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The media – at least certain sections of it [they know who they are] – appear to be obsessed by the supposed ‘working mums guilt’ phenomenon. I have lost count of the number of times I have been rung up to talk about why working mums are potentially damaging their children, working mums guilt, working mums vs stay at home mums, etc. I have never ever heard a programme about working dads guilt or even heard men discussing this issue on the media.
There is an assumption that you must feel working mums guilt and, if Victoria Beckham says she feels it, well, that shows that EVERYONE feels it, potentially all the time even if she only mentioned it in passing because she was specifically asked and felt she had to say yes. Think of the headlines if she’d said no….
I was on a radio programme talking about guilt yesterday. Apparently a poll [likely to be of first-time new mums] shows 60% feel bad [read guilty] when they leave their children to return to work. I confess I may also have felt bad at some point when I returned to work the first time, amid 10,000 other emotions, but 1) I didn’t have a choice so what was the point plus feeling guilty somehow implies you are to blame and 2) and let me say this loudly, I was really keen to get back to work. Don’t get me wrong. I adore my children, but I had had enough of pretending to be interested in the finer points of how to mush vegetables [I burnt most of them and then gave up]. I wanted to have lunch with two hands and talk about what was going on in the world. Plus my work is a very big part of who I am. Would a man be asked to justify all of this?
Back to the radio interview. I was asked if I felt I had missed my children’s first smiles, etc. Don’t get me started. I think there is a tendency to oversentimentalise every aspect of a baby’s life. Whole industries have built up around this. I personally do not feel either I nor any of my babies has been permanently marked by my missing their first smile, if indeed I did. I saw the first time they smiled at me in any event. What if I had abandoned my career in order to see said first smile only to find that it occurred when a friend was looking after my child while I was popping to the toilet? The assumption is that stay at home mums are permanently glued to their children 24/7 so they don’t miss any of these firsts. And yet at the same time the stay at home mums are complaining about the tax rebate for childcare and saying it should apply to them. What if they got the tax rebate and sent their child to nursery and missed that vital first smile in the process?
Parenting is a long haul thing and I think too much of the debate centres on the whole return to work issue. The bigger issue is how to keep going and finding a way of working that is right for you and your family. Sometimes that takes a long time and there are all sorts of caveats that come with it – one important one being low pay for part-time jobs [and low pay in general]. In any event, nirvana doesn’t exist and even when you have a good balance it could all go belly up at any time, for instance, if you lose a flexible job, so you have to be able to adapt to circumstances, to be flexible if you will. Flexibility is an art in which parents [ok, mainly mums – where are the dads in this debate?] are well practised.
What’s more, the kids will probably be okay if you are okay. Prior to the interview, in the interests of research, I asked my own children if they had been horribly scarred by having a mum who worked. They barely looked up. In fact, they looked round me because I was blocking the tv [oh guilt]. I persevered. “Do you think you get a worse deal than your friends whose parents don’t work?” I inquired. They didn’t even know whether their friends’ parents worked. They don’t even talk about their parents at school. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book and stop wasting so much energy on this whole guilt trip thing. After all, who is it actually helping?