I'm trying to prove to everyone that my two small children should change nothing more than my dress size

24th March 2006 at 00:00
I have two children under two. I am head of a large department full of talented and hard-working individuals who look to me to set a standard. I work four days a week. I am trying to mediate in the long-running battle between my mother and my mother-in-law as to who can be the better grandmother, and I am desperately trying to write my master's dissertation. This is why in the past three weeks I have agreed to: join a further working party in addition to the three I already sit on; rewrite my special needs policy; produce a guide to my department for new Year 7 parents; run a women's discussion group for my synagogue; proofread an essay that a colleague has written for a special needs diploma; have my entire (warring) family round next Friday night; hold a baby shower for my sister-in-law.

I should have said no to every one of the above. But I didn't and, as a result, I am spending even more of my greatly diminished sleeping time worrying about how I am going to get it all done. You don't need to be a psychiatrist to work out what is going on here. I am so paranoid that I am a bad mother, a bad teacher, a bad daughter, and a bad wife, that I am overcompensating in every area of my life. I'm trying to prove to everyone that I can do it all as brilliantly as I did before, and that the existence of two small children in my life should change nothing more than my dress size.

No one is more predisposed to overcompensation than me. There's always a reason why I feel I have to take on far more than I am able to cope with.

When I was a student teacher I overcompensated because I wanted to prove how promising I was. When I was an NQT I overcompensated because I wanted to show how grateful I was to have been given my first job. When I got my first responsibility point I overcompensated because I wanted to let the world know that I deserved it. When I was a second in department I overcompensated because I wanted to impress my head of department. Now I'm a working mother I overcompensate so that my children, my husband and my colleagues still think I can keep it all together despite the fact that I have never been in a situation where things are more likely to fall apart.

What annoys me about this situation is that it is probably self-inflicted.

My husband is happy to eat ready meals every night if it's too much hassle to cook, my sons are generally happy rolling in the mud in our back garden rather than visiting yet another overstimulating toddler group, and my colleagues are also working mothers who are supremely understanding of the pressures we share and the limits of being a human. Unfortunately, every magazine and lifestyle programme I encounter seems to identify frozen food, unmet priorities and non-interactive play with failure. Somewhere along the line, I have internalised this big time.

So I have done the obvious thing if you are a neurotic, Jewish, working mother whose life can sometimes resemble an episode of Seinfeld. I have found time to visit my local bookshop and I have bought a self-help book.

Or four. Somehow, every title on the shelves seemed to refer exactly to a condition in my life. I love too much. I don't prioritise enough. I can't say no. I don't believe in the fundamental benevolence of the universe. I'm not my own life coach. I have conditions I never even knew existed.

Of course I could just pursue the other obvious solution, which is simply to say "no" next time I'm asked to do something that isn't strictly essential, and then hold my breath to see if the world collapses. I have it on good authority that it won't.

Gemma Warren is head of inclusion at a London secondary school. Email: gemmablaker@hotmail.com

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