When successful magazine editor Danielle Pender fell pregnant, the thought of leaving her job behind was too much to bear.
Career-driven Danielle pushed herself to the limit and struggled with her loss of identity. But the new mum soon realised that motherhood was not a bore – the act of raising a child should be celebrated.
Here, Danielle charts her changing mindset and tells future mums that it’s ok to be scared, but your children are worth every challenge.
“The last three weeks of work before I started my maternity leave felt like a race against time. With a growing stomach and expanding ankles, my body was a physical reminder that I had a finite amount of hours to complete my to-do list. It was also a reminder that I’d soon step out of the identity I’d inhabited all of my adult life.
I was very nervous. Many of my anxieties revolved around the typical new mother issues: Would my baby sleep? Would I be able to breastfeed? Did we have enough nappies – how do you even change a nappy?! But I was mainly worried about becoming “just a mum”.
I worked up until the week before my due date, hosting a magazine launch with my vast bump, naively insistent that my pregnancy wouldn’t affect my ability to do my job as editor of a women’s magazine. In trying to ignore my changing body and the impending arrival of a baby I thought I was the opposite of what I dreaded becoming – just a mum.
Looking back, the pressure I put on myself was dangerous and unhealthy. I should have been resting and preparing myself. Instead, I was stressing about guest lists, bar staff and my shifting identity.
This attitude carried on after the birth of my baby. After the initial and essential rest post-partum, my thoughts quickly returned to work. I run Riposte, a women’s magazine, and collaborate with brands on events, so when my daughter was around six weeks, I started checking in, going to meetings with her in a sling, planning the next issue and mapping out brand partnerships.
Some parts of this were necessary; when you run your own business, taking time off can be tricky. But there were things I definitely didn’t need to be doing, which brought an extra level of stress to my life.
I thought that keeping active at work meant I was more than just a mum, but now I question why I had that anxiety. Why did I think being a mum was such a negative thing?
Looking back, I saw motherhood as boring, which, to be honest, it is a lot of the time. It’s relentless and tiring, but then so is working in an office or running your own business. However, this tedious work isn’t looked down on the same way that motherhood and child care is.
We laud “hard work” – which often just involves emailing or talking to other adults – within the corporate sphere. It’s remunerated handsomely, we give people awards, we write about entrepreneurs and CEOs. But hard work within the home is never celebrated in the same way, even though it’s often more demanding and requires the same level of skills and intelligence.
Negotiating with a tired toddler requires zen master levels of patience. New problems come at you on a minute-by-minute basis, so you’re fire-fighting in a way no Managing Director ever has to. There’s very little tangible advice that you can rely on because each child is different, so you’re being creative and innovative, thinking on your feet all the keeping while a small person alive.
Caring for a child is objectively more challenging than any job I’ve ever had, and yet it’s never given the recognition it deserves, a theme that I explore in my new book Watching Women & Girls.
It can become very difficult not to lose yourself in motherhood, and this loss of identity for new mothers is a huge issue. A recent study by professor Samantha Reveley of Sunderland University found that the participants, who were all new mothers, “largely experienced emotional turmoil as their identities became changed and the relationships they held with others around them often changed or broke down entirely.”
I felt this loss of identity acutely; However, my negative feelings towards becoming ‘just a mother’ were more than this. I was reacting to the cultural messages I’d consumed my whole life. I was also responding to a society that prizes returning to work after having a baby above all else despite crippling early years childcare costs.
Motherhood and rearing a family are presented as the ultimate ambition, but then we don’t value the women who fulfill this role. Stay-at-home mothers provide care and continuity for their families, yet their labor is unpaid.
Gradually, these messages built up an anxiety within me about giving myself over entirely to this new ‘mum’ identity.
Of course, the reality is that you’re never just a mum – you’re an accountant, a project manager, an artist, a psychologist, an athlete and many more things, sometimes all in one day. We need robust laws that protect and support mothers and people who care for children, because the domestic work we do is essential to the running of this country.
The irony is that I’ve created my best work since becoming a mother, but this hasn’t come from a place of fear. It also hasn’t come from working relentlessly to prove I was more than just a mother, to myself and others. My motivation now comes from my daughter. I have a new focus and a new inspiration. Being a mother has expanded my understanding of the world and of myself. As a result, the work I do now comes from a more authentic place than ever before.
I wish I could go back to 2014 and tell myself that becoming a mother would be hard and, in parts, insanely dull, but that I would grow in ways I could never imagine.
But I can’t go back, so I’m telling you: If you’re worried about what motherhood will do to your career, your identity and your life, I feel you. Your fears are well founded but go forth, be brave, and dare to dream of what your life could be like if this was the best thing that ever happened to you – even if it’s at times one of the hardest things you’ve ever done .”
• Watching Women & Girls by Danielle Pender is out now (4th Estate) available at all major bookshops nationally.