Working Mother’s Guilt, the Myth of Balance and Perfection
This past weekend I was traveling by plane and the man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. He told me about his wife, kids, house, job… on and on. And, as is usually the case, I volunteered very little about myself. It is a strange thing that on the internet I don’t hold much back, but in real life I am reserved and cautious about what I share. Finally he asked me if I had children. It is a question that always makes me chuckle before I answer.
Do I have kids? Oh boy, do I have kids.
After he got over his shock and awe, he asked what I thought the biggest mistake is that parents make. I really only had to think about it for a moment.
Worrying. The biggest mistake that parents make is worrying.
We all do it. The senseless worry about things that are statistically not going to happen. Worrying about what other people will think of our parenting choices. Worrying about being perfect. Worrying about messing our kids up so badly that no amount of therapy can help them.
It is as if worrying is some sort of biological imperative. Something which probably had a place a long time ago in our history. But now? Worrying is paralyzing.
I work from home doing something I love. I am lucky. I recognize this, yet I worry about how this particular job choice affects my children.
I am sitting here now working. I have deadlines to meet, multiple tabs open on my laptop that I toggle back and forth between. My daughter is eating breakfast at the table next to me, narrating everything. I am half listening. Every so often I pause and make non-committal remarks.
“That is great!”
“Finish your breakfast.”
“We’re running late.”
I don’t know if we are actually running late. It’s just something I say all the time. Rushing my children from one thing to the next, I am like the White Rabbit. I yell to my teenagers to get up out of bed and get moving already. When they don’t respond I pick up my phone and call them on their cellphones, bellowing a terse, “Get up!” when they answer.
My 5 yr old son is sitting on my lap, his head buried in my neck, arms wrapped around my body. His hands are stroking my hair which hangs down my back. My yoga pants are stained. The tank top I am wearing is fraying at the hem. No bra, no make-up except for whatever is left from yesterday. My second cup of coffee is growing cold next to me. Typing is difficult with the weight of his body constricting my movements.
I am trying not to be annoyed by this wrench in my day. I hope that I am trying hard enough that he doesn’t notice. I hope that when he remembers being sick as a child and lying on the couch all day watching tv that it was a fun thing, not something he was forced to do so that his mother could work. The problem with working from home is that there are no boundaries, no office space to come to and leave each day. The office is your home and your home is the office and creating a boundary between the two is difficult, if not impossible.
And even while I worry I recognize the ridiculousness of it all. I could be worrying about who was going to take care of my child because if I didn’t go to work I would be fired. My mother often left me at home alone from a very young age because she simply didn’t have a choice. I can’t even begin to imagine what that sort of decision was like.
So I am rocking back and forth with my sick child while typing – I am torn as to whether this is a high point or low point in multi-tasking. I tend to think the former, but beat myself up with the latter.
Will he remember that I rocked him? Or will he remember that I was always typing, not fully present. Will he know, or any of my children know, how much I worried through their childhoods that I wasn’t doing a good enough job.
I think of a conversation that I had with a friend recently. How middle class mothers have taken to manufacturing things to feel guilty about. Our children are fed, clothed, have all the things that money can buy for them. They are safe and loved. Our days aren’t spent toiling away at some sort of horrible job. We have choices. Choices our grandmothers didn’t have. Something that is both a blessing and a curse.
We don’t have many valid worries and so we manufacture them. We worry about plastic water bottles, excessive high fructose corn syrup consumption, toys made in China, their fragile little psyches. And crafts… we should be doing more crafts. At least that is what all those parenting magazines tell us. We worry about being perfect. When in the end none of it is really going to matter. Probably. Hopefully.
At least that is what I am telling myself this morning as I type with one hand and hold my child with the other. Maybe this is as perfectly balanced as it gets.