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.