The word motherhood, for a great many mothers with infant children, is synonymous with the word guilt. Two weeks ago I returned to work part time following the birth of my second child. I’m no stranger to returning to the work environment as this was, after all, my third return to work in the space of nine years with my employer.
I felt no more prepared than the last stint two years before that. My first return to work had followed a year’s leave without pay to travel the globe. I remember it was difficult to return to the drudgery of the nine-to-five grind but my Mediterranean tan and Spanish moccasins were a reminder of the possibility of further travel!
So returning to work was a means to an end. Little did I anticipate that subsequent leave would still be unpaid and the return to work infinitely much more painful.
In anticipating returning to work for the third time, I weaned my eleven month old baby and instigated the process of settling him into childcare. His cries of distress could be heard from as far as the childcare car park. The feeling of guilt at leaving him in the care of people that I did not know was so overpowering, at times it left me immobile, paralysed and unable to process what actions I had to take to get on with the day. Sometimes it was hard to tell if it was his cries that echoed through the grey pillars of the underground car park, or mine. His runny nose and tear-stained wet cheeks when I picked him up at the end of a day is gut- wrenching.
Guilt is also manifesting itself in my work. It is no longer possible to put in the long hours I once did, and as such the quality of my work is in direct correlation to the hours of sleep I get the night before. My enthusiasm has diminished as I realise that there is very little career advancement for those working part-time. Not to mention that maternity leave is still viewed by some employers as a career dead end, and is met with varying degrees of intolerance when providing reduced or flexible working conditions for mothers.
The freedom to make myself a cup of hot tea, gossip around the water cooler and to take numerous toilet breaks is far out weighed by the pressure of the morning routine which often takes three hours before I even arrive at work. I’ve barely cleared my inbox and it time to rush back to do the afternoon pick up and cook dinner. I work twice as hard to achieve half as much. Lack of sleep and energy means less work efficiency and accuracy which equals, you guessed it, guilt!
Returning to work has resulted in greater number of takeout meals for the family. The guilt of not providing healthy meals for the kids has led me to spend more time in food planning and preparation, namely the loss of my Sundays to cooking a few extra dishes for the week. Guilt equals loss of free time.
Last Sunday while in the kitchen my three year old said to me, “Put on your happy face Mummy”. Maybe she should have said, “go to your happy place mummy”. Then the thought crosses my mind that I have failed to give her quality time and to be the positive role model she needs. Guilt equals less free time which equals more home cooked meals which equals less quality time which equals MORE GUILT! It’s a vicious cycle.
My marital relationship is another source of guilt. While it is widely accepted that post-children, most couple’s sexual lives take a battering, loss of sleep, lack of time, loss of libido and stress/tension all play a role. It’s the dent in our emotional relationship that has me feeling guilty. What I perceive as an over burden workload has lead me to be less kind and generous, less affectionate, and less willing to communicate in a caring and respectful manner. A recent study found that martial longevity was not related to sexual equality but rather to altruistic acts and genuine generosity couples show each other. Interestingly, Society has had to rephrase the “seven-year itch” to the “three-year-itch” as couples don’t seem to be making the seven year milestone. Great! Lack of attentiveness equals increased chance of divorce equals GUILT!
It leads me to ask the question does guilt equal failure? My parents, both teachers, believed in encouraging their girls to obtain an education, become professionals and never stop challenging female stereotypes. My sister is an accomplished architect and I am a psychologist. We have travelled, achieved professional milestones in print or publication and somehow found time to fall in love. We have both married and in my case produced beautiful offspring. Yet, all in all we are not so different from our mother.
She migrated from India at the age of 30, got a full time job while looking after two children under the age of five with no support such as mothers group, and maintained a household. She worked, cooked and cleaned. How is it that not much has changed in 30 years? Did all that my parents encouraged me to achieve still bring me back to the same point in history- primary carer, part-time worker, full time cook, un-paid cleaner, lover, friend and daughter?
Statistics show that women still perform a majority of the household chores, maintain the family calendar of social events and ensure that basic needs of the family (from buying shoes to making paper mashie school projects) are met. So much for beating the stereotypes!
I question, why we are so afraid to fail? While on maternity leave, I read a lot of articles about motherhood written by women. Simply put, I needed affirmation. Guilt and motherhood, as it turns out, is universal. The stress of organising Dora the Explorer parties, attending weekend work conferences on the same day as your child’s first little league game, loss of libido, lack of adult time and the list goes on, is broadly felt by mothers at one time or another.
One article stood out from the others and believe it or not it was written by a male. He hypothesised that women are more stressed than men because we strive to do everything, and to do it all perfectly. He stated that a man would prioritise his day and would feel accomplished if he completed only one task well on that list. A woman however would take that list, attempt to complete several tasks well and then feel like a failure if she only finished two or three. His suggestion for reducing stress in women was to learn how to prioritise only one thing and to do that well or to do several tasks meeting only the minimum requirement to complete the task.
My biggest fear is failing as a parent. I asked my father what makes a good parent? “Time”, he replied. Following my look of surprise he explained that the longer we spend with our children and, as time goes by, they grow and learn, and therefore we grow and learn as parents.
Mistakes happen in the beginning because no one gives you a handbook, but the more time you spend being a parent the better you become at it. His theory goes a long way to explaining the amazing relationship most children have with their grandparents.
So, other than therapy, where to from here? Giving up my job is not a possibility and nor should it be. Motherhood is a juggling act, and while I realise not all of those balls have to be juggled by me, it seems that it is I who put them there in the first place. My resolution is to delegate and then let go. My aim is to pass some of the balls and the control to others and then to be more responsible for myself. It might result in a less perfect, less accomplished me, but, it should equal a happier and more content me. Guilt-free might be pushing it!
A final lesson learnt is that while I will encourage my daughter to believe she can do everything, I will ensure she understands she has the choice not to, and there is no guilt in that.
- Mother Guilt (littlemamabee.wordpress.com)