I took some time off recently, just a week, but it was a much-needed week of reflection and a break from the usual routine and from my computer screen. I spent time with good friends and family, and with my children. I had a child-free weekend doing adult things like only having to feed, dress and toilet one person – me. My best friend and I talked about a lot of things, including how and where our careers were going.
Career is one of those dirty words in a mother’s vocabulary. Almost as terrifying to say as “formula-feeding”, “born by Caesarian section”, or “crying-it-out”. And yet, career is not just a dirty word to mothers – when I was a young doctor starting out on an academic path, enrolling in a Masters, a clinical supervisor referred to me as a “career possum”. I always wondered if he would say the same thing to a male doctor, but I never got to ask him.
Let’s get this straight. My family is the number one priority in my life. Unequivocally my most profound and tender priority. My family is the blood running through my veins, the beat of my heart, the love of my life. Most of all, what I know in my deepest heart of hearts is that my family is made up of people, of fellow human beings, two of whom carry half my genetic information, who have my eyes, my smile, my hair. My family needs me, and I cannot be outsourced, replaced by someone else. I can outsource daily care for a number of hours a day, I can outsource cleaning and cooking, but I cannot outsource what I mean to them. I also need my family. We are a mutually connected and loving unit, often chaotic, mostly imperfect, but they are as inseparable to me as my breath is to my lungs and circulation.
My career is a different thing – I can certainly be replaced. Another GP, another researcher, another academic. Someone with exactly the same skills can slip into my seat and carry on where I left off. If circumstances ever meant I needed to throw it all in – a serious illness, for example – I would have no hesitation in leaving my laptop and handing over to someone else. My career is a thing, not a beautiful breathing living person with a heart, a mind, hands that need to be held, a soul that needs to be nourished.
So what does it mean to me then? Why do my children go to daycare, why am I not there at every 3pm kindy pickup?
To put it simply, my career represents my hopes and dreams. So I am disappointed, no, furious, when parts of “modern” society continue to insist that a woman cannot have a career and be a mother (or be a good mother) at the same time. I got these messages (along with other supportive ones) when I wrote a post about working and stay-at-home mothers. Some comments were: “Children should be brought up by their mothers”. “Childcare is simply barbaric”. “Mothers should be at home with their children”. “What do you think happens when you go off to have your career?” And recently I read a curious blog post about why daycare is bad for children and why working mums are the scum of the Earth. I was infuriated. Apparently if I am not there whenever my precious little ones fall over, I have failed as a mother because I am sending them a message that they are not worthy. Never mind that they run to the arms of their loving carers who are trained in first aid and hugs and who act as my “village”. I. Just. Can’t. Even. I have gone to great lengths to promote tolerance and mutual respect between mothers who choose to work at home or outside the home. I get worked up when I see women deliberately try to tear this down and inflame some kind of ridiculous “mummy war”. But I should stop ranting. And acknowledge others out there who are trying to do the same thing as I am – repair relationships, build tolerance, like this lovely blog post “We Are Not Rivals”.
Consider this. If a little girl says she dreams of becoming a scientist, or an astronaut, or a successful business owner, or whatever it is little girls want to be nowadays, who would dare take that dream away from her? Do we say to our daughters, that’s all well and good darling, but you know you wouldn’t be able to be a good mother at the same time, so you would have to stop once you have children, so why even try? And I am quite certain that we would never say that to little boys.
Is it because of the enduring image of the selfish career woman, daring to put her hopes and dreams above the needs of her family (which is clearly, to be slavishly present in their lives 24/7)? How dare a mother have her own aspirations beyond the family, to have needs of her own! Selfish woman!
Is it also the incredible demands of some professions, requiring long hours of “face time”, travelling, shift work, and inflexible hours?
I have heard, also, of parents putting their career aside for the preschool years and then aiming to revive it once the children are in school. While the 0-3 age is certainly an important time developmentally, childcare becomes a given (from 9-3) once kids are in school, and children are less physically demanding once they are in school, I get the feeling that the demands of parenting schoolchildren can be even greater, in some ways, than those of parenting pre-schoolers.
Let’s get another thing straight. I enjoy my work. It brings me meaning, purpose, direction. I enjoy having goals to shoot for. I also enjoy providing for my family. I do not see why this has to be a dirty thing. Why can’t a woman find satisfaction outside of the home? There is mounting evidence that spending time in daycare is generally not detrimental to children’s emotional and academic development, and having a working mother may confer some benefits to children, especially for their daughters. I take pains to ensure that my children attend a high-quality centre. I am offended at the suggestion that they may develop behavioural problems because of daycare. They most certainly do not.
I do not spend my time attacking stay-at-home mums. I admire and love them as my dearest friends. They are simply mums just like I am. Why do some SAHMs, however, feel they must defend their decisions, the way I am having to defend mine?
But I am clear on this now. I won’t ever let anyone make me feel as though I should give up my hopes and dreams.
I will, however, make a pledge to make this work. Somehow, I will walk that tightrope of being engaged and present for my children and family, while striving for excellence in my career. There will need to be give and take from both – I cannot be at every assembly, I will not be able to be at the tuck shop once a week, my children will have to go to after-school care some days every week. In the same vein, I will not be at every conference, I will turn down some committee memberships, and some papers will have to wait while I have a holiday with my children. But I will be there, morning and night. I will be present on weekends with no covert emailing or working on the laptop unless it is an extraordinary situation. I also want workplaces and schools to buy into family and work-friendly practices. I will lobby for schools to give parents adequate notice before scheduling a Mother’s Day morning tea at the god-awful time of 11am with only a week’s notice, setting working parents up to fail immediately. I will encourage my colleagues and students to strive for work-life balance, not endless hours at the desk. And every night, bar unusual circumstances, I will sit down with my family to dinner, and kiss my children goodnight. Each day I hope to make my children understand that their mother loves them and values them above all else in the world, but that does not mean she has no responsibilities and no joy outside of the home as well. I will also somehow find it in me to demonstrate to my children that a woman, dare I say a parent, can work and raise a family with joy and presence. And if I can do this, I will be able to leave each morning and chase those hopes and dreams with a clear conscience and clean heart.