Jennifer Gibson Talks Managing Work & Children All at Once
I bought a lunch box today. Actually, I bought two. One is shaped like a ladybird and comes complete with cute little handles and a set of bee and butterfly shaped snack boxes. The other is a plain old adult Tupperware dish. Hardly an inspiring shop, I admit. Yet together, these little boxes form a perfect visual metaphor for life in my household at the moment.
It’s back to school time, of course. But chez Gibson, I’m not overly concerned about my son. He’s starting nursery and I’m absolutely certain he and his happy-go-lucky ladybird will get along brilliantly. He’s that child who waves at total strangers. Continuously. Even when it’s inappropriate. He made a new friend in Boots the other day. As I said, I’m sure he’ll be fine. It’s myself and my Tupperware I’m worried about.
After a year at home, taking care of said small person and occasionally venturing into the study in my PJs to write enough words to keep him in milk and breadsticks, it’s time for me to go back to work properly. And it’s a terrifying prospect.
Sure, I love working, and I’m lucky enough to be going back largely through choice, not necessity. But as the return to a professional environment looms ever closer, I’m becoming increasingly shaken at the idea. It’s only been a year, but I’ve effectively been in hibernation
for much of that time. I don’t know how much the workplace will have changed, but I do know I haven’t got the wardrobe I need these days, largely because I took the brilliant initiative to wait until I was BELOW my pre-baby weight to do any shopping and I’m now joyously both clothes-less and in the throes of a last-minute panic diet. So as I consider how I’ll look to my new colleagues, the ones who don’t know me as a non-mummy, I am reminded, ominously, of my boring plastic lunchbox...
I’d love to pretend this is a new feeling, but I’m afraid I’d be lying. You see, I was a geek at school. I had friends, sure, but I was never what you’d call the cool kid. I didn’t sit with the mean girls in the canteen, for example, and the closest I came to the dangerous clique, with their heavy eyeliner and aroma of Revlon Charlie Red mixed with Marlboro smoke, was when I scurried past them, head down, on my way out of the bathroom before fourth period maths. And while I never suffered the indignity of a head down the toilet, I’m not sure that the feeling of being on the fringes of acceptance ever entirely leaves you, even in adulthood.
Sure, now my friends and I rely on a bottle of grape and a gossip rather than a trip to the guidance counsellor when life gets tough, but the fear of the new, the Monday blues, they’re pretty much the same whether you’re 13 or 31. I’m hoping my new colleagues won’t actually make fun of my lunchbox this time (I’ve still never gotten past the shame of being the only kid with Care Bears instead of My Little Pony on my flask in year 3), but the sleepless anxiety of not quite making the grade has come back to bite me nonetheless.
Kitchenware comparisons aside, I know that realistically I’m being dramatic (please don’t tell my husband. I’m still trying to pretend that I’m not prone to drama). This is not a city with a Mommy-track, as the vernacular would have it, and whether it’s forty-five days of maternity leave, a few months of unpaid leave or a complete break from work for even longer, I know plenty of strong, successful women who’ve suffered a minor crisis of confidence when they found themselves ready to jump back into full-time employment.
Motherhood aside though, I’ve also come to realise that the UAE, more than possibly any other place on earth, lends itself to some serious cases of adult-onset back to school blues.
Take, for example, the huge proportion of the population who jet off for half the summer each year, saving up their annual leave so they can make a swift exit the moment the weather gets too much to bear. They must go through this every September - and for that, they have my sympathies.
Then there are the new arrivals. Not restricted to the start of the new term, in this country every office has a new kid in class, walking into their unfamiliar workplace in the morning and wondering whether they’ll have anyone to sit with at lunch. At some point, we’ve all stepped off the plane and into the unknown. And whether it was 10 weeks or 10 years ago, chances are you remember your first sunshine posting coming complete with a healthy dose of nerves.
And it’s not even limited to the workplace here either. Our staggering party calendar means that we all, each and every one of us, find ourselves in sink or swim social situations on a far more regular basis than many of our friends back home.
Every autumn, as our favourite venues reopen, companies refill their entertainment budgets and hot new restaurants start to edit down their opening night guest lists. So we constantly find ourselves in scenarios where it pays to be confident. This is a city that loves to celebrate, no doubt about it, and for those of us prone to an attack of the jitters, that’s not always a good thing.
So it is that moment, every time I walk into a hot media soiree, reminding myself to keep my shoulders back and smile, not grimace, that I try to remember that for every stylish whirlwind woman, flitting from party to party with nary a hair out of place, there is an elegant outsider, someone hanging out in the corner smiling shyly and hoping that they’re not going to topple off their Choos before they get home. I’m sure I’m not alone.
So I’m looking on the bright side. I’m giving myself a break and acknowledging that I’m not professionally dead, I’m just a little out of practice. I might be in the corner at the first party I’m invited to, but I’ll be back on the dance floor soon enough, mark my words. In the meantime, if you see me at the water cooler, just don’t laugh at my flask, please.