That prams and art are not mutually exclusive.

The world is a poor fit for mothers

By Karen Charlton

Our six year old son is acing grade one. Dropping him off in the classroom yesterday, his teacher stopped me to tell me he was nominating Louis for an achievement award at the end of term. He was also elected to be his class rep on the student council (which oddly enough, Louis failed to mention at home).

Louis has already done more in his school career than I did in my entire time at school and university. Not that I was ever a bad student, but Louis is thriving in ways I could have only imagined. We’re so proud. When I think of him and how well he’s doing, my mind goes clear and happy like a reggae song. For now, my work here is done. Time for early retirement.

After chatting to his teacher I came home with his brothers, ate an entire packet of fundraising easter eggs and stared at my computer until lasers came out of my eyes. What do I do with myself? I have an honours degree, a once-upon-a-time golden career in university administration and ovaries that won’t leave me alone. I stay at home for my kids, but it leaves little at the end of the day for me. And I don’t just mean – oh dear, no time for mannies and peddies and shopping trips with the girls; I mean, how do I give my days more purpose? These boys just keep growing, bless their tiny faces, but the longer I stay at home, the more I seem to retrograde.

My husband has just resigned from his senior position in a building company to run his own business from home. When he handed in his notice, his colleagues (mostly men) joked that he was taking an early retirement. It’s funny because it’s also kind of true. Mr Karen has worked two jobs from the moment Louis was born, securing our financial future, working long hours in the office, and then coming home to run building jobs ‘on the side’ of his full time job. Me? I fold socks like nobody’s business.

When Ruben (our youngest) was a baby, I was determined that writing would be a good fit with our family, but as time goes by I’m beginning to realise it’s tough. Super tough. You could hardly call it a career choice, unless of course you’re referring to the careering of one’s life into oblivion.

And while I can accept the rough and gruff nature of writing and the media industry – because no one asked me to create anything, and the world owes me nothing – what continues to frustrate and defy logic is the way the world shuts down after you have children. Because school hours and work hours are grossly mis-matched. Part-time work, particularly in our regional area, has no substance, and often doesn’t justify putting your children into care in the first place.

Sure, I could pretend my kids don’t exist, put on my Don Draper suit and stride into the middle distance back into the corporate world. But living in a man’s world has never floated my boat. And anyone who thinks nannies are suitable full-time replacements for mothers needs to watch Mary Poppins. Heart strings, they were pulled.

I’d like to feel useful beyond my home and family and make a contribution to the world. I’d like to contribute to my family’s and my own financial well being. I’d also like to have a job that is satisfying.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes about this very dilemma in Committed. If you’ll excuse the long quotation:

“… an awful lot of my advantages as a child were built on the ashes of [her mum’s] person sacrifice. The fact remains that while our family as a whole profited immensely from my mother’s quitting her career, her life as an individual did not necessarily benefit so immensely. In the end, she did what her female predecessors had always done: she sewed winter coats for her children from the leftover material of her heart’s more quiet desires.”

The world doesn’t seem to fit mothers very well at all.


How does the world feel now you’re a mother? Does it still fit?

34 Responses to “The world is a poor fit for mothers”

  1. Shelly

    Karen, this post resonated with me. Now that I’m on the other side of 40, I’ve suddenly started to wonder why I’m here. What will I leave behind?

    My career was left in the dust the minute that peed-on-stick showed two lines for the first time. Now I work from home earning less than when I worked part-time at night stocking shelves. It is my own business, there is that, but I don’t have the drive or inclination to progress it further than just a part-time gig.

    I’ve chosen to be there for my children until they don’t need me anymore, but don’t feel I’m particularly good in my role as a parent. I do my best, but I just don’t live up to my own expectations.

    So, parenting can’t be the reason I’m here, a career as a corporate bunny isn’t it, a successful business person isn’t my lot in life, so what could it be? Still searching I guess. I’m optimistic though that sometime before my days are through, I will find my ‘one thing’ and it will give me satisfaction and I will be good at it.

    • rhythm & method

      I loved reading your comment, if only to know we’re not alone in this journey.
      My mum gave everything to us as kids then discovered dancing in her late 40s, taking up ballroom, tap, line dancing … Now she dances several times a week and has a gazillion girlfriends.
      You’ll find your groove Shelly, you’ve just got to be open to it. Take care. x

  2. catbeloverly

    Karen, you have totally nailed how I feel too. The world doesn’t fit well anymore. I feel like I’m an imposter at work and at home. I don’t know the answer but it sure feels better to know you feel that way too.

    • rhythm & method

      I do think we (mothers) are our own harshest critics, but it this time in our lives does seem to be fraught with problems that we are powerless to resolve.

  3. faydanamyjake

    I know exactly how you feel, I think it’s the lot and loss of mothers everywhere, unless they work then all the loss and longing is reversed. Kids are a full time job that’s for sure. I don’t have any answers.

  4. Kelly Exeter (@kellyexeter)

    I definitely agree that if you had a corporate career … then motherhood can really screw things up. Because no matter how flexible corporate workplaces like to think they are … they are not really.

    Motherhood is a much better fit if you have your own business. Our J is in daycare every day … and while I wish he wasn’t, it means I do cherish every minute we get with him in the morning and the afternoon. And having our own business means hubby can leave the office at 4pm without a skerrick of guilt and he and J are home by 4.30pm at which point I immediately down tools myself.

    As for writing … well I think writing does NOT mix well with kids at all. I never write when J is home and awake. It is all done during the day while he is at daycare … or if design work is taking up my whole day, then writing is done at 5am when everyone is asleep!

    • rhythm & method

      Do you feel you’ve compromised since becoming a mother, Kelly? Or do you feel relatively unscathed, as someone who is their own boss?

  5. Megan Blandford

    You put it so well, Karen. I’m trying my hardest to make life fit, but it’s bloody hard and it certainly doesn’t always work. Some days I’m so happy and content it fills me up – and other times I just wonder what on earth I’m meant to do.

      • Lulu

        Double ditto. Me too Megan and Karen. It’s so hard to wear all the different caps. Some days I literally feel like I’m a circus freak doing a cap dance – one minute the Mum Cap, next minute the Wife Cap, then the My Own Boss Cap, then the Friend Cap, the School Mum cap, the Employee Cap… and on it goes.

        And deep down amongst it there is a Cap that’s just my own. Just for me. Whoever that might be. Gathering dust and mothballs…

  6. wordswithnannaprawn

    I’m the 40’s age bracket but at a different life stage….I have adult children and one grandchild……same, same but different. I barely had time to decided what I wanted from life before I brought two more into it, I did the whole study/career gig whilst they were at their most ‘mummy-taxi’ demanding stage of the constant round of school and after school commitments and I thought that at 43 and now studying for my Honours Degree I’d have a bit more of a plan figured out for what I really want. The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to be a square peg in the proverbial round hole anymore, and though it doesn’t give me any financial rewards, writing anywhere and everywhere still wins out over Corporate and Shelf Stacking ‘jobs’ (both of which I’ve done also as and when required). We are all clearly, immensely talented and flexible people but just as the BA degree itself is continually derided and devalued against the engineers and the scientists, writing is overtly demanded as a necessary skill in todays world of fast, yet impoverished communication, it is very rarely given the respect it deserves by society. I don’t want to be a sock martyr anymore but like all of you, and the magnificently articulated sentiments of this post, the possible alternatives still seem elusive!

      • wordswithnannaprawn

        Your very welcome, your post really resonated with me today because I’ve been there both with young children and still there with adult children!! Sock folders of the world should unite every so often to remind each other that we are not in isolation 🙂

  7. Zanni Arnot

    It fits for me, where I live. I don’t know anyone who has a ‘normal’ job. We are doing all sorts of things from writing educational books from homes between breastfeeds, or designing wallpaper, or giving massages. This is the north coast NSW life. We live well, on not much. I feel like we have just had a string of good luck since being pregnant with my first, and I think we’ve made some good decisions along the way. But yes, I regard myself and my friends very fortunate indeed. x

    • rhythm & method

      You make a valid point Zanni. There is a certain amount of pressure we put on ourselves to live a certain way, but with a bit of creativity and nouse we can get by on less. Your little community sounds like it’s thriving, and I imagine the children benefit greatly from no one having a ‘normal job’.

  8. Marcy

    Karen, I totally understand, at the moment I feel like I am doing a crap job at being a mother (always short on quality time with the girls), and doing an even crapper job at work rushing to complete tasks in my short work week. Then putting up with comments from full time colleagues about never being at work! But – I am a better mum when I use my brain and my skills I trained so hard for, so I keep turning up at work each week to cop the crap….

    • rhythm & method

      That would get my goat too Marcy, but as you say, you’re a better mum when you get to use your work skills. You can only try your best. Hope it improves soon. x

  9. Rhi

    This is exactly how I feel at the moment too Karen. Baby no. 3, and no chance of really resurrecting my old (much loved and studied for) museum career any time soon. Compounded by the fact that we have moved countries so finding fulfilling work is even harder. My sister in law told me that they take “English speakers” at the local supermarket, should I need a job, and I almost clobbered her.
    I’d like to hope that working hours and work-from-home potential continues to develop / evolve so that by the time our own kids are having kids, it will be so much easier for them. Us? We are just doing this all in the wrong era! It’s all so close, yet so far away.
    In the mean time, I do some sewing to keep me “employed”. I worry that my daughter portrays me as a sweatshop factory worker when she tells her teacher and friends that “Mummy sews cushions”. I tell her to say that “Mummy runs an online business”. Hmmm. Anyway.
    I love your writing. Thank you!

  10. Terri S. Vanech

    Ah, yes. Even we working moms feel this way. Too many areas of life phoned in and at the end of the day, we’re still folding socks while juggling a million other tasks.

    Once our daughter became a teen, I set out for a bit of my own fulfillment, changed jobs, became a Jazzercise instructor, picked up the clarinet I hadn’t touched in years. And while’s its exhilarating to see what I am able to accomplish, it’s also exhausting and stressful.

    I’m forever out of balance, even when I stretch myself.

    I think about this a lot while I fold the socks and watch my husband lounging on the couch.

    Hang in there Karen; we stand with you!

  11. Carli

    I just started a part-time role working from home so a lot of this resonated. I’m grateful that my kids are with their grandmothers and for the work but I still feel like someone has ripped out a chunk of my insides. I wonder if I’ll ever find a perfect fit. Probably not!

  12. jennifersmart

    Hi Karen,
    No, the world doesn’t fit well for mothers & probably never will. But as mothers, we can make a world that fits for us. Whatever that is. At the age of 50 (!) I have 2 adult daughters and a little 6yo munchkin, so I’ve been through all the turmoil of trying to juggle a film/TV career working stupid hours with my first 2 & going through the whole guilt thing & now I’m juggling the whole writing thing. Writing is selfish work, but if you are compelled to write, it’s what you do. But not all writing requires the physical act of putting pen to paper. All those mind-numbing activities like sock folding are perfect for letting thoughts & ideas percolate. So let your mind wander then, it will make the actual task of putting the words down much easier.
    You’re a creative soul, Karen, be it your sketching or writing and it will find a way to infiltrate your everyday life. Don’t fight it, go with it. Your 3 little boys won’t be little forever so enjoy them too. The most important thing I’ve learnt about mothering is, that whatever you’re going through, it’s temporary, there is always change & eventually your children will be leading their own lives.

  13. debbrightandprecious

    That quote is stunning. Your words so articulately express what I’ve been thinking for awhile too. A very poor fit. I’d like to think that it’s possible to ‘have it all’ – but the systems have to change and motherhood would have to be valued more. Even so, who else would actually DO what mothers do (because I subscribe to your Mary Poppins theory very much)… Is it just a matter of postponing careers and dreams? Please tell me its not a ‘life sentence’.

    • debbrightandprecious

      I should also add, there is a positive side! I’ve read a few interviews with authors who cite having children as inspiration for their work. That one couldn’t have happened without the other.

  14. Stella Orbit (@stellaorbit)

    Good enough mother. Good enough worker. Either I am an ace mother, and slightly scrappy employee, or the other way round. It is swings and roundabouts and the scales tip.

    I wish I could do both well all the time, but there isn’t the emotional energy for it.
    I write better having had B, but my time for writing is all gone. I hope as he gets bigger, it is slightly easier. I am better now at honing in on what’s important, reading only the fantastic and not buying into the mothering crap that people beat themselves up about. Mostly. Sometimes I just need to have a long conversation with my son to set the balance again. Work never gives me that.

  15. Lauren Macer

    As a brand new mum with a nearly 5 month old, I’m loving being a mum and out of the office! We have a beautiful little baby girl that I love so much and it’s been such an amazing journey so far. We go for walks around the botanical gardens everyday and it’s beautiful. Yesterday I woke up and decided to walk to Birrurung Marr to see the Ellen show and looked at those office towers feeling a bit smug that I was outside in the glorious sun by the Yarra whilst all of those people are behind their grey partitions writing emails or sitting in boring meetings. I’m still in the honeymoon phase I guess. I still don’t know how we’re going to deal with me going back to work in October. Don’t want to think about it yet.

    So maybe after a couple of years away from work, officeland seems more appealing that it actually is? It can be pretty boring in there especially when it’s so sunny outside!

  16. Cam @ notunimportant

    What a thoroughly rewarding post and comments thread to read. Thanks to you all.

    Of course, it’s awkward to relate to so much of this experience, and perspective, and insight, and hopes and dreams and frustrations and yet see it stamped all over with the word “mother”.

    @debbrightandprecious comments things need to change and asks “who else would actually DO what mothers do”?

    Fathers would. It won’t be all of them, and it won’t be the same because they’re men, and they are never pregnant and they are never breastfeeding. But the world is changing, and the crappy deal that comes along with the demands of being at home no longer only affects women. You must know men who’d love to give their days more purpose by putting in the hours at home (they were raised in the wake of second-wave feminism right beside you) but are thwarted by the same crappy deal afforded private sphere labour.

    There is no doubt that you are discussing the personal experiences of an important feminist issue. But if things are going to change, they’re going to also change for fathers, husbands and sons.

    The world is a poor fit for people with domestic responsibilities and children.

  17. Unskilled Perfectionist

    Such an eloquent post. The early years home with kids were so chaotic, I never had a moment to pause and think about the bigger picture. Now that they both are in school full time, I’m left wanting more for my days but having no idea where to start.

  18. Theresa

    I feel for you. All true feelings & facts. I also feel unusually blessed with a weird feeling that life has begun in great ways for me,now I am a mum & a volunteer worker in children’s Playgroup & spirituality areas at my church/school ( having given up willingly a physio career with paeds to raise & help my own kids) … I LOVE not being in paid work; BUT I am immensely aware I am fortunate to have my husbands good income & to have voluntary work that gives me the extra I need in activity & purpose. Cos yes as our little ones grow & thrive, we can easily feel less occupied & less of ourselves too.. Great post, good luck keeping the good fight going for it is not easy dilemmas; but oh so worthwhile


    No, I don’t fit, not sure that I want to….
    C.S. Lewis – “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

  20. Aimee Lee

    Your post hits so close to home. I recently quit my job because it was no longer allowing me to be the mom and being I want to be. And now that I am looking for something part-time so that I can spend more time with my kids while also earning some income, I am realizing even more that it’s tough to be a mom and everything else we are expected to be and want to be.


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