Going Back to Work (for the Kids)

Yes.

Of course being a Mother is the hardest job in the world.

There is no pay, no vacation, once a year you are treated to a nightmare brunch scenario with mimosas, and it is my understanding that eventually we all get to be lectured on our complete ignorance of ANYTHING and EVERYTHING by someone half our height who wasn’t even a twinkle in our eyes at the turn of the millennium.

So mark your calendars for that one, folks.

And if I’m being completely honest, it was the exhaustion from that lack of Mom vacation that really pushed me to consider going back* to work (you know, for the KIDS) and served as the catalyst for this blog post.

Good Intentions
To be clear, I’ve always held a job since having children. I joined the gig economy (which was originally just called freelancing) in 2013 because I thought it might be important to lay a flexible work foundation for when I might need it down the road. I imagined taking all the maternity leave I wanted. Attending mid-morning band concerts. Four o’clock soccer games. Having dinner on the table at 5 p.m. As a young creative in the agency world, there certainly didn’t appear to be an alternative.

Smash Cut To
I eventually ended up taking six weeks of maternity leave because, as a remote contract worker, I was too nervous to take more; I became obsessed with the idea that I’d be replaced before I could get back to my job. And then I did things like saying YES to weekend freelance projects, sometimes with my sleeping infant in tow (to the delight of freelancers around me) who cooed that they, too, had launched their businesses or continued their careers with children under their desks or sleeping within arms’ reach while they typed away on a computer.

I thought I was part of a club that was making things better for our kids. In theory, I was “there.” In my head, I was more accessible. And more flexible with my schedule. All while still demonstrating something like strength, ambition, and leadership, though, to a two-year-old, I suspect I might have simply gotten away with the latter by strong-arming his Dad into pizza for the second night in a row.

Best Laid Plans
In any case, it eventually came to a head as all tenuous situations do.

I wasn’t there. In fact, I was almost always late to pick our kids up from daycare and my parents’ home. Always wrapping up one last Google Chat, responding to feedback on a manuscript, taking an unscheduled check-in. And as someone who billed hourly, I was happy to be needed. But it almost always resulted in late dinners and even later bedtimes.

I wasn’t flexible. Surprise trips to the zoo? Nope. What if I was needed on a call? Lunch with my parents? Yeah, right. I sometimes had clients on opposite coasts and lunch in Minnesota routinely collided with afternoon work sessions.

And I certainly wasn’t radiating strength or leadership. Despite my best intentions, to a toddler, I looked the exact same as when he left the house, unless I happened to have a video conference—then there was lipstick—but even at that point, I was often more surly than any one of those heroic traits I mentioned above. And for no apparent reason to my family.

So why did it fail? Why give up the gig life, the one with the flexible schedule, where everyone always looks like they’re hustling in a fancy coffee shop as part of some kind of monochrome Instagram dream world?

You Can’t Disengage. (Literally) There are shades of grey on this, as anyone knows, regardless of job. You might peek at a Slack notification while making dinner. Swipe through your inbox waiting for swim lessons. But as someone whose career thrives on availability, and without the buffer of your account department or project manager, you are literally at the mercy of your clients. Every great creative I know has taken a stand on late-night work sessions or ridiculous turnaround times, only to fall into the “make it work” trap at one point or another.

You Can’t Disengage. (Figuratively) Many nights, I was bringing my workplace baggage and attitude to the dining room table. Mostly because it was located about four feet from my home office. I’d even tried to plan for it, barring my laptop from our bedroom or even the couch. But because I didn’t get to commute, I also didn’t get a chance to decompress, even for a second, before jumping right in to make dinner or take on some other family-related chore. To be clear, worlds are STILL colliding when 6:15 p.m. rolls around and I’m scurrying to make dinner before my husband tumbles into the house holding both kids. But for 20 glorious minutes from Northeast Minneapolis to our little neighborhood in St. Paul? Those. Those are mine.

Your Instagram Says Vacay. Your Family Knows Otherwise. I worked on vacations. Like, all of them. And yes, everyone works on vacation. Glancing at an email thread, highlighting an RFP, or reviewing files. But to do the math and realize how much I was losing by not logging hours — even on Christmas? You start to find creative ways to make up the time. An additional naming project after dinner. Editorial calendars over lunch. An email campaign instead of a gym routine.

My Kids Didn’t Suffer. But My Husband and I Did. While there were a handful of times on weekends where my husband took over full-time kid duty while I high-tailed it to a coffee shop to get extra work done, I never sped up their bedtime routines. An extra book? Sure. Another lap around the block on the trike? Yep. But it often caught up with me around 11:30 p.m. when I most wanted to turn on a familiar sitcom with my husband and cuddle until we passed out. Work was always there, waiting in the background.

I Felt Lost Professionally. The great thing about being your own boss is that you’re at the top of the ladder. And when I was younger, I interpreted that as meaning I didn’t have anyone to answer to. It was GREAT. Some even called it the DREAM. But I’ve since learned it means you also don’t have anyone to learn from. Can this be supplemented with mentoring opportunities and professional organizations? Absolutely. They just have to work with your schedule and family priorities.

So! I wish I had a clever way to wrap this up. I’m three weeks into my new position, complete with HR paperwork, a communal snack fridge, and team building on Mondays. I leave between 4 and 4:30 most afternoons. I took a vacation and was actually scolded for replying to a Slack thread. It’s early. We’re all still adjusting. But I’m looking forward to the potential. The chance to make up for lost time with my kids. My husband. This is for them, after all. And the chance to update you all once again.

*Back = back to an office. With a commute. And co-workers who can peep over your cubicle wall and ask if you’ve seen the latest episode of Pretty Little Liars. You know. BACK.

Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg


Image by 2nd Truth

Kate Smith is  the writer and voice behind Katewordsmith, a modestly humorous, mostly self-depreciating Twitter account and eponymous copywriting studio for clients of all shapes and sizes. She makes her home in Minneapolis-St. Paul with her equally self-loathing husband, verbose three-year-old son, joyful infant daughter, and untamed Boston Terrier.

  • Fantastic post! I’m currently planning my maternity leave for my first, and a lot of people at work have been asking if I’m considering going freelance/flex work arrangement and/or working “remotely” after I come back from leave. However, you highlight several of the things I want to make sure I maintain and that I already know are critical to my professional success and personal sanity! Just being physically present in the house isn’t always the best 🙂

  • Yes to this! I’ve finally come around and realized that the 9-5 work life suits me well, though it’s not very glamorous. I wish more people acknowledged that it’s possible to pursue your passions and work a day job so thanks for a little honesty!

  • Thank you for this post, there needs to be a lot more recognition that work does need to stop at some point and life has to start (or at least be the primary because when you have kids you never totally stop thinking about them).

  • Good for you. I have a comfortable, full-time job with great benefits and lots of paid holiday time. But I’ve always had a creative outlet on the side, a side gig to fulfill me creatively. Ten years in, I’m tired and seriously contemplating just keeping my full-time gig and doing nothing on the side. Imagine? Coming home, having dinner, and then just relaxing! No emails, no projects. It would be so nice. Let’s get over the glorified gig job and embrace personal time 🙂