Tuesday, 23 February 2010

What's the best way to be a mum?

When I was growing up my mum worked. She didn't rush out to an office in a smart suit, instead she ran a small business with my dad, but she was no less absorbed with her career than a high flying city woman. She worked out of the shed in our garden and I recall her spending most of her time out there, she claims that wasn't the case, but I can only rely on what made an impact with infant me.

She would go to markets in London to sell their wares, and while I was tiny I would come along too. But as soon as I went to school I was left behind, aware that my mum wasn't there at night and that she wouldn't be there to send me to school. As I got older she started to travel abroad as the business spread it's wings.

Once I sprained my ankle at school and there was no one there to come and pick me up, until my sulky older sister returned from school to begrudgingly drag me back from the doctor's surgery. Another time I lay in my bed crying for my mother after a bad dream, she was outside working and didn't hear a thing. Fortunately a lovely friend of hers came up, calmed my fears and dried my tears, but it still wasn't my mummy.

Rightly or wrongly I always felt as if the interesting part of my mum's life was the one away from us children. The things she wanted to do all revolved around work, and I felt as if I was constantly left behind while she pursued the fascinating things that she really wanted to do. My abiding memory of her was that she was always trying to get away to do something for work, and that I was vainly trying to catch her and make her stay with me. It left me with a chunky chip on my shoulder and the conviction that being a stay-at-home mum was the best way to bring up your children.

I always planned that when I had my children I would give up work and be there for them. Not for them the patchwork of inadequate childcare and unwilling grandparents who made up the landscape of after school care during my childhood. Instead I would be there, freshly baked cakes in hand, ready with a smile whenever my boys needed me. They would never feel that my attention was elsewhere or that my priorities lay anywhere other than with their wellbeing and their needs.

So how is it that with four children aged from one to six, I now spend most of my time working, shooing them out of my office as I race to meet deadlines and very little of it baking cakes or prioritising the children's joys and sorrows?

Circumstance has a lot to do with it. Just as it was when I was a child, money is tight. I didn't marry a rich man, I married one I loved instead. Big mistake if you want to be a stay-at-home mum. My husband is lovely and a fantastic dad, but he doesn't earn enough to allow me to stay at home in any style. I suppose I could forgo all luxuries and stick to my principles, but I am not sure how happy that would make anyone. I have a weakness for a comfortable life, and making do and mending simply doesn't appeal.

It's also a lot trickier to live the frugal life in London, where you are surrounded by other parents in the advanced stages of affluenza. Sure my kids could be the only ones who had no new clothes, toys, holidays, trips out etc, but would that make them happy? Having been poor in my own childhood (the business wasn't that sucessful), I know the answer to that is no. I will never get over the humiliation of turning up at school in one of my mum's jumble sale finds, only for some spoiled brat to rush up in peals of laughter revealing to the whole school that I was wearing her cast off. I still blush hotly at the memory.

But I also discovered that perhaps the reason behind my mum's distraction is that for some women the satisfaction of bringing up children isn't enough. There is a reason why women fought for the right to work, and that's because for many staying at home with only the washing, ironing, cooking and babbling of a baby isn't enough.

I adore my children, and I love my days spent looking after them. I wish there were more of them, but if that was all there was in my life I think I might just lose the plot. Every occasion which has seen me unemployed in my life, and there have been many, I have always started some new project to distract me. This blog was begun when I was on maternity leave with my twins, and you can see from the early entries just how devoted I was to it.

You see I can sit still and dandle my babies for only a short period of time before my mind starts racing off to find something else to employ it. I hope and pray that this doesn't have make my boys feel that the interesting part of my life is the bit that doesn't involve them, because this is far from the case.

If I split up my life into parts, I would say the part that sustains me and makes it all seem worthwhile, the bit that resides in my heart and soul, the bit I would save if my life burnt down, is the part that contains my family; my sons and my husband. But the part that keeps my mind alert, the part that gets me the respect I crave and the feeling of success outside the home, is my work. I would ditch it in an instant if my family required it, but I do relish the chance to be me, and not just a mum or a wife and, to be frank, I like earning my own cash.

I think that makes me selfish, that I can't seem to give up the part of my life that is all about me, and swap it for one that is all about my boys. I wish I could. I have lots of friends who have done this, with varying degrees of success, but I know I couldn't step into their shoes, within a week I would have set up a business baking cakes or decided to run the PTA, just to give me something to do as well as washing socks, finger painting and seeking out the best playgroups.

I suppose what I aim for in life is to create a good balance. At the moment I feel everything is skewed towards work, and that makes me sad. I live in hope that I can push the scales more in favour of my family, while still keeping on enough work to keep me sane and solvent. But in my line of work it tends to be boom or bust, so you are either run off your feet or twiddling your thumbs.

I often wonder if anyone feels they have got it right or if every mum, whatever her choice, is destined to beat herself up as she attempts to create that elusive 'perfect' childhood for her children.


  1. What a great post. I am going to be returning to work in the next year and wrestle with the juggling/planning/childcare issue...but know that I love to feel I have a world out of childcare myself and really want it for my own sanity and sense of purpose. Plus, I need the money. You really captured it all for me. There are no simple answers when you are a parent and the best one for you is ultimately the best for the kids I think.

  2. Nicola - Well that's what I hope for, though I sometimes wonder if I just tell myself that to make me feel better. Then again, if it works then perhaps that's good enough.

  3. There is no easy way.

    At the moment due to a dearth of freelance work and the fact that my children are only at preschool 4 hours a day, I am not working. But I cannot say I am really happy with that. We can afford to live, but when it comes to luxuries for myself or the boys I don't feel justified in spending any money when I am contributing nothing. I also feel my mind is very under-occupied - hence the increase in blogging! - and would love to be doing something more intellectually challenging than shopping in Target. I am not and never will be the cake-baking kind of Mummy who is happy doing domestic stuff all day long. And yet I would not want to get a full time job because I want to be there for the boys when they come home from school. Sorry for ranting, but your excellent post inspired me to do so.....wish I was there so we could meet up and do it over a glass of wine!

  4. This is an excellent post! Life is about balance, finding one that suits both you and your family can be hard.

  5. NVG - Me too. I do miss our nights out putting the world to rights. Still I am hankering after a weekend in NY this year as it has been way too long, so keep fingers crossed that perhaps we can meet up sometime this year...

  6. Reluctant Blogger24 February 2010 at 17:53

    I have four children and I work from home and often I feel as you do. But I still do think it is the best balance - I am there for them, and when they really need me I am there 100%, and at other times I can get on and do things for myself.

    I do miss the contact of being in a workplace though. My children aren't small (my youngest is 8) so I could go back to lecturing but after working for myself for so many years I just don't think I could stomach working for anyone else. But I am not entirely sure it is good for me to be so isolated all the time.

  7. This is an excellent post and beautifully written. Your memories of childhood are quite heart-rending and I found them quite upsetting to read; I don't want my own children to feel the same when they look back on their early years. I work full-time although am home before they go to bed 90% of the time, and at home with them every weekend. It's hard but I am passionate about my job and the fulfilment it gives me, as well as the fact that I am successful in a male dominated profession. I want to be a good role-model for my daughters (and son!) It's a hard balance, and you'll never feel you have it quite right.

  8. MTJAM - sometimes I wish I had daughters so I could say I was a role model, as it is I don't think the boys really care about my career, except when it leads to freebies for them of course!