I’ve been thinking a bit more than usual this past week about the whole working and parenting and keeping it all together part of my life. It’s hard at the best of times but then a Cork mother wrote a letter to the Irish Independent last week that got the nation talking and the “what’s best for the children” debate was centre stage.
Donna Hartnett wrote from the heart saying that she felt that working long hours and having her kids in childcare just so she could work to pay taxes was exhausting her family and she’d had enough. (You can read the letter that she sent in to the paper here, it’s since gone viral.)
She continued that now her kids will be “at home, collected from school by me, and enjoy the security of a home life that should be an option afforded to every child.”
Emotive words, ones that cause a lump in the throat or a stab in the heart for parents like me whose kids are out of the house for ten hours every day that I work. It was shared everywhere, you couldn’t avoid it. “Woman is pushed too far and quits job to be with her kids.”
Opinion was split. Some said she should stop whining. Others agreed wholeheartedly.
Most working women agreed and were circumspect. We reflected. Should we do what Donna did? Did we want to? Were we expected to?
It happens every day. Women opt out of the workforce to raise their families, some hoping to return, some not. For some it’s an easy decision, but others are at the end of their tethers like Donna when making the decision, for others working is no longer economically viable when the costs of childcare are taken into account. Women also walk away from careers, or take lower paid jobs that are more family friendly.
But this was different, she wasn’t just another mother making this decision, she was making it public.
There was inevitable commentary as the letter went viral, like this article from Barbara Scully who discusses a parent’s right to be at home to care for their children and a piece by my good friend Office Mum which was so close to what I wanted to say that it stopped me writing at all.
My mother was at home with us, and so were most of my classmates’ in my rural primary school, bar the odd nurse or teacher. Times have changed and most of the women in my social circles work outside in the home.
While my kids don’t go to a creche and are looked after by a childminder who treats them as if they were there own, it does grate that someone else gets the good news of the day first, someone else gets the reports from teacher at the school gate, or the party invitations, and knows what’s happening in their little lives before I do.
Most mothers experience guilt, but us working mothers sometimes give the impression that we own it. We don’t.
But the guilt of leaving our children in creches or with childminders bothers us, and long days, and too little sleep, it feels so much like being on a hamster’s wheel. Here’s the thing though, given a choice, lots of us would still choose to work.
Maybe not in the same jobs, or in the same locations. Probably not for the same hours. But to do something, outside of the house, that would mean someone else would need to look after our children for some part of the day.
For me it’s the fact that I’m not there every day that gnaws away at me, even though I know that I do want to keep working. But if I quit then this guilt would be replaced by the guilt that I wasn’t contributing financially, and I need to keep that in mind too. We all do.
Really, it comes down to having options. If we had the choice and could decide for ourselves without outside concerns like money and career and childcare whether we wanted to stay home or whether we wanted to work, and how we wanted to work I really believe that things would be different.
Parents who do have a choice can choose to stay home or choose to work. That choice, to me, is a luxury, in making the choice they’re deciding their own destiny.
And I reflect, that most days, given the choice I would choose to work. I’m not saying that I’d choose to work long days, or to set my alarm for 5.40am and drive 90km on a dark morning, but I would definitely work. I like working. I like the part of me it brings out, I do like the time out from my kids and not just the opportunity to pee alone, I like the remembering who I am, and then leaving work in the evening and going home and hearing how the days of those small people who are the world to me were. I get confirmations of what they’ve been up to, as they tell tales on siblings that they’ve been storing since morning and show me the stickers won for excellent drawing in playschool.
So while Donna Hartnett has decided what she’s doing for her children, I’m thinking more about what I can do for my children and our family. Because for me, six months back to work after maternity leave I know that being at home all the time isn’t a walk in the park, and there are definitely days that heading out to work is the easier option. I have my “wonderful Wednesdays” parental leave that reconnect me with their little worlds and that helps keep my balance/sanity.
Donna’s letter has gotten us all looking inward, trying to decide what given the choice we would do, and seeing if maybe we do have other options that aren’t obvious on first sight. And for that, regardless of which side we take in the debate, we owe her thanks.