Does how we define success lift the guilt of admitting defeat?

Like most of us, I love my kids more than life itself and they were a major driving force in my change of direction two years ago when I ended my career as a teacher.  So why do I now find myself pursuing a version of success that is damaging to the life I had in mind when I made that decision?

Since then I have spent six months as a full-time stay at home mum; six months juggling those responsibilities alongside retraining; and the last twelve months juggling part-time flexible work alongside being the primary carer.

These days our childcare arrangements mean I work two days spread across three while the rest of the time I look after our two children. I thought I’d found the solution to pursuing meaningful work while balancing the demands of family life, so why do I find myself worn down by repeatedly working into the evenings and at weekends? Why do I find myself thinking about work when I should be focused on my children? And why do I find myself frustrated by the limitations placed on my success by the demands of being their primary carer?

Well, partly because my maths is bad. I have roughly 17 hours of childcare each week spread over three days but, from the beginning, I’ve taken on enough work to fill three actual full-sized days…

But apparently that is not enough of a stretch and as my fledgling business grows I find myself afraid to turn work down, taking on more clients, making more calls, sending more emails, replying to more messages, working more hours, putting my time under more strain, and yes, earning more money.

Why?

Because I want to be successful.

But what if I can’t be. Or at least not in the terms of what we are told success looks like?

What if I have to accept time is finite, and so is my sanity? Being the primary carer means that for the sake of both, I have to make a choice.

It doesn’t feel like much of a choice – be the mother I believe my children need, but limit my own achievements outside the home, vs fulfil my potential but perhaps at the cost of my relationship, mental health and the happiness of my children…

When written like that the choice is obvious, but the perhaps in that sentence is key. Toying with the idea that We would be fine! I would be fine! They would be FINE! my mind is in conflict and the resentments run deep because why does it fall to me alone to make this decision?

This is a choice unconsciously influenced a long time ago and the balance of earning power has always been tipped against me. It seems that becoming a primary caregiver was inevitable, whether I liked it or not.

And it’s a choice made sour by the awareness that men typically do not have to make it. In a thirty-something version of a threenager-rage, I stamp my feet and insist, NOT FAIR!

My less charitable moments question the commitment of men to the cause of gender equality – so few take up Shared Parental Leave, or are even prepared to ask for flexible work in order to take on their share of the caring responsibilities. And while I know it’s not straightforward – there are plenty of barriers in their way too – I also catch myself wondering, How hard are you really trying?

I know that partly to blame for all this (middle-class – there is no getting away from the privilege that underlines this whole ramble) angst is my own internalised definition of what success looks like. Society intrinsically links success with our bank balance – an attitude that prioritises what we earn over everything else, and you don’t need me to point out that mothers earn nothing…

I’m not however, suggesting that if mothers were valued more highly we would all be happy baking, rather than winning, our own bread. In fact I’m suggesting the opposite: if motherhood were valued more highly – if caring and nurturing children was viewed as successful in its own right – then perhaps attitudes to fathering could also change. Perhaps if success were defined differently for us all we would all be freed from the need to build up the bank balance to feel like we are winning.

And then, if we saw men and women in equal number sacrificing (or at least slowing down) their careers in order to raise children, it might leave us feeling less pressure to prove that we can do it too, and less resentment if it wasn’t possible. Perhaps it would feel less prickly if our achievements were not limited by biology, but by practicality.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps – ponderings on a fantasy-land are indulgent and definitely don’t help me now. Awareness of the deep-rooted influence of the accepted definition of success doesn’t mean it is easy to break free of that mindset.

Back in the real world, I’m left with That Choice. It feels oddly familiar – I’ve been here before and after investing years into a career I watched it drift away on the winds of change once the small people arrived.

The only thing that is certain is that I’m not getting any extra hours for work any time soon, and if I’m totally honest, I’m not even sure I want them – I remain committed to my original reasons for starting all over again in my career.

It’s this shadow of “success” hanging over me that I need to shake. It’s the resentment that my life hasn’t turned out the way I expected that I need to discard. Rather than planning my life along the lines of what do I want? maybe I have to think more about what I want more; rather than being weighed down by what feels like an admission of defeat, I need to linger longer on the things I’m winning.