My dearest little girl
You are only four years old but already you’re thinking about the future. Sometimes you say you’ll be a ballerina when you grow up; sometimes a doctor, like mummy. The thing is, you can do anything you want to . You’re lucky, like me, to be born in a country with excellent living standards and educational opportunities. So you’ll go on to kindergarten and school, and after school, wherever your heart and mind take you. Maybe you’ll go to University, maybe you’ll learn a trade, maybe you won’t do any further study at all but start a thriving business selling soy candles, maybe you will be a ballerina or some kind of artist after all. Who knows. You really could do anything.
I know you’ll grow up feeling like there are no limits, no question about your abilities, and definitely no question because you’re a girl. I know you’ll believe you’re a strong, independent girl or young woman, who will be financially independent, and intellectually equal if not superior to males her age. I know you’ll feel confident and have a badass swagger about you. I know because this was the way I felt as I grew up. Your grandparents never put limits on me and always believed that I could do anything I put my mind to.
So you’ll feel this way until the day you see those two pink lines, and go on to feel the nausea, then the first tentative kick. You’ll rub your belly fondly while you work or study. You’ll pick out a cot, a pram, blankets, and tiny baby clothes. And the day your baby is born, or well before, you’ll face the decision that all working mothers have to make: do I stay or do I go? (I hope you will have a choice. Some women don’t).
At this point, I hope your confidence stays, and does not crumble. I hope that you’ll know that you’ve suddenly earned a new role, and one of your most important ones, one that will last your entire lifetime, but one that might not define your entire being. Unless you want it to be that way. You may decide that you want to stay, forever. And this is a very wonderful thing, and one option that my supervisor offered me when I took a break from my research to have you. “If you decide to stay at home and not come back, that is absolutely fine,” she said. I’ll never forget her generosity of spirit. If this is what you want to do, then I hope your circumstances will allow you to follow your heart.
If you feel you have some work you need to do outside of the home, I hope you find the courage to find your way back. You see, raising children is not just about physically being at home with them. I stayed home for seven months with you and your brother and I worked part-time until you were almost four. We had lots of wonderful times together, you and me, and then with your baby brother. Really magical, tender times. But I knew when the time came to return to the other part of my life’s work. So I went. But my heart always stayed with you, and I was there every morning and every evening, and for many months I was there all day for some days of the week too. I knew that we were doing ok because you were both happy with your carers at daycare. You would snuggle up to me at night and say “You are the sweetest mummy. I really love you”. I felt fulfilled by my days spent doing research, and when I came home I really relished being with you and your brother. I felt like we really connected on a deep emotional level. So I want you to remember that being a mother comes down to this. You love your children, and you demonstrate this to them, unequivocally. You teach them. You comfort them. And then you let them go. Quality, not quantity. Don’t let anyone tell you that the only place mothers should be is at home with their children, that you shouldn’t work when your children are not yet in school. Sometimes another mother will make a comment like “You’ll never get this time back again”. Sometimes there’ll be messages from the media. If you don’t wish to stay full-time, let these messages wash over you and disappear. Be strong. Many years ago, women were told they couldn’t vote, and couldn’t attend University, because their place was in the kitchen. Women have since made incredible contributions outside of the home. Scientists, astronauts, CEOs, Secretaries of the State. We’ve come far since then, so don’t let these messages take you back to the 19th century.
The important lesson is, you must align your work with a higher purpose. You must feel as though you’re adding value to other people’s lives. You don’t have to be a HIV scientist. You simply have to dedicate that part of your life to bringing happiness and ease to others. It musn’t be about your ego, or personal ambition, although I have to add that there is nothing wrong in finding immense satisfaction in what you do. You are entitled to feel fulfilled outside of the domestic sphere; you must never, ever feel guilty about this. You must love what you do or you will not be happy, at home or while you are working. But if you are focussed only on inflating your own ego, you will come to grief.
If your workplace does not support what you need to be a working parent, I want you to fight for what you want. Create change. Create a new workplace culture. Do it for your daughters (and sons).
You have so many wonderful choices ahead of you. Don’t ever feel as though there is only one choice.