parents

MIA: Inside the tortured mind of a working mother.

Mia Freedman

It’s my daughter’s first school swimming carnival and I don’t know what to do. I work full-time. I have three kids, all of whom are now at school. Which means a large number of sports carnivals and concerts and parent-teacher meetings and open days and soccer/cricket games and drop-offs and pick-ups.

Add to that the inordinate amount of school holidays they seem to get and most days I’m faced with the same problem as every working parent: how do I clone myself so I can be in several places at once?

And because bloody Science has not yet sorted out the cloning thing except for Dolly the sheep which, frankly, I think was a waste of cloning because how busy are sheep anyway, I was forced to turned to Facebook for advice.

If by advice you mean sympathy which is really what I was looking for. My girlfriends and I do this a lot. We pose “what shall I do?” questions that are actually a plea for permission to skip something we want to get out of because we’ve stretched ourselves too thin.

I wanted permission. Because the swimming carnival goes from 9-3pm and there’s only so much time I can take off work. So I wrote this:

OK, I accept that perhaps I didn’t word that very well. I accept that it could have been interpreted to mean I didn’t want to go because she wasn’t going to win.

My bad. What I meant was that swimming is not one of my daughter’s passions. It’s not a big deal in our family and it’s compulsory for all the kids to swim in two races. So it’s not like it’s something she’s trained for or has even elected to do.

Misunderstandings aside, I was mildly stung by the avalanche of criticism that poured in. Criticism like this:

There were other more nuanced responses too among the 497 comments that were left on my post in just a couple of hours. But naturally, the more extreme ones left a deeper impression, triggering simultaneous feelings of guilt and defiance.

Inside my brain, the noise went something like this:

Me: I really don’t want to go. I can’t go! It’s a whole day!

Me: You know how much she hates swimming. She’s going to be so nervous. You should be there.

Me: But I can’t go to everything! She has to learn that. Surely not all the parents are going to be there. Lots of mums work. She has to understand that I work.

Me: You work for yourself! And it’s not like you’re a brain surgeon and someone could die if you leave the office for a few hours.

Me: I know what I do isn’t a matter of life and death but I do have a team of people who look to me for leadership and depend on me being there. When I’m out of the office, their jobs are more difficult. I’m already working very reduced office hours so I can leave early to pick the kids up from school. As an employer, you still have responsibilities and Mondays are the busiest day of the week.

Me: But it would mean so much if you were there. Don’t make this about teaching her a lesson. She’s just a little girl.

Me: I go to all her concerts and soccer games. All of them! I can’t go to everything. She doesn’t even like swimming.

Me: Exactly. She needs you more if she’s feeling vulnerable about having to swim 50m. That’s a long way.

Me: I know it is but what about building resilience? My friend Kate insists that kids don’t need an audience every time they compete or do something and I think she’s right.

Me: Imagine the big smile on her face if you were there…..

Me: Shut up.

Me: No you shut up.

Basically put that ping-pong exchange on an endless loop for two weeks and you’ve got my headspace. Nightmare – albeit in a very first-world problem kind of a way, I know. I realise I am lucky to even be angsting about whether or not to go to the swimming carnival. Most working parents do not have the flexibility of working for themselves. Most working parents do not have that choice.

But – and I realise this is a very precious thing to say – I kind of wish I didn’t have a choice on this occasion. The choice makes it harder because I have to choose a choice and I’m a Libra and bloody hell.

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Having been guilted, shamed and incensed by Facebook, my next port of call was the other school mums. Trying to gauge the consensus, I texted a few to ask if they were going to the swimming carnival. Two are doctors and have very little flexibility. “No way” they said. Another is a stay-at-home-mum and even she wasn’t going “It’s all day and it’s miles away. I think I’ll skip it.”

They all sounded so sure of their decisions. So un-fussed. Why was I so tortured with guilty angsty paralysis? WHY?

“Why was I so tortured with guilty angsty paralysis?”

I called my Mum. She never came to a single carnival of any kind. Ever. She worked. And I never had any expectation that she’d be there.

Also, she is really, really good at making me feel OK about my decisions. Like when I sheepishly sent her a photo of Coco as a toddler, eating baked beans out of the can for dinner with the caption “mother of the year” and she texted straight back praising me. “There’s so much protein in baked beans and doesn’t she look happy!”

Mum was in the car with my Dad on the way to the movies and they had me on bluetooth.

“Mum,” I said. “It’s Coco’s swimming carnival and I’m tortured about whether to go or not.”

“Oh darling you must go,” she said.

“Must go,” agreed my father who was driving.

“Wait, what? But neither of you ever came to my swimming carnivals!” I protested.

“I couldn’t go,” my Mum said. “I worked in the public service and it was the 80s and getting time off to do something that like just wasn’t an option.” Pause. “Thank God because how boring are swimming carnivals.”

“And I didn’t go because I didn’t even know they were on,” added my Dad. “Fathers did nothing in those days.” “But you should definitely go. She needs you.”

THIS IS NOT WHAT I WANTED TO HEAR, MUM AND DAD.

“We’re speaking as grandparents now, not parents,” my Mum conceded. “As parents we wouldn’t have gone but as grandparents we think you should be there” and they both burst out laughing before they drove into a carpark and lost reception.

I was still no closer to a decision.

At a parent-orientation meeting at my daughter’s school the following evening, I cornered the sports teacher. “Can you give me an indication of what time the year 3s might be racing so I can maybe come for part of the day?” She promised to find out and the next day she texted me this: “The girls have to swim 50m freestyle and 50m backstroke so if you come 10am-12 you should see both her races.”

“I think I love you!” I texted back euphorically.

“That’s more than I got from my husband on Valentine’s Day!” she replied.

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That’s when I took my existential angst to the next level of ridiculous. Having now found a way to go to the carnival for two hours and cause minimal disruption to my work colleagues and still be able to drop off and pick up all the kids from school, I decided to torture myself further with the following thoughts:

  1. Was I betraying my fellow working mothers by going? We’d all agreed it was impossible to go to everything and that the swimming carnival was something we could miss. Solidarity.
  2. Was I making my child soft by not giving her the opportunity to be disappointed or nervous without me constantly there to make it better? Was I robbing her of the chance to build resilience?

Next (is anyone still reading?), I asked my husband what he thought I should do. He had trouble understanding what I was even talking about. “If you want to go, go. If you don’t, don’t” he said slowly in the way you would if you were talking to someone who didn’t speak English AS IF THAT WAS SOMEHOW A HELPFUL ANSWER.

Mia with Coco as a baby.

He actually laughed out loud when I began to wail about how I didn’t know what to do and began outlining my many conflicting arguments with myself.

Sigh.

In the end? I went.

I decided, ultimately (and possibly selfishly), that I wanted to see her beaming little face when she caught sight of me. It’s my drug.

“Mum! You said you couldn’t come!” was the first thing she said when she saw me. This made my heart sink because what if she’d secretly now expect me to turn up every time I said I couldn’t? Oh bugger. Have I created another problem for Future Me?

She was certainly happy to see me but I also saw instantly that she would’ve been fine if I hadn’t come.

In the end, I reckon I got more out of it than she did. I got to see her giggling nervously with her friends as they were put into groups for the heats. I got to watch her wrestle and ultimately overcome the butterflies in her tummy as she stood next to the block, dived in at the starter’s horn and swam the length of the Olympic pool. I did everything I swore I wouldn’t do, walking alongside her lane, filming it on my phone as she made her way slowly to the finish.

Is there a moral of this story? No. I don’t want to be prescriptive because for most working mothers, there IS no choice. I’m acutely aware of this. So it’s disingenuous to say “always go see your children do everything because that’s how to ensure they won’t end up in therapy’. Not true.

Do what you can do. And when you can’t get there, reassure yourself that you’re building resilience by teaching your child that your presence isn’t the most important part of everything they do.

And maybe use all your angsty headspace to do something more useful. Like fix North Korea or come up with a name for Kim and Kanye‘s next child.

Do you feel guilty when you choose work commitments over school events? How do you choose what to go to? Did your parents come and watch you play sport as a kid? Did you care?

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