a couple of months after Joel was born. For all the reasons above, I decided to not return to the job (if indeed my boss could have secured more funding to extend the project anyway). I did a fair amount of voluntary work in the first year of Joel’s life, with two kids under 3, setting up a nappy library and being editor of the Cambridge NCT magazine. Then we moved to Birmingham, nearer to family and where we could afford a house.

It’s then that I decided to set up a business sewing reusable nappies and accessories – Sewn Down Purple Lane was born. I was really enjoying being a “stay at home mum” (I can’t stand that term, we rarely stay at home in the daytime unless eating or sleeping/resting, but anyway….) and I didn’t regret my decision to leave a salaried job at all. But I also found that having some other form of work to do made me take some time for me, it made me enjoy the mum role even more. Initially I’d found this balance through my voluntary work, but then the opportunity arose to earn a small income whilst also enjoying the creativity of sewing, which really appealed to me. 

Until Andrew was born, I never really had a sense of purpose. Sure I got excellent grades at school and university; I worked hard, took pride in my abilities, and mostly enjoyed myself along the way. Yet I didn’t find a way of using these to deeply satisfy my need to feel useful in the world. I did start to feel like I was getting somewhere with the one salaried job that I had, but this was nothing compared to the sense of purpose that flooded me when I became a mum. I felt that this is what I was called to be, God’s plan for my life, and raising children was my work. I didn’t want to pay someone to look after them whilst I did another paid job, and this was another of my struggles in the one year that I did do this with one child. 

There are various ways of categorising work, such as paid, unpaid, voluntary, self-employed, full-time, part-time etc. The point of outlining my career to date was to show that I’ve done all of the above. The thing is though, that when we talk about work in our society today, generally the assumption is that work means paid work – anything that contributes to the country’s Gross Domestic Product, directly to the economy. I personally don’t think the word work should automatically assume the meaning paid work. All types of work are important, and contribute to society in many ways, even if not in direct economic terms. You can read much more about this on the Mother’s At Home Matter Facebook page.

It’s not like the unpaid work of looking after our children is any easier than other work I’ve done either. I remember the year when I did part-time paid work in research – the days I looked after Andrew made me far more exhausted than the days I spent sitting in an office, writing research papers whilst drinking hot drinks and going to the toilet on my own. And that was with only one child! (I do chuckle looking back at myself then….) I’m not alone in this, I know lots of parents who say the same thing about doing part-time paid work. There are also no extra benefits to my mum role – no annual leave, no sick leave/pay, no scheduled breaks etc. 

Some days are really hard, and I feel like running away to a paid job somewhere and paying someone else to look after the kids. But after some sleep or a rest thanks to our wonderful support network comprising family and friends, I can see the bigger picture, feel that sense of purpose again, and carry on. I know I am very blessed with this help, people who enable me to do the role the best I can. I’m also aware that I have chosen to do this work, it’s not something I’m forced to do, and we are in a position as a family to genuinely make this choice. It’s not without sacrifice – for example we don’t go on holidays other than going away staying with grandparents, we run only one car (and walk/cycle where possible), we buy secondhand, we don’t eat out/get takeaways often….. though at the moment all this would still apply if I was doing paid work and paying someone else to look after the kids, unless one of us was on a much higher salary than we have ever earned. 

So to come back to the question of whether I’ll ever go back to work…. that presumably means paid work which isn’t my own self-employment…. I might do. The truth is I don’t know right now, and like at every stage of my career to date, I don’t look far beyond the present. I’m happy, or actually I’m joyful, because some days/hours I’m not happy, like when I’m dealing with the umpteenth twin toddler meltdown of the day after a pathetic excuse for a night’s sleep. But deep down I rejoice in my role of being mum. So why change anything for now? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

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