Return to Work

One of the things that’s said with varying degrees of kindness and shaming to new mums is that they’ve got a ‘baby brain’. As someone who earns a crust from having an active mind, the statement that my brain has shrunk to the size of a newborn is like taking a bullet. That paranoid moment at 3am breast feeding Little C when all I can think about is whether I’ll get through the ‘working’ day without anyone noticing that my hormones have rendered me unemployable. 


Whether it’s said by a beloved feminist colleague or some bloke on a bus, as with many things once your fertility is on public display, pretty much anyone can and does afford an opinion on your parenting. The only good thing I can say about this is that one of the joys of having no detectable short-term memory is that I’ll have forgotten about it literally within five minutes. At the risk of denigrating the cosmic shift that has accompanied my son’s arrival, something profoundly grounding takes place when your main preoccupation are your child’s bodily functions, reorganising the world into those fights you can spare energy for given that you’re trying to ween a little person with the negotiating power of a hardened union rep.


This isn’t a blog about that now distant dream of living in a politically correct society that got ripped into small pieces during our current societal car crash. It’s about what happens to someone when they try to go back to work after an existential, life changing absence. Whether it’s from being off sick with depression, compassion or maternity leave, the return to work involves a mixture of relief and terror. Vulnerability having left the door open for guilt and anxiety to set up residence. 


There are real and less real things to be scared of in the return to work. For working mums the reality is that they are highly vulnerable to income discrimination in part because the jigsaw puzzle of nurseries and workplace performance just don’t add up. Picture of a monochrome brutalist architecture with half the pieces missing. 


This fear isn’t just about doing the 9-5s, it’s about not going to the pub after work or being physiologically incapable of working overnight to impress a new manager. The question that hangs is whether parenting flags us up for a professional downgrade. The new IFS inquiry into the UK’s inequalities includes working mums as a vulnerable group, a sign that this isn’t a simple case of post partum anxiety more a distinct possibility of financial penalty. 


The anxiety isn’t simply about the demands of juggling, it’s also about the pain of having to protect your child from how you might feel about it. The energy it takes to hide this stress from your child and swallow the existential anxiety that an attack at work could blindside you, taking you from your real job of remaining emotionally stable enough to parent. It doesn’t work if you’re both experiencing night terrors at the same time. 


There’s also the fear of an envious attack. Bit like turning up at a mother and baby group saying you’re OK with breastfeeding (Little C and I are currently banned from Tots of the Pops: Fun for All the Family for having too much fun), there are really complex reasons why people can’t share the love that has entered your life. It’s easier to return to work with twigs in your hair and wearing your clothes inside out than to come bouncing back saying how regenerated your love for the universe is. As many return-to-work parents can testify, often a slap down awaits you as you navigate the tide of resentment at your absence such that the best that many of us hope for is an indifferent ‘didn’t notice you were gone’.


I’ve been lucky so far that colleagues turn out in the main to be baby people so that Little C, while still portable, can come to meetings and talks and for the walls not to fall in. Actually what you learn is that babies, like dogs, should be compulsory during meetings because people are nicer and the meetings last for an hour. Last week Little C was flirting across a room with a young woman. Smiles and giggles, shouting and farting, him not her. She suddenly burst into tears and said “I’m sorry, I’d forgotten what it feels like to be so liked by someone”. Oh people, babies offer the precious opportunity to like and to be liked in return. 


After six months a deux the reality of both of us having to learn how to play with the other children looms. Little C goes to nursery, as I go back to work. I watch this relaxed likeable little person bravely enter the playground and feel like grabbing him and going to live in a tree. In the first twenty minutes I’d gone from not wanting him to go to university, to banning A’levels to googling homeschooling. I realise that Little C needs and wants to be in the world, but the idea that we have a routine that is determined by my need to work for a living left me rocking in my office chair gently sobbing.


My return to work happened rudely and too early. For a number of shabby reasons my first day without Little C involved going to a job interview. I cried on the train and my body ached from wearing shoes and a heavy winter coat for the first time in three months. When I arrived, I realised that my automated email message meant that everyone involved knew I’d just become a mum. Not a strategy I would recommend, but since the option of lying about my son’s existence wasn’t available I was forced to brass it out. As luck would have it this happened within a genuinely family friendly workplace. Up until now I could not have estimated the power of those three words combined. On the basis that they went by the equal-ops-recruitment book and had the sensitivity to find me a quiet room to pump milk, I took the job. Yes, treating new mums with respect is good for business.


In an attempt to re-engage my worker brain, I took Little C to an international labour process conference in Vienna. Hear me out. There’s a part of me that is genuinely scared that Little C will be forced to rebel by being a humourless fascist so I have a tendency to inflict all manner of left wing gatherings on him while he can’t move independently. There, said it.


But my main reason for going was the fear that my baby brain meant that I can no longer function like a grown up in the intellectual world. Agreeably there are easier ways to re-engage the mind than to throw yourself into conversations about power and labour market segmentation peppered by references to Gramsci and Foucault. Since my SWP days, there’s still a part of me that thinks I need to swot up on my dialectics before I’m qualified to have any actual thoughts. This insecurity is compounded by the paradox of parenthood, that precisely when you are engaged in the deep and careful work of bringing up a human creature, you can feel really crap about yourself. An all round loser. 


Fortunately, it turns out that even the ILPC is populated by human beings and the world I left behind last year remains pretty much intact. I learned a few things about digitalisation and the platform economy, established that I’m no more defunct than I was before having a baby, and that the tendency for self-replication exists everywhere such that it’s hard to imagine what being radical will look like for Little C.


Just as I was relaxing into the feeling that all that had changed was the staggering amount of luggage I need to pack to leave the flat, I found that something deeper has changed. That my son coughs when he wakes up meant that I went to the few poorly attended presentations about climate change. Apart from learning about green jobs and the environmental fault lines in construction, it left me with a sour taste about why the environmental debates are so absent in my world of work. I go to talks, I edit a journal, I actually read but the lack of thinking about what is actually happening right now to the environment we work in is still striking. 


I think what has happened is that my preoccupation with my own and my son’s body – every breath and body fluid examined – has changed my axis. My body a different landscape from before I had a child, something that I now respect, the first time embodied without shame or a sense of deficit. My son’s body that is healthy and perfect – working so hard to grow. 


The philosopher Brian O’Shaughnessy’s ideas of the mind’s body and the body’s mind keeps running through my mind. Something has happened to my brain – more than forgetting my phone number or anything I learned before 2007 – it is as if my body has taken its position as the rightful basis for my mind. Rather than leaping into abstraction or disassociation I seem to feel it first, take in and digest and from this follows thought.


Far from being a degradation, a baby’s brain would be a cosmic basis for making decisions about our society. A place where food, sleep, love and the giggles would determine national policy. Decisions become more basic, more animal. We slow down, take solid steps on the actual ground. 


With baby brains we would have done more about climate change than we have.


It is along this axis of the body’s mind that Surviving Work has returned to work. Over the coming months I’ll be promoting some books and events that I’m involved in happening in the mental health world. From the autumn Surviving Work will be taking a more hippy turn – thinking about the environment and climate change, about love and babies and how to put work in its place.


Coming up this month:

Philadelphia Association: I’ll be running a survival surgery on the 8th June as part of the PA’s short courses. For information about these courses click here

The Industrialisation of Therapy: One day launch event on the 15th June for this new book with contributions from Rosie Risq, Gillian Proctor and Phil Thomas. I’ll be talking about the industrial relations of mental health based on For your ticket click here

Counsellors Together UK: National conference of this national network of counsellors in Lincoln on the 22nd June. I’ll be speaking about UberTherapy and the organising challenge ahead for counsellors. For your ticket click here  


Leave a Reply