Mention childcare and sooner or later someone asks what makes a real mother.
My mum was a real mother. She still is. More than that, she’s a real grandmother. So much so, that she’s forgoing a funeral on Friday to cart my kids to swimming lessons, because I’ve returned to work after a month off and can’t possibly take another moment’s leave. Not even to see my five-year-old put her face under water for the first time and emerge from the experience triumphant. Looking for me – and finding Nanna.
Mum was chairman of the school board, before it was politically correct to be a chairperson. She was badge secretary of the Girl Guides. Convener of the cake stall. Stalwart of the canteen committee.
I can’t remember an afternoon when she wasn’t waiting at the school gates. She baked apple teacake and looked interested when we offloaded the mind-numbing minutiae of school-life. She helped with our assignments, pre-Google, when this involved a library.
She was never ‘too busy’, even when she was.
I, on the other hand, missed the moment my firstborn walked. I was minute-taking for a committee judging grant applications for research into the First World War – a conflict that ended precisely eighty-one years before the morning my daughter took her first steps. A missed moment for which I will never forgive myself. A moment I try to imagine sometimes, usually when red traffic lights rob me of what we’ve come to call ‘quality time’, but give me a minute to think.
I am a bad mother. Or so it seems from the window of my air-conditioned office at two o’clock in the afternoon when other mums are battling to the bitter end of school holidays, like martyrs in the Inquisition.
By the time I get home, I’m the one conducting the inquisition: ‘Why do you make such a mess? Will you ever stop squabbling?’
‘Why are you so childish?’
And that’s the point, isn’t it, when the logic falls apart? That’s the line you step over, before you remind yourself that they are, in fact, children. Little people – who, in my day, were digging Smurf houses under poplars and being catered for properly by mothers who didn’t stand in front of the freezer every night and sigh. Or maybe they did sigh, but quietly.
I want to put in more than the odd appearance in my child’s life. I work to pay school fees. I go to each assembly. I roster on for literacy groups. I Google homework. I sell Freddos. I read Enid Blyton until the words are swimming on the page.
My boss expects budget forecasts while I worry whether morning tea was meant to be in a labeled paper bag because kindergarten is going to the National Zoo and Aquarium.
Where mum will be, of course. She’s having her second motherhood, while I have my first one, once removed.
Working mums don’t need other people to make us feel guilty. We do a good job of that ourselves.
We do a good job, full stop.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem