55 hours. That was the figure that went around and around in my head when I went back to work after having my first baby. Between commuting and time in crèche, she was out of the house every day for 11 hours, or 55 hours a week. In practice, everything was fine – we had time together in the evening before she went to bed, and entire weekends together. She was content and happy in crèche and at home. But I couldn’t stop worrying that it wasn’t right, that my husband and I were somehow doing her a disservice.
It’s something many women – and it’s mostly women – can relate to. Perhaps because we’re at home for maternity leave, or perhaps because many of us have at least some friends or acquaintances who don’t go back to work; we question ourselves at least occasionally, and more so than men do. In Ireland, almost half of all mothers of small children are at home, so it’s understandable that this breeds self-doubt every now then; wondering if we’ve made the right decision.
That we shouldn’t feel guilty for having careers or earning an income to pay the mortgage is clear, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy to banish. And the guilt is draining and exhausting and ultimately pointless. So I started to wonder about the positives – what am I teaching my children by working?
I’m teaching them that there’s more to me than the parts they see – the cooking, the cleaning, the picking of things off the floor. I remember a conversation with my kids once, where we discussed what my husband and I would do if we changed careers. They said my husband would be a footballer, and I could be a cleaner, because I’m “pretty good at cleaning”. So now it’s important to me that they know what I do for a living, and what I get from it, and that I have wider interests than laundry.
I’m teaching them that my time away from them has value. That although we’re apart for hours at a time, it’s because I’m doing something I enjoy.
I’m teaching them that work can be great, and sometimes work can be tough, and that’s okay too.
And I’m teaching them that women can do anything they want to do.
Jenny Lawler is a lecturer in Bioprocess Engineering, and she is also trying to teach her children that women can do anything. “Because my husband and I both work in science and engineering, I think the idea of gender specific jobs, or that girls aren’t good at Maths or Science, just won’t be in the psyche of our kids,” says the mum of three. “I’d like to think that the confidence will be instilled in them – that they’ll know they can be whatever they want to be. My children have been in my office and lab and have met some of my team, who are real live scientists in white coats, who also happen to be lovely young women!”
Jenny has two daughters and a baby son, and says it’s not just about teaching girls that they can do anything they want. She hopes that by the time her son is an adult, gender imbalance will be a distant memory. “Growing up in an environment where women are as strong and passionate as men must have an impact on the way boys view the world – and the Grandmas in our family work as well, so there’s no shortage of good strong female characters!”
Anne-Marie McKenna, a software quality engineer from Cork, says she wants to teach her children that parenting is a team effort. “I’d like them to know that my career choices are of equal importance to those of their father and that we support each other to ensure that we can both achieve our goals – which in my case involves continuing to work. I also want to show them that they don’t need to be limited by gender stereotypes and that having children doesn’t necessarily have to mean the end of a woman’s career.”
Anne-Marie’s three children, aged six, four and one, see this in practice at home every day. “It’s about leading by example. Seeing both of their parents packing schoolbags, making lunches and juggling work and home duties is completely normal for them, which is a positive blueprint. The importance of being self-reliant and planning for the future are also things that I want to emphasise to them as they get older.”
Solicitor Emma Meagher feels that by working, she is teaching her children about being independent. “My mum always worked and encouraged my sisters and me to work and have our own independence. I want my own children to have that independence and to know that yes, we all have days when we don’t feel like going to work or school but you get up, get on with it, and do your bit. It’s not about conforming but developing a work ethic and being responsible for themselves.”
Emma has two small sons, and like Anne-Marie, she feels it’s important to teach them that parenting is a team effort. “Both my husband and I work – while we don’t have that perfect ‘equal parenting’ split – we almost have it. The boys see their dad go to the school introduction days and do housework. When they see that equality in their parents’ relationship, it can only benefit their relationships with women when they start working and elsewhere in their lives. I also think that there is a lot of pressure on men to be the sole provider – I think this is really unfair. I would hate for either of my sons or my husband to bear that burden.”
But even women who can see so many positives in working can feel guilty sometimes. “There are days when I wonder if I’m doing the right thing for my family,” says Anne-Marie. “When the kids are sick, or crying as I walk out the door, then it’s only natural to feel conflicted. I’ve seriously considered more than once if I’m just being selfish by working outside the home – but it’s been part of my identity for so long that I think I’d really struggle to adjust. I think it’s good to re-evaluate the situation every now and then, but so far I haven’t felt ready to stop working and the kids seem pretty happy and content.”
So with all the positive lessons we can teach our children through working, why do we still sometimes feel guilty?
“I think some women worry about not being there for homework, not being there to be able to arrange playdates, not having the time to cook fabulously nutritional 100 per cent perfect meals all the time,” says career coach Dearbhalla Baviera (Clearbird.ie). “I think perfection plays a role – no one else will be able to parent our own children as we want to. They won’t do it exactly as we would. Which is true, but it comes back to this – if they’re happy and safe, why does it matter?”
So if we accept that with good childcare in place, there is no point in dwelling on guilt, what kind of lessons can we teach our children through working?
“How we behave at home is so important. A very, very important lesson to kids, where both parents work, is that it’s not the woman’s job to cook, clean, tidy, wash, and the man’s job to cut grass, put up shelves and put out bins,” says Dearbhalla, who has four young children. “It’s important to me that my kids see their dad turning over washing on a Sunday evening and making sandwiches for the day ahead while I do other things. It takes a family to run a home.”
She also believes that the way we speak about work is important. “We can teach children about working hard and achieving. If we talk about our team and achievements and doing a good job with positive energy, that is passed on. If we talk about events, interesting people that we speak to, explain that we have to work late because we have an important deadline, these are important messages too. If we get across that we love what we do and there is value in working hard and doing something we enjoy, that is a good message to pass on.”
If you’re worried about going back to work, Dearbhalla Baviera advises asking yourself these questions:
Are the kids safe and well looked after?
Am I happy with the arrangements I have made?
Are their needs being met – homework, playpark, puzzles, colouring, fresh air, playtime – even if it’s not by me?
Am I enjoying my job, learning, thriving?
Am I bringing my best self to work?
When I come home in the evening and at the weekend – do I give plenty of cuddles and conversation and play? Am I present?
Are we a well-functioning family – most of the time?
Are the kids happy?
Do they know I love them?
If the answer to most of these questions is yes, then that is good enough.
You can find more from Dearbhalla on her new blog findingyourmojo.ie
This article first appeared in Mothers and Babies magazine with the Independent on July 5th 2017