My youngest child starts school this month. For the first time in almost nine years, large chunks of each weekday will belong solely to me. I have been thinking about this for what seems like an age; thinking about it in the dreamy, anticipatory way a dieter thinks about chocolate Six and a half hours a day. Thirty-two hours a week. All mine. I can’t wait for her to go.
I feel dreadful when I admit that. It’s not as if I am pushing her out the door: she will be amongst the oldest in her class, and after three years of preschool is more than ready for the transition. To tell the truth, she has been ready for months, has driven us all slightly mad by insisting on wearing a hand-me-down uniform wherever we go, and telling every man and his dog that “Soon I will be in PREP!” the way other people might announce that they have just got engaged or won a trip to Europe. I have no fears for her. She will blossom.
It’s just that while labelling her tunics and buying pencils I can’t quite shake my guilt. It’s one thing to be happy that your child is ready for school; it’s quite another to feel positively gleeful at the prospect. Such anticipation seems somehow shameful, wrong. Not many other mothers feel this way, or at least they don’t admit it. Mostly I reassure myself that it’s natural – who wouldn’t want a bit of a break after those early, all encompassing, well nigh symbiotic years? – but on my worst days I wonder if I’m a bad mum. Am I being selfish? Have I wished my children’s lives away?
The thing is, I love to work. I have two jobs – psychologist and freelance writer – and adore them both. I remember being at University, in my early days of studying psych, and coming across Freud’s definition of maturity: Leiben und arbeiten. Loving and working. It made me smile with a sudden stab of recognition, for I knew exactly what he meant. My husband is astonished that I’m never depressed on Sunday nights; that I am always happy to sit down at my desk or head out to see a client. When writer and critic Catherine Deveny penned a column describing herself as a ‘work slut’ he cut it out and taped it to my PC.
As a result, when the babies arrived I felt almost immediately hemmed in. I’d craved their existence, was thrilled and relieved to have them, but once the new-mother endorphins wore off and things settled down it was all a bit suffocating. I missed my job. Both my children went to child-care two afternoons a week from six months of age, rising to two full days a week once they turned one. In addition, each had one morning a week where they were cared for by a grandparent or a nanny. It’s not a huge amount. Studies on the effects of day-care tend to consider being ‘in care’ as anything over 30 hours a week, and my kids never came close to that mark.
Even so, looking back, I feel guilty. I was desperate to return to work, albeit part-time and poorly paid. In the thick of those preschool years it felt as if they would never end; now of course they seem so fleeting. Couldn’t I have waited? My mother did, delaying a return to university to study medicine until the youngest of her three children was in high school. Somehow though, I wasn’t so patient. Unlike my mother I’d had a career before childbirth; a life of the mind that I missed immensely. Financially, I didn’t need to work, but psychologically I did.
It hasn’t been straightforward. I know there have been times I have been short- tempered with my children because I was tired, or worried about a deadline, or so deeply into what I was doing that I resented being brought out of it to cook dinner or hear reading. I missed Auskick every Saturday morning so I could fit in my private practice. My husband told me off once – rightly – for racing through a bedtime story because I was itching to get back to the PC and the ideas swelling in my mind.
On the other hand, I was happier – far happier – than I would have been if I hadn’t worked, and hopefully that has had a trickle-down effect. I also hope I’m setting my children a good example: that work is a part of life, but should ideally be vibrant, rewarding, something to enjoy rather than endure.
No doubt they have benefited from the few extra indulgences my salary and guilt have brought their way. They have also benefited from having a more available father and egalitarian home life: because I work my husband has changed his hours so as to be available for school pick-ups and drop-offs, to spend one morning a week with our daughter while I’m at the clinic. Those hours alone together have definitely enhanced their bond… but they wouldn’t have happened if I’d been home full-time.
In the end, I have no answers. We make our bed and we lie in it. We do the best we can by our children, and, if we dare, ourselves. What else can we do? I worry, in the final days of this preschool stretch, that I didn’t give my children as much of myself as I could, that I wasn’t always the perfect at-home mother of the margarine commercials. Still, I know I gave them what I could. I’m glad I worked. They got more of me because I did.
“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