I love working at 5am. But my schedule wouldn’t suit every mother

For The Early Hour editor Annie Ridout, working at 5am – before the toddler wakes up – makes for a good work-life balance. But it’s not for every parent, as Samantha Ettus suggests in her new book The Pie Life…

This article was originally published by the Guardian

Last year, with no job to return to after maternity leave, I set up The Early Hour – an online lifestyle magazine with articles published at 5am, aimed at people who are up early. It was in response to that long, lonely period of the morning when new parents are awake – feeding or soothing babies – and crave something interesting to read that connects them to the wider world.

Much of my planning, writing and editing was done while my daughter, Joni, lay sleeping in bed – oblivious to the graft taking place in our kitchen. This is why I can empathise with American author Samantha Ettus advocating – in her latest book The Pie Life – an early start for parents who might benefit from working, uninterrupted, before the kids wake up. As many of us know, the early part of the day can be ideal for quiet, reflective time spent brainstorming or catching up with emails. And for working parents with no formal childcare arrangement this time is like gold dust, because there may be no other child-free hours during the day.

Slightly more controversial is Ettus’s suggestion that parents shouldn’t take time away from their career to be a stay-at-home parent, as this will leave them with few career options when the kids begin school and they want to go back to work. She concedes that spending an hour each morning keeping a foot on your career ladder will ensure you don’t fall into a deep, dark abyss of baby-centric boredom, but this merely forms part of her unapologetically anti-full time parenting rhetoric.

When the kids go to school you will want to go back to work and the stats show there are not many options when you do

“It might make you happy right now,” she told The Times, “but the baby years are short and the rest of life and a career are long. When the kids go to school you will want to go back to work and the stats show there are not many options when you do.” She goes on to describe a life dedicated to parenting as “woefully imbalanced”, expressing the belief that full time parents will be “bored and unfulfilled”.

This is not only where we disagree but also where I find her words shortsighted and potentially damaging. For a parent to forego their career, temporarily, to look after their children full time is admirable. There is no job more challenging than taking full responsibility for one or more children from when they awake – let’s say at 6am – until they go to bed, at around 7pm. During this time you are not guaranteed a lunch break, let alone time to go to the toilet on your own. But it can bring huge satisfaction to the parent, and comfort to the child, to spend those early years together.

What worked for me was to take 10 months out to care for Joni full time, and to then return to part-time freelance journalism work, while setting up my website. We were lucky to have some childcare help from my parents but I mostly fitted in work when Joni was asleep and that meant those precious early hours of the morning that Ettus places so much emphasis on really were useful for me.

The idea that we can “have it all” by rising at dawn is simply putting yet more pressure on women

However, the idea that waking up early and working will suit every parent is fairly narrow. There are the parents whose career will be caring for their children, there are those who go out to work 9-5 and spend the morning and evening catching up on sleep or with their partner. Some use that 5-7am pocket to exercise or meditate. Others have kids who are already up and about at that time, so need minding.

Furthermore, the insinuation that without paid employment our lives are somehow lacking erodes the value of parenting in general. We have kids because we want to raise them; if we decide to have a career too – out of desire or necessity – it has to be the individual parent’s choice as to how this manifests itself. One thing no woman needs is yet more pressure about how her daily routine should look after having a baby.

If a mother does decide to continue with her career, she will almost certainly be on a near constant search for a healthy work-life balance; where neither of those elements is sacrificed by placing too much emphasis on the other. But while thejuggle is real for so many mothers – and for fathers too – it’s hugely important to remember that one person’s idea of the perfect life will be in stark contrast to another’s.

So while Joni’s pre-waking hours are often my most productive and play an important part in furthering my career, it won’t work for everyone. The idea that we can “have it all” by rising at dawn is simply putting yet more pressure on women to conform to society’s current idea about what that entails: career, kids, partner, house, holidays, friends. If grabbing an extra hour in the morning works for you, keep it up. Just don’t assume that it will enrich every other woman’s life in the same way.

What are your thoughts on getting up early and working at 5am, before the kids are awake? Let us know in the comment section below…