Sarah’s Story – Motherhood and the Mental Load: marriage, self-employment and primary care-giving

Work-Life Balance Profile #5 – Sarah Macmull

Caitlin Moran paints a brilliant portrait of the “many lives” of the working mother, where “the wife, the employee, the mother and the housekeeper all take it in shifts”. The “niggle”, she points out, “is that they all happen at once”.

This came to mind when I was interviewing Sarah Macmull for my latest Work-Life Balance Profile, where the issue arose of working mothers carrying the “mental load” on behalf of their families. Often this is referred to negatively as evidence of institutional gender inequality; it’s rare to hear a feminist extolling the virtues of home-keeping alongside career drive. Yet, as described in Sarah’s story, for some women, though burdensome at times, what the mental load encapsulates is also the stuff of dreams.

This was a challenging interview to write up, not just because Sarah had a lot to say, so it was hard to keep the word-count down! But Sarah’s story presented the challenge of conveying the essence of what could be construed as an “ordinary” profile of a self-employed working mother.

Sarah remarked afterwards that she didn’t think hers was a very interesting story. But the ordinariness of a mother building her career around her family is a story rarely told in of itself, unless that mother goes on to do something notably extraordinary beyond the home she has created.

Sarah has accomplished many things ‘beyond the home’. But, remarkably, it was what she has accomplished within her home that emerged during her interview as being most valuable to her – on balance, that is.

Work : Life Ratio
On average 50:50*
(*or in Sarah’s words, a “mish-mash” of 40:60 and 60:40, depending on workload)

A self-employed drama teacher and founder of a performing arts school, Sarah, married with three children, has purposefully constructed her career to fit around home life.

She graduated from one of the most prestigious drama schools in the country and spent her early career working as an actress. Between acting jobs, Sarah started teaching drama and discovered a passion and talent for it. She also rediscovered her flair for putting on productions, something she had loved to do as a child.

Conscious that an actor’s working lifestyle was not conducive to the wholesome family life she desired, she decided – before even starting a family – to turn this side-earner into her main occupation and took the plunge to found her own school, Showstoppers. Alongside this, she teaches drama in schools around London, and is also hired on an ad-hoc basis to produce and direct school theatre productions.

Sarah’s husband, the family’s breadwinner, works full-time as a surgeon in the NHS and his hours are often long and unpredictable. Sarah is, therefore, the primary carer for their three children and manages her working hours around the family’s needs. Her work often involves them all, with her children attending Showstoppers classes, her husband mucking in to support backstage efforts when required, and their home storing costumes and stage sets for her productions.

She loves her work, but finds it equally important to find time for her many other interests such as crafts, cooking, theatre and exercise classes. She allows herself to indulge from time to time in the finer things in life, like pampering or shopping sprees, and volunteers at her children’s schools and in her community.

Coronavirus restrictions notwithstanding, Sarah is always quick to open up her home to friends and her extended family, and delights in entertaining. Despite its many challenges, she found lockdown perversely enjoyable and felt a sense of liberation at the simplicity and extra time it afforded her family.

Of her work-life balance, Sarah says that she has three priorities: “to be a good mum, to be a good wife, and to feel contented – career success has a significant impact on that final point”. She considers herself to be living her “ideal balance” and the busy “homely vibe” that she has created is a dream come true: “I never considered any other options than becoming a mummy and running a family home. And I wouldn’t want it any other way”.

It’s a Family Affair

Sarah likes to talk. She warned me of this at the start of her interview and sure enough, in her wonderfully animated and magnetically engaging manner, she was rarely lost for words. So I was intrigued that a straight-forward question about her earliest memory of wanting to have a baby stopped her in her tracks.

Her eyes darted around as she contemplated this notion, and, after some hesitation, all she could do was shrug and say that she honestly does not remember ever not wanting to have babies, have a home, cook and bake. She doesn’t even remember this being a conscious decision. It’s just how it was. Nature or nurture, the desire within her was unquestionable. An innate maternal instinct, if you like.

Sarah puts this down to the example she grew up learning from: her own large, bustling and loving family. Her parents were (and still are) hard-working, entrepreneurial business people, who owned a retail business. Sarah’s childhood memories are filled with being in the midst of the action at her parents’ shop and warehouse, watching them work and pitching in. Where the family business was concerned, the lines between work and home were intrinsically blurred.

Her grandmother, “Nana Sylvie”, who regularly looked after her, was a particularly strong influence in her life. A home-body, who loved to cook, bake and sing, Sarah absorbed her Nana’s passions and learned her skills by being by her side around the home.

Her family’s business-minded and somewhat bohemian values did not hold academia in high esteem, and there was an element of surprise and bemusement when Sarah scored highly enough in her 11+ to be awarded a place at a competitive grammar school. Sarah took her school work in her stride, applying her natural enthusiasm and conscientiousness to it, without any external pressure or expectation to succeed.

Her desire to perform and work in theatre was prevalent early on and it felt the natural step to opt for a performing arts education rather than apply to university. Her family saw her potential and allowed her the freedom, despite some reservations, to make that decision independently.

Playing the part of Yonah in a stage musical production of ‘Children of Eden’

The Show Must Go On

Sarah’s independence and drive to carve out a career in “show business” spurred her on to secure herself an agent and be cast in numerous theatre productions. Sometimes this involved being on the road for as long as nine months at a time.

Much as she loved the theatre, there was a lot going on behind the scenes that she knew wouldn’t suit her long-term, especially by the time she met her husband. As well as the requirement to be away for extended periods, she was put off by the open scrutiny of her body, and peer pressure to participate in an after-work social scene that made her feel uncomfortable. She did not fall victim to the obscenities exposed by the “Me Too” movement, but says that not much was left to the imagination. All in all, her side-job of teaching and stage production became increasingly appealing.

The pressure to stay in the performing circuit was high and, amongst her peers, career side-steps like hers were akin to an admission of failure, invoking an undeniable sense of shame. Sarah says she cares deeply what people think and she struggled with that. Even now, she harbours a sense of imposter syndrome when the spotlight turns on her. She observes with interest that from her graduating drama school class, far fewer women than men have remained working in the industry, perhaps indicating that she was not alone in her apprehension of the shortcomings and implicit discrimination of the “showbiz” lifestyle.

In the early years of Showstoppers, directing a production of ‘Annie’

Despite the pressure to keep auditioning, and her paranoia that her peers would think she’d “given up”, Sarah remained resolute in her ambition for a strong family life. Starting up her own business and teaching felt not only like a safe option, but like coming home. It combined her passion for performing, with the business acumen she acquired by osmosis from her family. Teaching, she says is the ultimate performance, and the skill of keeping a class full of children engaged should not be mistaken as an easy win.

She says she “didn’t spend too long feeling like I failed as an actress”, but admits that it still somewhat pains her, even now, to acknowledge that she didn’t make more of a success of it. She’ll rarely mention her former career when she meets new people, despite her contentment at her career change.

Sarah describes her acute fear of failure as being something inherent in all performers, who are known to doubt themselves and seek to give their best performance every time. It is certainly the nature of her trade rather than pressure from her family that strikes up her adrenalin and pushes her to strive for success.

Sarah experienced a year as stay-at-home-mum when the family moved to Australia for her husband to undertake a surgical fellowship. Naturally industrious, she looked for ways to earn an income through garage and e-bay sales, alongside managing the home, travel plans and settling three children into school. She justified not working by all else that was demanded of her and she felt proud and accepting to pause her career in order to support her husband’s and give the whole family an experience of a lifetime. Her positivity and inherent sense of fun and excitement set the tone for the family to enjoy it as the adventure she wanted it to be.

But Sarah would never contemplate not working long-term, even if her income continues to be far less than her husband’s, and despite being so invested in her domestic life. “I love my work”, she explains, “the minute I get there, I light up because I’m in my zone”. And nothing quite matches her sense of pride and accomplishment at being presented flowers on the opening night of her own stage productions.

She says she feels good when she can pay for things herself and whenever she has felt uncomfortable about not earning more, her husband is quick to remind her: “you contribute more than you think or feel”.

Sarah is an idealistic and positive person and her creative flair and can-do attitude often allows her to get carried away (something she says her kids frequently cringe about). “I’m not a perfectionist”, she says, “but I do love to do things brilliantly”.

Sarah and her family prepare for Showstoppers‘ ten-year anniversary production at the Bloomsbury Theatre

Guilty Pleasures

Juggling the running of a busy family home, a business, and the lives of three young children, takes all the brilliance a person can muster. And much as Sarah wholeheartedly throws herself into all of these endeavours, she nevertheless doubts and berates herself constantly for not doing more or doing better.

The guilt, she says, is incessant. When I ask her to expand, the list of guilty misdemeanours trails out: she feels guilty for missing things like forgetting to send a child to school with a required item; for allowing her children too much ‘screen time’; for cooking frozen convenience food rather than a fresh meal for the family; for getting angry at her children when she’s tired; for missing bedtime when she has to work late. The list goes on. She described her recent success of remembering to practice spellings with her daughter in advance of the weekly spelling test, something she frequently forgets to do. When I do things like that, she says, partly in jest but there’s truth in the sparkle in her eye, “I’m winning at life”.

When challenged on the depth of her guilt, she concedes that she thinks she is “quite a good mum”. But, applying the metaphor of juggling multiple balls in the air at one time, she says she constantly feels at risk of dropping one of them.

Bag those metaphorical balls up and they form a heavy mental load for Sarah to carry around. I witnessed a glimpse of it during our interview, which took place in her home kitchen. Throughout that short time, we were interrupted by her husband and children countless times. The requests and information were varied and ranged in their complexity: from her husband (who came in to kiss her goodbye before he left for work) letting her know his operating list and the time he expected to return home for dinner, to the details he reminded her to relay to the plumber who was on his way over, to her son coming in to discuss the logistics of his afternoon plans and where and when she needs to collect him, to batting questions of where items of laundry could be found. And that’s not to mention the work-related messages constantly pinging up on her phone.

At one point, her teenage son comes in, pours himself a bowl of cereal and comes to sit next to us. Hardly raising his eyes from his phone, he asks between bites what we’re doing, and shrugs “ok” when we tell him, not in any rush to leave us to it. The family buzzes around her and never seems to doubt that they are welcome. The warmth and cosy familiarity emanates from all directions.

Sarah hardly flinches at the interruptions, seemingly unfazed by the amount of information thrown at her and she doesn’t seem to realise just how impressive her capacity is to absorb it all, and so calmly. This is the scene she described her younger self wishing for – a house bustling with love and activity.

It is a hectic juggle, but it is by design. She admits that at times she gets frustrated that the mental load is entirely on her shoulders and it can get too much. An effective communicator and mindful of the importance of good mental health, Sarah feels comfortable addressing this directly with her husband and between them they generally find a way to meet one another’s needs. Still, the responsibility sits largely with her.

Lockdown, Sarah says, was a revelation of sorts. “I learned to slow down”, she says, and accept that it’s ok not to be constantly on the move: “I also learned to be more accepting and to identify what makes me content”. Though ‘the guilt’ was not alleviated during lockdown, it changed her perspective on how much she can expect from herself and that it is ok for her children to be left to their own devices (even if that means leaving them absorbed for long spells on their electronic devices).

Sarah with her husband and three children on a family outing during lockdown 2020

Despite the feelings of guilt that plague her, Sarah recognises how hard she works and, though she feels a need to calculate her justification, she does allow herself some indulgences and relaxation.

Often this involves spending time with her husband away from the children (it is in their interest that they invest time in nurturing their relationship), or spending time with her friends (equally beneficial for her family that she maintains strong friendships and has fun), or spending money on herself (it’s good for them all if she feels good about herself). She is in daily contact with her mum, who is her trusted confidante and shares in her challenges and triumphs. Finding the time for it all isn’t easy, though that too seems remarkably manageable, as she insists on making time for the things she values, of which there are many.  

Towards the end of our interview, Sarah recounts a story of a conversation she recently had with her nine-year old daughter, who announced what she wants to do when she grows up. Included in her list is her desire to be a mummy. And just like that, the sense of history repeating reveals itself: her own maternal impulses instilled in her daughter, just as naturally as they were in her when she was a child. No decision to be taken, no hesitation or analysis applied. It could be nature, it could be nurture. Or maybe an innate maternal instinct that has been nurtured by example. She describes her son having similar paternal ambitions too.

As a self-employed business woman, Sarah says she never audits her hours so couldn’t really say if she works full-time or part-time, but she does not envy the lifestyle of her career-driven peers who spend more time at work than at home or with their families. It almost doesn’t matter what her working hours are because her job and her home are two separate but entwined aspects of her life – a “mish-mash” balance of 50:50 aptly sums it up.

As I get up to leave, the plumber arrives and Sarah smiles at him warmly, offers him a drink and gets stuck in to a pipes-related discussion as I see myself out. From my fleeting insight at all she has on her plate, it seems indeed that, full-time or part-time, this woman’s work is never done.

If any of the issues raised in this post relate to your situation, feel free to “like” it and comment below. If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch. Subscribe or follow this blog, A Fine Balance, to receive further updates.

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