Battling for Balance: Maternal Guilt

The other day I caught up with one of my best friends, in truth more of a sister to me, since we have been best buddies from the time when we were still counting our years in single digits. The background to our conversation was a rhythmic "mama" yelled by my twenty one month old son who was desperately trying to get my attention. After having watched an Olympics basketball game, he was successfully shooting hoops in front of me (apart from his tent, one of his favourite toys), running in and out of his tent, running up to me with paper and crayons to draw for him, binging me books to read to him and magnetic letters from the fridge to proclaim his newfound mastery of them, all the while I tried to appease his need for my attention while I attempted to remain focused on my conversation. After the call, I regretted my appeasement and admittedly dismissal of my son - after all, how wonderful was it that my son was trying to get my attention and share his new interests with me? Unfortunately, while I explained this to him, he didn't seem to understand, albeit he didn't hold a grudge either (children are so forgiving! we unfortunately seem to lose this ability later in life). Earlier in the year when I was blessed to have a few of my close friends come to SF all at once for one week that I hadn't seen for a while and marry one of my best friends to his longtime partner, my primary objective was to spend time with my friends. While I took my son on our group adventures and he had a blast basking in the attention everyone was pouring onto him, my primary objective was to keep him amused and happy so that I could enjoy my limited time with my friends. My policy was again one of appeasement and distraction. After the week was over, I was embroiled in guilt (which lasted more than a week) because albeit my son had fun, I had spent the whole week primarily focused on myself and my friends.

Ah, the woes of maternal guilt.

This piles right on top of my continual guilt that I spend most of the day working. As I mostly work from home, I see my son periodically during the day (for instance, in the hallway, when I am going to the kitchen to get tea etc) but these brief encounters, which at first rejuvenate me from the miasma of work, twist smiles into launching daggers as my excited son realizes that I am returning to work and proclaims his protest. Rather than be lanced in his lacrimation, I scurry back into my oubliette, defend myself with headphones (now blasting the new Avalanches album - after so long!) and attempt to submerge my advancing guilt by torpedoing back into the armada of work. It may be easier to go to an office an work - certainly dad doesn't get the cloak of guilt thrown at him, my son understanding that in the morning daddy leaves and he comes home for dinner. I am physically more available and thus an easier target for his attacks. Whenever I do work away from home, however, I arrive home later and thus spend less time with my son. Most days my nanny and I work covertly to avoid such meetings with at times elaborate choreography  - she will entice him into his room by announcing "tent time" and when I receive the text that the coast is clear, I scurry across the trenches through no-man's territory to get to the kitchen to make a sandwich as quietly and quickly as possible as if I were in the commission of a criminal act.

Some women are professional mothers - they devote their whole days to their children and do not have guilt that they are abandoning their children (albeit I wonder whether a few that have made this choice are later enveloped in guilt that they rather abandoned their own aspirations?). However this "choice" may in practice be illusive. A large portion of us don't get to make a choice. Some women would rather continue with their career but find that childcare costs may be equivalent or more than what they earn and therefore "choose" to not to return to work. From a public policy standpoint, this is appalling - we should support women in their decision and provide quality and affordable childcare. Women that are forced to give up their careers may end up resentful, depressed or at the least unfulfilled- and this would not contribute to a healthy caregiving environment for their children. On the other hand, many women want to be the primary caregiver to their children and do not want to go back to work, at least until the children are school age. Again, our society fails to support this decision adequately as women are penalized in their careers for taking several years off (I am however not sure how this gap in experience should be accounted for however). Lengthening and equalizing parental leave - both legally and culturally - is one way to combat this gap. Sweden - a country that instituted paternal leave in the 70s - later instituted policies that penalized fathers for not taking leave which led to more fathers taking leave and a smaller gap between women and men in the workforce.  I am only mentioning this tangentially, the need for greater parental leave is such that it must have its own post....back to maternal guilt.

As much as I love my sons, I continue to have others interests and pursuits and part of me feels guilty about this - it is one thing to take time out for work, it is another to take time out to finish your novel... but on the other hand, how am I to encourage my son's own pursuits later in life when the example I would leave is leaving my own? Children seem to rarely adhere to the adage "listen to what I say, not what I do" - it's what we do that counts and is impressed upon them. Talk is cheap ( well for most of us that aren't paid a significant sum for speaking engagements...).

Maybe I'm a lesser parent, but I don't believe in exiling our interests per se in order to prove devotion to our children. It's the quality of time, not the quantity that counts and the more fulfilled we are, the more we can devote to our children. From infancy they mirror our moods - happy parents produce happy children. Quality and quantity are not however unrelated. Quality time requires a certain quantity. In attempting to reach your own personal goals, spend time with your partner, continue your familial and personal relationships and devote time to nurturing your children (and having fun with them!), you put yourself invariably last on the list. If you're pregnant with your first, I am sure many people have warned you that time with your partner will be decimated when you have a child - that it will change both quantitively and qualitatively and that you should spend as much time with your partner as possible. This is true. You have to calendar in time, organize a babysitter... romance has a certain rigidity. People may not tell you - at least they didn't tell me - that before number 1 comes, enjoy the time you have to yourself, let the hamster off the wheel. Enjoy the silence. For taking time out  - from everything -is the most illusive...

We want to be the best mamas out there, but in order to do so, we have to take care of ourselves (remember the aeroplane safety guides - first you take oxygen yourself in order to help others). Speaking of which, I should take some time out right now... and as if he heard me, my munchkin just woke up-


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