Martha Alexander is in need of some normality, so she heads back to the office
When people ask me if I’m back at work yet, I love saying, “Well I never really stopped”, as if I’m a vigorous hybrid of Sheryl Sandberg, Wonder Woman and Gwyneth Paltrow: Jaeger trouser suits, Bluetooth headsets and avocado pulp coursing through my veins.
In a sense, I didn’t stop: I wrote my Diary of a Mum and other pieces at night or during Robin’s naps. But I am now freelance. This is what I had always wanted: a chance to work for myself.
The house opposite ours was being renovated. Being a nosy parker, I went over to have a butcher’s: would their Farrow & Ball paintwork be a source of jealousy for me? What type of shutters would they choose? OMG, are they getting a bespoke bin shed?! In the window was a small sign. It said that the new owner was a childminder.
“I bet she’s a psycho,” I sniffed to my husband as I prepared to call Susie for the first time.
Susie wasn’t a psycho. She’s an ex-headteacher with two children of her own. Her place is like a nursery. She’s flexible and friendly with brilliant assistants, exciting toys and daily excursions. Robin loves it. She smiles when she arrives and cries when she leaves, which is a bit insulting. (“Am I bad mum? She likes being away from me! Maybe she thinks Susie is her mum…” etc).
But these intrusive thoughts were the least of my worries. No one tells you that your professional confidence also takes a beating when you take time out to have a baby. I suddenly found myself more confused and uncertain than I ever was as a teenager.
I’m riddled with insecurity. I send speculative emails which are meek: I feel apologetic and embarrassed about ‘taking up time’. And as my sense of self gets smaller, the presence of others and their achievements become inflated, omnipresent and almost gloating.
Social media is a nightmare: a terrifying catalogue of brilliance from my peers. Promotions, trips, awards, sponsorships, head-huntings, TV appearances, as well as holidays and handbags – presumably the result of enormous salaries or bonuses.
“God, I hate everyone,” is something I say too often. I know that being mean-spirited will eat me up. Is this the ugly truth; that I can only be happy for others if I am happy myself? Having to be chipper and graceful about other people’s success when my career feels on hold is hard work. And people say, “But you’ve got a beautiful baby!” which makes me feel like an ungrateful toad who doesn’t deserve her.
The worst is the pigeonholing: the smirking gallerist with a conceptual haircut, living in a warehouse space in Peckham, who said, “So you’re all about this now?” pointing at Robin and laying bare the judgement.
But I’m not all about ‘this’ now. I don’t know what I’m all about.
I started to do a few days a week at a national newsroom, which is the sort of fast-paced environment I needed to kick me up the tush. Also, it’s lonely being freelance all day, sending emails out into the ether.
“I just want someone to talk to,” I said. “I’m so alone.”
“I thought you wanted to be alone?” said everyone.
“I did. But now I miss offices and the jokes, and all the free birthday cake and gossip.”
My editors have been understanding about my childcare commitments but I can’t escape the feeling they think of me as nothing more than a part-timer when I leave early (as agreed).
While at work, I try to talk about being a mum as little as possible to prove I don’t just talk about parenting.
A younger woman sitting next to me said, “Childbirth is so freaky, isn’t it? Have you ever seen a baby being born?” I just said “yes” and looked out of the window.
“You’ve got a baby?” someone asked after a few weeks, leaning forward in his seat and eyeing me with wonder, as if I’d just said I kept a unicorn in my utility room. I nodded. He asked to see a picture and of course, I gave him an album.
I’m proud of my daughter and I’m sick of pretending she doesn’t exist in case a 25-year-old hipster thinks I’m a mum. I am a mum. But I’m other things too, it’s just a case of believing it.