I remember the first time I cried at work – it was around 10:15 am on a sunny Tuesday in June 2013. I have worked 20-hour days, walked into difficult meetings with jet lag, dealt with screaming journalists, and was once almost fired in the back of a car in Shanghai. None of these reduced me to tears. Instead it took just one word on my mobile phone: Kinderkrippe.
On this fateful day (and on most other days), I had been awake since 4:45 am. I had managed to get my two children fed, dressed and out of the house by 7.15am, delayed only by one tantrum from the two-year-old. I had dropped the four-year-old at Kindergarten, the two-year-old at Kinderkrippe and had just made it into the office in time for my 8:30 am Very Important Meeting. I had a full inbox, a diary full of meetings and an important presentation in the afternoon. But my son had a temperature and needed to be picked up immediately.
So what made me cry? The guilt of taking my son to Krippe when he was clearly sick and I hadn’t noticed. The sinking feeling of knowing that I would have to write off at least two days of work. The fact that this had happened countless times during my four years as a working mother. And the familiar feeling that I was a complete and utter failure.
Our mothers smashed holes in the glass ceiling, and my generation of women were brought up to believe that we could – and should – have it all: a great education, a high-flying career, a perfect relationship, a sexy body, bouncy hair, a beautiful home, amazing friendships… oh, and still be the perfect mother. We were sold this as a privilege, an honour and a duty. It was only when my first child was four years old and I was close to a breakdown that I saw it for what it was: an unattainable and dangerous delusion.
I wrote a book during my first maternity leave, because what else can you do when your baby is sleeping? I breast-fed each child for 18 months, patiently waded through baby-led weaning at six months, sat in countless circles singing endless nursery rhymes in two languages and even made the effort to brush my hair before meeting other mothers.
I painted the apartment and created a beautiful nursery that was never used because I was too exhausted to crawl across the hallway four times a night for the two years it took my son to ‘sleep through’. I made the effort to go out with baby-less friends, even when I was on my knees with tiredness, because I wanted to maintain the image that ‘motherhood is easy’. And I let my husband have sex with me as soon as the gynaecologist gave the go-ahead, because I was still a sexy beast, even six weeks post-partum.
This attempt to have it all continued through my difficult second pregnancy, where I would often faint on the train on my way home from the office, because I was lucky enough to still have a career. It carried on through post-natal depression, through four years without a full-night’s sleep, through moving house at three weeks’ notice with a one-year-old and a three-year-old… on and on and on.
I was so proud when people talked about how I made it all look effortless, how I could maintain my high-flying career without a nanny or help from the distant grandparents. I was able to juggle everything beautifully. I was living the charmed, perfect life. I was Having It All.
I now look back and I’m ashamed. I lied to the world, and maybe other mothers bought into that lie and wondered why they couldn’t Have It All with the same apparent effortlessness. They didn’t see how it ripped me apart, how it almost destroyed my marriage and how it turned me into a banshee of a mother in private.
That tearful day in June, I realised that something clearly had to give and I needed to make a choice. I could continue to pursue my career, but then I had to give it the time and energy it required and stop beating myself up for not being the ‘perfect’ mother. This meant that I would need a nanny or my husband would have to cut down on his work or I would have to ship the grandparents out to Munich. None of these options would have worked for me and my family, and somehow my career didn’t seem as important to me as it once had. So instead I walked away. I won’t pretend it was an easy choice, but for me it was the right one.
Now, nearly four years later I work part-time and usually from the corner of my living room. My life isn’t perfect, and my hair is often not very bouncy, but I understand that I can’t be perfect and I don’t have to be. Just Having Some Of It is good enough for me.
Helen is a red-wine-drinking, good-book-loving, ski-obsessed, vegan mother-of-two-boys. She is English, but has called Munich ‘home’ for more than ten years. As a corporate copywriter, Helen usually writes about finance, healthcare and sustainability issues, so it’s a pleasant change to tackle such a personal topic: the endless learning curve of motherhood and its overwhelming impact on life.
Illustration credit: Yolanda Ng is a cross creative who is a professional fashion designer, stylist, street style blogger for VON ZWEI and a photographer at Corner Store Photography. She is also the Creative and Marketing Director for LMBB.