Serena Williams, one of the world’s all-time greatest athletes, feels inadequate. This week, she alluded on her Instagram to the fact that her tennis performance is plagued by feelings that she isn’t doing enough for her daughter. A couple of weeks before, the working mother had tweeted of baby Olympia: “She took her first steps... I was training and missed it. I cried.”
I may not look like a warrior, or even be capable of running 20ft without gasping, but I welcome Serena Williams eagerly to the working mothers’ club and would like to reassure her that, woman, we feel your pain. I once wheeled a suitcase straight out of a primary-school concert, into the parents’ carpark, where a taxi was waiting to take me to the airport, for a five-day-and-night work trip. As other mothers were no doubt still mopping up their tears, I was boarding a flight to New York, my facial muscles still aching from being contorted in full, ugly crying over the sight of my youngest as “dancing chimp three”, and wondering if I could bang out a 3,000-word interview between take-off and landing. There were no doubt other mothers absent altogether – women whose jobs deny them my freedom or flexibility, whose bosses neither get nor care how one’s attendance at a crap nativity can feel like a matter of life and death; women whose incomes mean a day off guarantees an empty fridge or petrol tank. But I’ve missed special assemblies, countless football matches, a couple of sports days, a parents’ evening and I’ve never chaperoned a school trip. I was, and usually am, working my arse off and was very often feeling way more guilty than I should.
During my years as a hard-working mother (some of them single and skint, more of them not), I’ve been given every encouragement to judge myself harshly – and so have my friends. The teacher who makes a point of saying, “We don’t see YOU here normally!”, crushing any residual pride you felt in managing to race from work in time for the last bell at school. The classmate’s mum who tilts her head to the side in sympathy at your not being able to attend another mothers’ social event because you either have to be at work or are so rarely free that storytime with your kids, sex with your partner, paperwork sorting or a whites wash is so much more important to the family’s health.
We are doing our best, raising our kids, attempting to keep our employers sufficiently happy that they don’t move on to someone childless, young, perpetually available
The mum who talks about your husband as though he’s The Second Coming purely because he does exactly what she does – school run, lunches, extra-curricular clubs – every day of her unnoticed life. The men who tell you their own partner stays home because she “really loves the kids”, as though you’re barely on speaking terms with yours. And I daresay that for every one of the tactless, seemingly mean-spirited guilt-mongers, there’s an equally defensive working mum making patronising comments about cupcake baking and Pilates classes to a woman who stays at home in circumstances to which she can’t herself begin to relate. When everyone is under attack, many will inevitably act out. But we don’t want to hear it, any of it, any of us. We “work” or “don’t work” because we feel we have to, need to, want to. All of us in paid work would do a little less if we could. But until reaching this nirvana, we are doing our best, raising our kids, attempting to keep our employers sufficiently happy that they don’t move on to someone childless, young, perpetually available.
And despite knowing all this, your harshest judge and critic will be yourself, as Serena Williams reveals bravely to the world. You will think about the time your child woke up crying from a nightmare and, instead of being able to snuggle them up in your bed, you were in a shitty travel tavern, fashioning supper from gin and Lotus biscuits. You’ll remember hearing that your child had a bug and feel bad that your first thought was not for them, but for your boss and about how she’d react to your downing tools for cartoons and cuddles. You will obsess over words you missed being spoken for the first time, over swimming strokes you didn’t teach, wobbly steps you didn’t get to clap, cuts and grazes that were already cleaned and plastered before you were even home to kiss them better. You’ll recall the night you hit the 24-hour Asda because it was 2am, you’d just finished writing a report/chapter/evaluation and were way too broken to make flapjacks for the fete.
Speaking from the other side, the baby-and-toddler phase years behind me, I can say I would do it all again. Because gradually, Serena, and every working woman I know, will stop worrying about their shortcomings and begin to feel proud over their warrior-like strength and determination to keep food on tables and a roof above heads. I do and I am glad that despite whatever else my sons missed out on (and part of the parenting experience is realising that all children do feel sad about something you did or didn’t do), they got to learn that women have a life of their own, that they are not defined by their children, that they work hard for their clan and make things happen, that they don’t always need even an ounce of help from a man. They step up for their families, whether at home or at work, and make sacrifices for the greater good. They make rent, pay bills, instil work ethic, foster ambition, discourage entitlement, lead by example and set a high bar for what little girls, and the future female partners of little boys, can achieve on an un-level playing field. They show kids of all genders that the team is everything and everyone must muck in while mum earns a cheque. Frankly, I’d do it all again just for the satisfaction of delivering two good, respectful, enlightened men to the dating pool. I can always catch up on what I had to sacrifice to do that. Because everyone knows that whether it’s a first step, tooth or word, it simply doesn’t count until Mum has seen it.