Marika’s Story – The Pursuit of Balance Before, During & After Maternity Leave

Work-Life Balance Profile #13: Marika*

*The names and some details have been changed for confidentiality purposes

Work:Life Ratio

60:40 (before having children)

40:60 (after first child)

0:100 (after second child)

Marika’s Work-Life Balance Profile
Marika has worked in the hotel industry since she moved to London from Poland in her early 20s. The hospitality sector has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, and – to make matters more complicated for Marika – by the time of the first Coronavirus lockdown in spring 2020, she was pregnant with her second child, and due to take maternity leave from her part-time role just a few months later.

Her job security plummeted almost overnight and she soon found herself facing possible redundancy, with little prospects of a job to return to after the birth of her child.

Marika’s schedule now revolves around caring for her two children. Her day starts around 7.00 to face the morning routine, which includes nappy-changing, breakfast-making, and getting two children dressed and ready to leave the house. Her four-year old son is entitled to 15 hours free childcare a week so, after dropping him off at nursery, she returns home with her 7-month old daughter to get the house back in order after the morning’s chaos.

After cleaning up, loading the dishwasher, sorting out some washing and preparing lunch, she takes her daughter out for some kind of afternoon activity before picking her son up again. From thereon after, she’s on the home straight to bedtime, with more cleaning, feeding, nappy-changing and the rest. The children are settled by 20.30, after which point Marika has very little energy for anything other than relaxing on the sofa, watching TV and heading to bed herself.

This lifestyle bears very little resemblance to Marika’s life before having children, when she would enjoy nights out with friends, taking holidays and working out in expensive gyms. Her idea of luxury these days is taking a bubble bath in peaceful solitude – a rare occurrence.

At the time of interviewing Marika, her husband, an IT consultant who works in the banking sector, was still working from home until Covid restrictions lift further. So whilst Marika can at least enjoy some adult company at home, moments to herself are few and far between.

She keeps fit by attending “buggy bootcamp” sessions in the park with her daughter and maintains a healthy social life by attending play groups or meeting up with friends with children of similar ages to hers. Of these activities, she says “it’s nice to get out”, though she readily admits that she is not entirely fulfilled by them.

I don’t do much for myself at this time”, she explains, conceding that it would be better for her confidence and her mind were she to be engaged in work that would provide some challenge and outlet for her creativity. Really she would like to undertake a marketing design course, but she struggles to apply her brain to studying late in evening, which is the only time she could manage the course. So those plans are on hold for now.

On the flip side, there is some satisfaction in knowing that she is giving her home and children the care that they need at this time.

An ideal balance for Marika would be around the 30:70 ratio. Her ambitions for self-employment may enable that far more than returning to working in hospitality again. Starting a business while undertaking her current childcare and domestic demands is an ambitious challenge, especially without a family network nearby to offer support. Then again, Marika has built something from nothing before: she arrived in this country alone, and established a career and home for herself from scratch. So there’s no reason to think she can’t do the same (well, similar) again.

A good night’s sleep first may help, mind you.

Chapter 1
0:100 (after second child)
I’m a professional, get me out of here…!

Having a baby has been the best thing that has happened to me this year”, said Marika, smiling a tired smile, as her 7 month old daughter squirmed in her lap. She had to raise her voice to be heard over her daughter’s noisy and restless babbling until her husband discreetly took her out of the room.

Marika hadn’t expected to fall pregnant when she did; and a near-miscarriage made the pregnancy all the more fraught and precious. Contented as she undoubtedly is, Marika looked pretty exhausted when we met on Zoom; she excused herself for not having had a chance to tidy up her hair or apply make-up. Watching her brought back vivid memories of the heady mix of euphoria and exhaustion I experienced being at home on maternity leave with my children when they were babies.

Yet, Marika’s situation is a world away from the one that most mothers experience either side of maternity leave: she is one of an exclusive club of women who have experienced pregnancy, childbirth and maternity leave during the pandemic. Attending pre-natal appointments alone, giving birth alone, and then isolated at home with a new born (and a toddler in Marika’s case) are distinct features that would have been unfathomable prior to the pandemic.

The isolation of lockdown has not been easy for Marika. She told me that when she first became a mother, she struggled to speak to other mums. “I know plenty about motherhood now”, she laughed, gesturing around her, “and motherhood has helped my confidence”, she says. Nevertheless, she harbours huge doubts about this confidence spilling over into her workplace persona. Even before her maternity leave, Marika described feeling immense Imposter Syndrome – an inner conviction that “one day people will find out that I know nothing”. This is a view that many women I’ve interviewed for my blog have shared.

This anxiety makes Marika all the more resolute to return to work in some capacity in the not too distant future. “I miss engaging my brain, using my skills and being around people”. What’s more, Marika is determined to not let “all those years” that she invested in her career go to waste:

I don’t know when I’ll go back to work, but I want to keep my career”.

She senses that with every year that passes, she will increasingly “miss being important again”; and employers’ inflexibility and the cost of childcare are additional obstacles standing in her way.

Chapter 2
40:60 (after first child)
A mother’s work is never done

It wasn’t until Marika was in her early 30s that she felt ready to become a mother. By that point, she had established her career, had recently been promoted and was in a full-time job that she loved. An organised and capable person, Marika prepared herself to return to working full-time after maternity leave: she and her husband adapted their working hours to enable them to share the nursery drop-offs and pick-ups, and they employed a nanny to help with everything else. Simple.

Or not.

Looking back on that period now, Marika reflects with some incredulity how naïve she was:

I didn’t realise how much having a baby would change my life”.

The reality of spending 2.5 hours per day commuting soon began to bite. “I was always late for work and always late to get home”, she remembers, as though recounting a nightmare, repeatedly turning up late to collect her son at the end of the day; the panic and loss of control when trains were delayed. The cost of childcare was a drain, “I was basically working to pay the nanny”.

The sense of failure was all-consuming. Marika recounted a memory she has of sitting around the boardroom and being asked by her male boss about her baby. It must have been obvious to him that she was not in a good state of mind as she told me how he had belittled her at that moment – comparing her to his wife who had four children to care for.

There I was, struggling to cope with just one child – it was humiliating”.

What troubled Marika even more was the impact that her and her husband’s working pattern seemed to be having on their son. He was falling behind with his speech development and experiencing food-related difficulties. Marika started questioning everything that she was doing and began to doubt her decision to return to work full-time.

He needed a mother around”, she says.

There was no question that the responsibility fell to her rather than her husband to take on the role of full-time carer of their child. “He is a good father”, she explained of her husband’s involvement in their childcare (something he clearly demonstrated in his hands-on approach to looking after their daughter while I interviewed Marika).

As much as his job would allow, Marika’s husband accommodated childcare responsibilities into his working pattern, like doing nursery runs in their early days of parenthood. But his involvement was limited by the inflexibility of his job, which Marika described as “unfortunate”. Marika reasons that “he makes good money and earns more than me”, so it was a no-brainer that she would take on the role of primary carer rather than him.

However, this was more than a purely financial decision. “My children are best cared by me”. Call it maternal instinct, or women’s guilt, but there was no doubt in Marika’s mind that this role was for her: “I felt like it was my job”. Consequently, the guilt of being at work more than being at home was her burden too. At breaking point, she went to hand her notice in to her boss, who in response offered her a part-time role. In retrospect, that was the best solution and she wishes she’d asked for it sooner. Returning to anything more than a part-time working arrangement now would be out of the question.

Interestingly, Marika’s choice to become the primary caregiver to her children bears some similarity to the choices that Sarah described making in her story. However, in Marika’s case, the sense of duty and responsibility seem to have tipped her towards that decision more than her love of domesticity.

Chapter 3
60:40 (before having children)
Flying the nest

Marika’s career ambitions started early. As a teenager growing up in a small, rural town in Poland, she harboured dreams early on of escaping provincial life and making more of her future. “Small town, small minds”, she said of her home town. Had she stayed, she imagines her prospects would have been limited to a future of menial working, such as on a supermarket checkout. She knew enough people that had taken that path and instinctively she wanted more.

As a little girl, Marika remembers meeting a relative who was moving abroad. The idea seemed fanciful and exciting and it sowed the seed of Marika’s dream to move to England, fuelled too by her passion for the English language.

Her parents did not share this sense of ambition. Neither of them were educated and had no interest in travelling. At the age of seventeen, to her family’s amusement, Marika announced that she was moving to London to become a nanny. It wasn’t until they saw her bags packed that they believed that she was serious about leaving. From that point on, she never looked back:

I wanted to do things my way

Marika seemed to downplay what drive and bravery it took to make the move she did at such a young age. She was brazen, headstrong, and had also overcome the judgements of the responsible adults around her that she was not capable of making such a move. It wasn’t just her parents that doubted her capabilities. Marika told me how her schoolteachers had not valued her skills, such as languages and writing. Instead, they focussed on what she couldn’t do: “I was never good at maths so I was told ‘you will never get anywhere’”.

I didn’t want to be a label”, she told me, meaning that she wanted to decide her own destiny and follow her passions.

Driven by her ambition and self-belief, once in London, Marika set about studying for her diploma with fervour. Sure, she had fun with friends, but there was no doubt in her mind what her purpose was:

I needed that certificate”, she told me, her eyes narrowed with determination, depicting that she meant business. Her career was hard fought and it was the ticket to the freedom that she desperately wanted.

From Marika’s current reality of domesticated chaos, the independent career-driven woman she once was seems a misty distant memory. She doesn’t feel a nostalgic connection to her home town and feels content to have moved on. Learning the fate of some of her old classmates who have indeed ended up working in the local supermarket (or similar) provides enough validation that Marika needs to prove to herself that she made the right move all those years ago.

Conclusion

It is easy to imagine how, in the fog of poor sleep and weathered nerves, Marika could feel detached from the characteristics that once drove her work-life choices. All the guilt, sense of failure and self-doubt that play on Marika’s mind presently seem to dominate her sense of accomplishment; she hardly gives herself any credit for all that she has achieved: like getting an education and making a home and a career for herself in a new country; and doing so in a second language no less. And that’s not to mention the role she is playing in raising her children.  

Marika knows what she wants. She wants to be a mother, and to devote the majority of her time to the care of her children who really need her at this time. But she knows she also wants to preserve her career and return to the workplace. The job she left when she went on maternity leave may no longer be there for her, but she has new dreams now of starting her own business.

Her determination not to let her career slip away is admirable and relatable. Like it or not, it is a sign of our times that she is certainly not the first woman whose earnings cover the cost of childcare, with little left to show for it at the end of the month, other than the maintenance of her career.

Attaining the work-life balance that Marika desires is within her grasp, though she is aware that rushing her return to work may cause her to slip back into the patterns of the past (along the lines of Chapter 2), which poses a significant risk. So, whilst Marika rides out the antenatal haze of her maternity leave, a little self-compassion and patience may serve her well, as she builds up her strength and resilience to face the next chapter of her work-life balance story.

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