Thursday, 7 January 2010

A WORKING MOTHER'S DILEMMA

I had an email from a friend this morning, confessing that she’d been so frazzled by the long Christmas break, she’d created a trumped-up emergency at work requiring her urgent presence, left her children with her husband and escaped to the office. She wrote a few desultory emails for form’s sake – nothing that couldn’t have been done from the Blackberry– and spent the rest of the morning pootling round the sales before returning, refreshed, to the fray and whine of a winter’s day with under-fives.

I can absolutely understand how she feels. I didn’t have enough holiday to get me the whole time off, so had to come in for a morning between Christmas and New Year and, God, the bliss of sitting at my desk with Radio Four on, drinking an entire cup of tea whilst it was still hot, rather than coming back to it half an hour later after some Ben 10 induced trauma, to discover it topped with the white bloom of cold milky tea. Having children has taught me that, with practice, the taste of microwaved tea becomes perfectly acceptable.

But, oh, the crippling guilt of longing to be at work: I admit it seems rather transgressive to discover there are times - and a lot of them - where one wants to be away from one’s children. It seems so terribly ungrateful, particularly if one has worked hard to have them in the first place, or had them rather late in life, like me. I think of friends who are still struggling with IVF and feel like a wretched ingrate – really, I’m so very blessed, I shouldn’t find two weeks at home at all wearing, but the most glorious Christmas present of all.

Ho hum. I’m afraid I’m no plaster saint: the myth of working motherhood is that one must want to spend every available moment – every minute one isn’t at work or asleep, that is – with one’s infants, engaged in some cosy ‘Listen with Mother’ type activity, or cosily cutting and sticking beautiful collages or baking or collaborating on a jigsaw, before pausing to offer them a cold glass of milk and a home-made biscuit.

The scene, illustrated as if in the Ladybird Peter and Jane books, is so clearly etched in my head, I’m astonished the reality is so different.

Erm, obviously, I love being with Trefusis Minor and his sister, but I will also confess there were several times when I was at home that I had reason to fantasise wildly about the extraordinary bliss of having a bath without having a tiny creature pull off all their clothes and hop in with me, or the hitherto unappreciated bliss of reading a book all afternoon. All of these treats must, necessarily, go by the wayside when the children are small. Partly it's the idiocy of the theory of quality time: young children don't really give a stuff about quality - they want you in quantity. And when they know that any moment you might hop off back to the office, they attach themselves like limpets and demand - rightly so - the entire and whole of your attention. And perhaps that's the conflict - you know you owe it to them, and your heart wants to be with them, but sometimes, you're just a little bit knackered and would like a nice, quiet sit-down.

So, no matter how different the reality, no matter how often one sticks Peter Pan on the dvd just so you can buy enough time to push the vacuum cleaner round, no matter how one feels inside, the idea remains that any time you have away from work is not discretionary time, and doing anything other than stuff with the spawn feels like cheating. And hence, the office represents the only Get Out of Jail Free card a working mother has - here are very few legitimate escapes from childcare, and work is one: no wonder men tried to keep women out of the workplace for so very long.

25 comments:

@lillabrunaelk said...

I'm not a mum but an auntie, and I totally agree with you. Admitting that you don't actually enjoy every milli-second of time with your kids is one of last taboos and I actually think it has got worse with all the Nigella/Kirstie fakery. Adverts and books bombard mums with the Ladybird style image and in reality it can be very tough.

nappy valley girl said...

You're so right. Working is relaxing compared to looking after small children. I love my boys deeply, but they are exhausting (I know just what you mean about microwaved cups of tea) and I look forward to sitting at my desk in peace, using my brain to think about something other than how to occupy them for the next couple of hours without the total destruction of the house.

Sinda said...

Maybe I have confused your blog with somewaffleelse's, but i confess that I don't even take a bath if my children are home anymore. If I can't take it alone, I'll forgo the soak until I can.

Rather than escaping to my office, I cleverly came down with a cold & infection, so my husband kindly took the children away for two nights over the holiday - it was heavenly, even with the coughing.

I'm enjoying the extra posts - xoxo

shayma said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shayma said...

darling one day i would like to take you to Pakistan for a nice holiday. my cousins and friends all claim to be bringing their children up themselves, "we are hands on", they say. erm, that's only true to a degree. when they have their afternoon nap, the Filipina nanny is reading the Ladybird series to their children. Or tucking her/him in when theyre out at a dinner party where dinner is served at 11 if theyre lucky (there's Karachi for you). And taking care of them when their waxing and massage lady is over. When i make my first billion, i am getting my dear friend Mrs T a governess for her children so she can take a bath in candlelight with her TS Eliot book in hand, in peace. xxoo

Alison Cross (@TABItarot on twitter) said...

I hear you Mrs T - and totally agree.

Truthfully, I think that the entire purpose of school from the age of 5 is to give parents (well, mothers really) a few hours to ourselves to re-aquaint ourselves with the delights of a visit to the loo (alone) and an escape from Children's TV.

The fact that the little blighters learn to read and do fractions while they are there is just a bonus ;-)

Ali x

Knackered Mother said...

I posted about this very thing a few days ago, albeit in a rather more clumsy way. Beautifully put Mrs T. Work is a day off compared with meeting the demands (without shouting) of little ones. Ah, the guilt! x

mothership said...

Oh GOD I so know what you mean. I don't actually have a job to escape to but I LIVE for preschool days when I can get rid of them both at the same time, and when Two stops taking naps there will be blood. Not clear whose.
I agree with your first commenter that recently it seems to have become one of the requirements of womanhood to appear to enjoy every tiny moment with one's children 50's housewife style (as well as cooking like a top chef and shagging like a porn star) whereas it's often quite boring and tiring.
Now where did I put that Valium..

mothership said...

PS LOVING you posting more often. Keep it up, please

Lewis William said...

Having au paired, my escape was college during the day. Of course this is far from the level of parent, but there are still unavoidable obligations.

We all need escape, you deserve it no less than anyone else.
x

katyboo1 said...

I got the day off today. For the first time in over two weeks. It was blissful. I didn't do much. Mostly I stared vacantly at the walls and ate scones. But I did it alone, and that was what counts.

I love my children. I really do. And it was a struggle to have them, but you are so right about needing time out.

I like them best when they are sleeping :)

Completely Alienne said...

All so very true - and still true now, even though mine are teenagers. I remember going back to work after the second one and finding it really strange not to be holding someone's hand and pushing someone else in a pushchair. It took me a couple of weeks to learn to walk at a normal pace again. I still get cold tea though - I forget about it while I am on the phone.

Helena Halme said...

This is exactly how I felt until the children became really, really nice adults and decided to leave home.
Helena xx

miss sudha said...

Working mothers may be having more work to do but being a mother is really a great thing.I wish i could be a mother too.

MaureenRice said...

Dear Mrs Trefusis

Your post is so astute, acute and authentic, and so beautifully expressed. Everything you say is true. I can only tell you that, contraray to the way it feels now, it will go so very, very fast and before you know it you will be close to begging, in a borderline unseemly way, for your children's time and attention. The truth - from the far side of the working motherhood issue - is that all of the things you feel guilty and conflicted about will turn out to be nothing - forgottten. How do I know? By the fact that you feel so guilty and conflicted. Only good mothers get those feelings. MaureenRice XXXX

Charlotte said...

So enjoying your blog. Especially this one as I'm sitting here after having children off for a month for Christmas holidays and was counting down the day until I had two hours at home on my own and now the school has been shut because of the snow - love them to bits but aaaaaargh. Going to work is a great respite at times but I was looking forward to not talking.

Steerforth said...

Whoever said that time passes more quickly as you get older obviously hadn't spent any time looking after young children.

On countless occasions, I've spent what felt like hours playing with my children, only to find that the watch says that five minutes have passed.

My youngest son's "You be a daddy lion and you eat me" games are endearing, but he NEVER gets bored and that familiar children's mantra "Do it again!" has me desperately trying to think of an excuse to get away.

Trying to be a "hands-on" parent has left my children with the impression that I am some sort of oversized playmate.

The fact is that we can love our children (and parents) but still find them boring at times.

Work offers a refuge, but not a solution.

In the past, children would be raised by an extended family and spend hours playing outside. The curent norm isn't healthy for parents or children.

I have to stop writing now. I can hear them coming...

littlebrownbird said...

Mrs T - You're so right.

I know lots of my friends and family with children feel the same way as you.

Having said that, I'd give my right arm to be in the same position. Crazy but true.

In the meantime, I'll just enjoy my late lie-ins and "me" time.

LBB x

Lorraine said...

I must second MaureenRice's comment.

Hands-on care of young offspring is exhausting.

But in five seconds it will all be over.

Those chubby toddlers so adorable in smocked shirts and t-straps? They morph overnight into shambling teenagers wearing Kurt Cobain-esque lumberjack shirts and nose rings.

Perhaps it's best that they refuse to speak with you or spend any time in your company.

(Warning, maudlin self-pity fast approaching.)

But you miss them.

Some days--for example, when my teen daughter decides it's in my best interest to recount my personal failings and criticize my Twitter addiction--you'd do anything to spend a few boring hours with those pint-sized dictators.

Of course, when you're pulled in six directions at once, it's impossible to "enjoy them while they're young."

#NoPatAnswer
#GrassIsGreenerOnOtherSideOfMotherhood

Wildernesschic said...

I dont have a job to go to .. and I have husband and have Husband at home too... Kids have been off since the 10th of december .. We have been snowed in for a week .. I am slowly going insane and would love to swap places for the day .. pretty please xxx
PS Cant even blog to escape as dropped Macbook during a hangover from hell, so main computer time limited, as have to share !!

Miss Welcome said...

yepper! But where, oh where can the stay-at-home moms escape to (if not to the insane asylum)?

Sorry. Rough week.

dragondays said...

I have just finished a 6 month 24/7 stint as a grandmother ... shit! I had forgotten how demanding small, gnomey people can be and how you suddenly lose all adult thought, can no longer go out, no longer sleep properly and spend your life taking them to the loo where most of the time they are more interested in unwinding the loo roll or turning on the electric toothbrush - and I HATE and LOATHE CBBC (although I feel rather sorry for the presenters having to do what they do).
Fortunately daughter has now found herself a flat, has her job and babysitting sorted out, the Gnome now goes to school and so New Husband and I have got a life back!
Well done all you Mums out there!

ThatGirl39 said...

Fantastic post and I particularly love the "quality time... but they want you in quantity time" analogy... so true. I used to work but now don't through choice. I have to say that if Small Child wasn't at school, she started in September, I probably would have to work for the sake of my sanity. I now have my allocated me time during some of the school hours and it is a joy. I remember back to when she was young and I used to consider cleaning the bathroom without her "help" as me time. I used to feel awful for feeling that way but as I get older I understand it more. It's simply how we're made - it doesn't mean we love them less.

Nene said...

I think that the "being there for your children 24/7" thing is an invention, especially fashioned for 1st world middle class women in the 50s. Before then, no women of any class spent all her time with the children. Some children "had each other" for company while the mother slaved with cooking and housework or doing more fortunate mother's laundry etc. Other children - like the ones Shayma talks of - saw/sees more of their nanny than of their mother. And the children were often put to work or told to "go play with a wooden spoon" - the whole concept of parents entertaining their children is totally new! I insist on me-time and have always done so. If I didn't have that I'd be an even worse mother than I am. So there, Mrs. Trefusis, don your killer heals and totter off to the office and leave the bad conscience in a drawer.

Miss Cavendish said...

In North America, the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference for professors always begins on December 27. This was so that, historically, professors (who were male) could flee the confines of their families during the semester break.