Day 133 in the Postnatal Gulag. Still haven’t made a dime.
‘Maternity leave’, for most of us creative sorts, is simply a nice way of rephrasing unemployment. Without the warm nest of jobs to return to, we simply stop working until we can work again. “How long are you on maternity leave for?” people ask, and the best I can do is return a wan smile, pretending there somewhere exists a golden contract allowing months of paid leisure time to take on the new job of motherhood. There doesn’t, of course. Instead, maternity leave has manifested itself as one long exercise of guilt management: guilty not to be writing, guilty not to be working, and most of all, guilty not to be enjoying my long-awaited time off.
For people who don’t know life without the daily slog of freelance work, the long, unpaid stretch of maternity leave is challenging. For an artist, work is a constant in your world: if you’re not working, you’re looking for work. When you’re not looking for work, you’re chasing people to pay you for your work. “I love the game,” I’d say to anyone who would listen. “I love the hustle.” And to be fair, I really did — any short sabbaticals spent client-side in the cool, air-conditioned hallways of corporate safety drove me bonkers. I was a mongrel who liked picking for scraps, not a well-kept lap dog. I didn’t know how to sit still.
Without a boss lording over your everyday, the freelancer must curate a steely work ethic. All the things your schedule could potentially allow for — sleeping in, delivering late, luxuriating in unpaid passion projects — is beaten out of you in order to survive. Every opportunity must be seized and every project finished to completion, over and above the requirements. This is what allows you to exist on the fringes of a ‘normal’ work schedule: you’re not just doing the same as others, but more. I would go as far as to say that to be a successful freelancer in a creative industry, you must become something of a workaholic.
And, unsurprisingly, this is not an attitude you easily switch off when maternity leave begins. All it means is that you’re now a dancing bear without a circus.
Freelancing for well over a decade equipped me with a relentless obsession with ‘busyness’. The long days spent at home with a new baby sends me back to my early days as a writer, trying to fill the empty hours with something, anything. I am triggered once again with the need to be busy, to have something to show for myself. This, after all, is how we are taught to recognise a day of productive work: results. But all my previously accepted markers for a busy work day have all but disappeared. I no longer churn out thousand-word articles in a day, or juggle hourly meetings, or stride down city streets barking out business calls with a coffee in hand. My new tasks of motherhood are different, baked in with snarky millennial judgement. Hanging out washing is hardly noteworthy, is it? And while an endless list of tasks previously felt like success — I could never complete that list, what luck! — the long stretch of domestic chores carries a new weight. Even if I worked at keeping up the housework all day, every day, it would never be done.
When my partner walks through the door at 6pm, I feel a flush of something bitter (Shame? Indignation?) when he asks me how my day was. Busy, I reply. Really busy. I did the washing, four loads. Folding dozens of tiny shirts and shorts. I emptied nappy bins, scrubbed the bath, did the food shopping. I lost an hour trying to make lunch with a writhing child strapped to my front in 32 degree heat. I was busy. I search beneath his cheerful nod for any notes of pity. What did he think of me, former workaholic, now donning an apron and asking what he wants for dinner? Was I pathetic?
I sat down to write this in the late morning, and now the sun is beginning to set. A time-lapse video would show me, child on hip, pointing to the birdies with one hand, typing with the laptop on the ironing board in the other. Cut to me back at the desk, frowning, with the child wailing on her rocker. Then on the sheepskin rug, kicking the wall. Then back on my lap, continually pressing the ‘L’ button, her tiny fingernails leaving half moon indents in my arm as I struggle to get out even just a few short paragraphs. Eventually we settle on the bed, feeding, as I stare at my laptop just out of reach, silently making edits in my head.
Two weeks after having my baby, I pitched in a podcast concept to my partner’s production agency. To my surprise, they accepted it. And not only that, they started the process of funding and casting. After my longest career break to date — almost three months — I was chipper at the thought of having a project again, a silver lining to an otherwise bleak time of dirty nappies and midnight feeds. I’m back, baby! Being busy was a cornerstone of my personality, after all, a non-negotiable state of being that allowed for the full force of my creative enthusiasm. Without a job I was, well, just a mother.
In the months since they accepted the pitch I have struggled to even get started. My daughter telepathically senses my precious moments of writing time and seizes them as opportunities to flex her skills as a distraction. I feel the hot breath of a deadline breathing down my neck, and want to scream with frustration at not being able to do the work. I can see the opportunity, feel it, but with every day that disappears under a mountain of housework and caring for a baby, I sense it drifting further and further away. Even the cool hours of early morning, previously my favourite moments to write, are filled with feeding and bouncing and cooing and patting. The best I can do is rapidly jot notes in my phone to revisit later. (‘Later’, that magical dot on the horizon where I do All The Things. Potentially just a mirage.)
In the months since my baby arrived, I’ve watched friends get promotions, release albums, appear in movies, publish books. I’ve watched my partner finish his first TV show and line up several more. I feel like I’m in a small boat, bobbing further and further away from the shoreline, watching my career disappear into the shadows. There in a lump in my chest when I realise that the accomplishment of creating, birthing, and rearing a child, however extraordinary, is still not enough for me. I turn this realisation over and over in my mind, filling in those long midday hours where I sit on the couch, bouncing my daughter on my knee and staring blankly at the television. Is it okay not to enjoy full-time parenting? Is it harder for an artist to stop working, when work is apparently always available in the nooks and crannies of your day? I constantly feel the need to be jotting down notes, prepping and documenting for….I don’t even know. A book? The podcast? Anything?
The guilt is tremendous and comes in from all angles: guilty not to be creating, guilty not to be working, but also guilty not to be enjoying maternity leave. Maybe, if I take a presumptuous leap, guilty for not enjoying motherhood. Of course, there’s no stopping now. It almost doesn’t matter whether I am enjoying it or not, for a baby keeps you moving like clockwork, silently passing through another day of feeding and patting and crying and pointing to the birdies. Another day falling into bed, exhausted, wondering what exactly it is you have to show for it. Motherhood may not pay, or win me any awards, but one thing is for certain — it’s very, very busy.