By Sandra Beck
A few years ago I was taking my kids to the park on my day off. I glanced over enviously at the group just ahead of us. Three mothers pushing their prams, older children swirling around them so that you could not tell which child belonged to which mother.
When I was on maternity leave, I made sure to get myself out to at least one social activity every day. Little by little, I picked up people who I enjoyed talking to. In an emergency, I had some phone numbers of people who I’d trust to babysit. When we went out to the groups, my kids and I had a bit of a change of scene: there were other adults who could field her ‘Whyyyyy?’ questions. There were spare hands about to pick up her baby brother if my younger son was really wanting some uninterrupted time with me. When the baby didn’t sleep, my other son’s toilet training regressed and I was losing a grip on things, I could spin it into a funny anecdote for the other mums. We’d all end up laughing together. I didn’t feel so alone any more.
When the time came to go back to work, I took great care to balance time spent with my children, time spent at work, time spent on domestic chores. Stay-and-play and baby music was left behind as the time-fillers of my old life. I was no longer available during the week, and I presumed that I would have plenty of adult conversation at work. I figured that home time was for gazing into my children’s eyes and doing wholesome activities together – not drinking coffee with other Mums.
It only took a few months to see that it wasn’t working. The challenges of my life had changed – but it still felt like trying to hug an eel. My mom patiently listened to the fourth retelling of the issue of the day. It might be ‘do you think nursery appreciates the kids creative personality’. On another day we’d have ‘when my co-worker said motherhood suited me – was there an unwarranted subtext that he thinks I belong in the kitchen?’
My mom and dad tried to meet the challenge – so did my sisters and brothers – all listening to all the circumstances and trying to put themself in my shoes, however, their views often seemed to boil down to ‘You work so hard. I wasn’t there, but I’m sure you handled it just right. The kids seem happy and well’.
It’s odd how, from another mother ‘your child seems happy and well’ feels like a qualified assessment, rather than sentimentalism. ‘You work so hard’ sounds like empathy not exasperation. ‘I’m sure you handled it just right’ neatly morphs into ‘and you’d never guess what that so-and-so girl did when that happened to her’. Reassurance, sympathy and entertainment – never let your mum-friends and family go.