"I've landed on my feet, but I nearly didn't get here, and that level of sacrifice just isn't worth it," writes Megan Blandford. Photo: Stocksy
I was never going to be a stay-at-home mum; it wasn't in my plans at any point of my life. But somehow, that's exactly what I did for six and a half years.
When my first baby was born, I was prepared for the chaos of returning to work and having her in childcare. But the realities of that didn't feel right, with two parents working long hours and our baby literally screaming for one of us to cuddle her. Instinct won, and within weeks of resuming my career I'd handed in my resignation and found myself - somewhat stunned - back at home with my little one.
It was, in hindsight, the beginning of me sacrificing everything in order to make my family happy. And while that's normal and understandable, it's also completely insane and unhealthy. The decline in my mental health over the years that followed became proof of that.
My life as a stay-at-home mum was filled with proud highs, screaming lows and a lot of numbness in between. It wasn't all bad - I saw my children achieve every milestone, spent days at a time reading stories, cuddled them for hours when they were sick, and took them on outings to museums, parks and zoos. But overall, I remember feeling utterly lonely. There were times I'd literally lock the doors to stop myself from running away.
One day, I was sitting on the purple shaggy rug in my daughter's room, playing, when I thought if I had to make another animal noise I might just scream. "What does a horse say, Mummy?" she asked delightedly. I started sobbing.
"No," my toddler giggled, "neigh."
I was angry at my husband, too, who left for work before the kids woke, then came home for dinner and went out afterwards to his various hobbies. Then he had things to do on the weekend - reasonable things like a well-earned sleep-in, mowing the lawn or helping a friend - but they were just more reasons for me to continue doing the same things I'd been doing all week. Alone, still.
Eventually, as our second child took a rare nap in her cot, I called time. It was then that my husband and I let down our guards: I told him that I really wanted to work and he confessed he wanted to spend more time with the kids. The solution made itself apparent.
I've been working now for more than a year as a full-time writer; a year that I've called my recovery time. It means fulfilling my creative side, contributing more financially and having some boundaries. I have the space to say I'm not available at every moment of every day, I can duck out for lunch with a friend, and my kids greet me as if I'm someone, rather than a piece of the furniture that's always there.
I've found new interests and fed old ones: writing for hours on end, meandering through the bush, travelling alone to an isolated island for a week, meditating quietly. I've soaked up what feels like luxury to a mum: having my partner taking care of the home front while I venture outside these four walls.
I've nurtured myself and stumbled upon contentment, something I didn't realise I had access to.
Everyone's experience of stay-at-home parenting is different, but one thing common to many is the weight of expectation and reliance. Lots of us feel we lose ourselves to the demanding early years of parenting, emerging hesitantly, and a little dazed, at some indeterminate point in the future.
Each experience has elements that trigger personal challenges. For me, it's time to recover from four years of trying to fall pregnant, one-and-a-half of painful pregnancies, another couple of mastitis-ridden feeding, depression on and off, and the one thing that binds all mums: soothing the souls of those who are so close they're almost part of me.
But they're not me.
It's difficult to share these thoughts. Will my children feel unloved knowing I didn't love every minute of being with them? (Now seems as good a time as any to insert the common disclaimer of a mum who admits everything isn't perfect: I love my kids fiercely; always have and always will.) Will women who'd love to stay at home but have to work, be angry with me? I don't know. But every choice has its pros and cons and you can't imagine the toll of those cons until you're living them.
It has turned out happily for me: a major crisis of identity and a desire to mix being a mum with fulfilling my own needs led to some of the best choices I've made. But as I recently contemplated these events, my husband said, "You wouldn't change a thing, right?"
Actually, I would.
I've landed on my feet, but I nearly didn't get here, and that level of sacrifice just isn't worth it. My kids loved having me available to them all the time, but I'd rather they grow up seeing me as they do now: making choices that are right for me, as well as those that are right for the whole family. A mum who is happy to be here, rather than one staring longingly at what could have been.