Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Stress and work - Not a zero sum game

Twenty-five minutes ago, I sent off a document to a client. This is a research / professional writing project I've been working on since the first week in June, and this complete draft for widespread review represents a large number of hours of work - a really large number of hours, truth be told. In that three and a half months, I've had one week (during the July school holidays) and a couple of 3-day weekends off the project, but I have, otherwise, worked at least one full day each weekend and sometimes both days, every Tuesday and Thursday (when my 3 year old is at creche), scattered hours across the three weekdays I have my little one with me, and two to four evenings a week (anywhere from 2 to 5 hours per go). I'm lucky in that most of the work has been from home, with weekly to fortnightly attendance at the client site for meetings; but, still, the work has to be done!

The whole thing got significantly more complicated two weeks ago, when I was offered and accepted another research / professional writing contract to run throughout September and October. This new contract is not quite as intimidating as the big project, in that I am not the only writer / researcher involved, and am not doing any of the planning / project management, just purely creating good text. However, it's still a major time commitment that I need to juggle with the ongoing demands of the first project (which is now in hiatus until the draft review meeting in a fortnight - thankfully! - but will resurge in late September).

It probably won't surprise you to learn, then, that I am somewhat stressed by the virtuoso-level juggling act I've been performing throughout the long, cold Melbourne winter. A predictable outflow of this busyness is that my house is very messy - catastrophically so, you might, with justice, allege. This also stresses me - I'm no neatnik, but outright squalor isn't my cup of tea either. I've been trying as hard as I can to prioritise the kids, my husband, and time as a family, and mostly I think I've succeeded, but there are no doubt times I've missed the boat on their needs as well over the past months, which activates my mother guilt, always lurking not far below the surface. As for a social life, most self-care activities, hobbies and so on: no, there is no time. (Apart from reading, my first and truest hobby, which continues always :-)

One of my friends said recently, "Oh, working is stressful. Not working is much better when you have kids; that way there's no stress."

I thought about what she said, but, even with the admitted overload I'm managing at the moment, I don't think I agree. In the year I was not working at all (2011), stress wasn't absent from my life, it was just different. Yes, my house was nice and clean, I didn't have childcare crises, I got to spend time writing poetry and fiction, and I slept a lot more :-) But I also overthought everything when it came to the kids, and clucked over them, which made them all more anxious than they are now. I worried about abstract things rather than concrete ones, which is actually harder to manage in some ways.

And, the elephant in the room - financially, me not earning was actually quite stressful for us. My husband makes a respectable upper-middle income, but we are, like most people, mortgagees, and we have three children, and no financial supports from family. We muddled along on his income until the unexpected things happened (which they always did!) and then much hand-wringing would ensue as we juggled credit cards and so on just to manage it. What we realised was that the part-time income I'd been earning from A's birth in 2003 until leaving that job in 2010 was pretty important to our ability to have a financially unstressed life. We are not big spenders and I realise we are super comfortable by many measures, but with me working, we are not worried about paying bills or term fees for the kids' activities; we aren't carrying nasty credit card balances around like deadweights; sudden catastrophes, like the car popping its head gasket, are annoying rather than devastating.

All in all, I guess what I'm saying is that every choice you make in this working-not working minefield when you have children carries consequences, and some of those consequences can be stressful in either direction. The challenge for me in 2012 will be to strike a middle road between not working at all and working myself half to death :-)


  1. Your friends comment is so not true. There are lots of stresses when your at home. like you said there are financial stresses and stresses in the home having to need the house clean.

    Hope your next job isn't as stressful.

  2. i think motherhood is one of the most stressful things.. you can party hard as a single lady and wonder how you got home that night...

    but when it comes to looking after someone 24/7 for the rest of your life.. making sure they are healthy, safe, growing, learning.. forever...

    #teamIBOT was here to say hello!!

  3. I can relate to this one. I am a full-time working mum who suffers my fair share of mumma guilt. But like you I don't agree that not working is the answer for me or my family.
    You are spot on, it is all about the balance. Problem is just when you think you have it right.... the posts shift!