When Ruth Davidson announced she was standing down as Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, she echoed the concerns of millions of women caught between the dual pressures of work and parenting.
In her formal resignation letter, Davidson, who gave birth to son Finn in October last year, noted both the “conflict” she felt over Brexit, and the pressures she felt as a working mother.
She went as far as to say that whereas the idea of getting on the road to fight two elections in 20 months would have once “fired” her up, it now gave her a very different feeling.
“The threat of spending hundreds of hours away from my family now fills me with dread,” she wrote. “That is no way to lead.”
Davidson, who has led the party for eight years, added: “I fear that having tried to be a good leader over the years, I have proved a poor daughter, sister, partner and friend.
“The party and my work has always come first, often at the expense of commitments to loved ones. The arrival of my son means I now make a different choice.”
Davidson is far from being alone – for what she’s describing rings true not only to me, but to scores of women stuck in a cycle of maternal guilt: guilt over working, guilt over not working, guilt over not being able to do the school run.
And it is a guilt that seems to be disproportionately felt and carried by women – almost 90% of mothers report feeling guilty at some point, with 21% saying they feel that way nearly all of the time.
What are we feeling so bad about? Well, it can be as diverse as working versus staying at home, fear of judgement from other parents, and having too little time – or patience – with our children.
We feel guilty about screen time, and about what they’re eating (or not eating). We worry about our own screen time, too, and beat ourselves up when we make mistakes, such as forgetting to provide a packed lunch for school.
This guilt starts before we even give birth. One mum, who’s 37 weeks pregnant, told HuffPost UK she’s already panicking about going back to work after maternity leave.
“I only have six months off and a very stressful and demanding job,” she said. “I am so nervous that six months won’t be enough time with my son, but we only get four months maternity leave in Switzerland, so six months was all I could take. There is no paternity leave. I know I will have to sacrifice a lot to make it work.”
Other mothers told HuffPost they too experience intense internal conflict over trying to successfully manage family life alongside work or other commitments.
“The guilt is permanent.”
“Even when I leave work at 4pm to pick up the girls, it’s very hard to switch off. I sit with them, still checking my emails, and I worry that I’m not being present enough. I also worry about everything else: if they’re eating too much sugar, or too much fruit, or not enough vegetables. It’s relentless.” - Cecily
“Leaving on time every day felt like the walk of shame.”
“I used to have to leave to get the train at 6pm every night, and dreaded meeting requests coming in after 5pm. I knew that I’d either have to decline the invitation, or clock watch throughout and possibly even leave before it had ended. It feels like you’re constantly reminding people that you have one foot out of the office. Even just leaving on time every day felt like the walk of shame... I was always the first to go home and I know this was noted.” - Hannah
“I’m always clock-watching.”
“As a single mum, the difference is really obvious every week. On the days I have the children, I’m up at six and out by 7.45. I’m always clock-watching. Things are calmer on the off days – I’m not in a rush to get them places, before I have to get places. My life feels like I’m some kind of walking organiser.” - Sam
“I still feel horrendous guilt every time I go away, but I know I’m doing important work and being a role model for my kids. But the quick trip turnaround leaves me exhausted - I rush back home to be with my children, whereas in the past I might have stayed an extra day to recover.” - Helen
“I only had a snatched hour with her.”
“Working full-time with a one-year-old at home was really difficult. I didn’t see her before I left as she was asleep and often only had a snatched hour with her in the evening. I felt torn between doing a good job and being there for my daughter and ultimately this was a huge reason why I left my career and set up my own business.” - Ruth
“It’s got harder.”
“I’ve found that the system in the world of work has got harder for part-time working as a mother. The lack of flexibility and support is not there. It changed a few years back. I have had to earn my flexibility but only because I have climbed the ladder and have been transparent.” - Amy
“I had to do marking while she napped.”
“Once I had two children, I figured (with nursery childcare and fuel costs) I’d be earning £50 a week doing a part-time teaching job. I loved my job but it was hard work and involved juggling childcare for parents’ evenings, trying to get marking done while my daughter napped.” - Ellie
“I recently quit - I was so stressed.”
“I’ve always felt like I’ve been doing a full-time job but been paid part-time hours. For some reason I also feel that I should be grateful that I’m allowed flexibility and to work part-time - but the reality is that employers are often getting a bargain!
“I’ve recently quit because I felt like I wasn’t doing anything properly and was getting stressed in the process. I’m about to start a role that is part-time from the outset (rather than me convincing an employer I can do a FT job in 4 days) so hoping it will be a better balance. I don’t believe you can have it all - there is always some compromise.” - Hayley