Being able to take a long maternity leave is an incredible privilege, and definitely one of the perks of being a woman

14th October 2005 at 01:00
It was the nice man behind the customer services desk at Tesco who suggested that I may want to consider a speedy return to work from my first maternity leave. The poor man had endured months of my queuing up to complain about yet another irrelevant aspect of my local superstore. As we slowly formed a relationship over many instances of me moaning and him listening patiently, one day he politely suggested, in not so many words, that I should shut up and get a life. In short, he couldn't believe that I had nothing better to worry about than the fact that non-mothers were taking up all the parents' car parking spaces, or people were being allowed through the quick checkouts when they had more than 12 items in their baskets. Pointing at my blissfully sleeping baby, the nice man said it was obvious that my child could survive without me, for the time being at least, while it was clear I was not surviving well at all.

I love my children, but I must admit that sometimes I don't feel I'm a very good mother. Or at least the kind of mother that stays at home. Until I had a year out of school after my first baby was born, I hadn't realised just how much I was defined by my job, and I wasn't prepared for the incredible feeling of loss when I realised that both my school and my department were managing fine in my absence. Of course I enjoyed lots of aspects of being at home. I could watch hours of afternoon telly, and I never experienced that sinking sensation you get on a Sunday afternoon when you realise the weekend is almost over. Being able to take a long maternity leave is an incredible privilege, and definitely one of the perks of being a woman. But without my job, I found myself grappling to find meaning and purpose to my life. I was proud to be a mother, but I never felt it was the only thing I was destined to be.

I was terribly embarrassed about all this. There's a lot of pressure when you become a mother to be blissfully occupied in feeding and baking and pushing your buggy scenically in the sunshine, and I couldn't admit that it just wasn't working for me. At first, it was a guilty secret that I shared only with the nice man in Tesco, who now says "just go back to work"

whenever I approach him. I couldn't speak honestly to my non-working friends because I didn't want to appear critical of the choices they had made, and I didn't pump my working friends for information because I didn't want them to think that I wasn't enjoying my baby.

So I've been a lot more clear-sighted about this second maternity leave.

I'm trying to give myself a break if I don't always feel blissful, and I'm trying to restrain my propensity to fill time by becoming a one-woman edition of Watchdog. I'm openly admitting that I'll enjoy work again when the time comes. It was only when I shared experiences with my colleagues when I returned to work between babies that I felt fully accepted and understood as a mother. Talking to women who had made similar choices to me for similar reasons made me realise that I had been trying to bash myself, square peg-like, into a circular mother-shaped hole, and I felt an enormous relief that I wasn't the terrible mothering failure I had imagined. My maternity leave for this second baby will be shorter and hopefully less guilt-ridden. I'm realising that there is more than one way to do this whole mothering thing well.

Gemma Warren is on maternity leave from her post as head of inclusion at a London secondary school. Email:

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