kids

"Let's stop pretending the gold standard of parenting is a mother at home."

Meet my friend Emily. She’s crying into her wine.

Emily’s daughter Jenny* started school this year, and Emily is six or so weeks into being a “school mum”.

Like at least 66 per cent of mothers in Australia, Emily works. She works full-time, and so does her partner. Emily is supremely organised, the kind of mum who always has a healthy snack-pack in her bag, and never runs out of bread. Five-year-old Jenny is in before and after-school care, gets picked up by a baby-sitter once a week, and whenever Emily or her partner can swing it they work from home and go to pick their little girl up themselves.

Emily is deep into beating herself up about being a terrible school mum.

“I never seem to know what’s going on,” she says. “I never know when it’s library day, I don’t know what a principals’ assembly is. How the f- does anyone fit in homework? I have only met Jenny’s teacher once. The Class Parent is so organised, she’s arranged play dates for the class once a week after school, and I feel crappy that Jenny can’t always go.”

"This is treated like the gold standard of parenting. But it's not." (iStock)

Emily went to one of those Friday play dates last week. Kept her phone on her in case work needed her. She met some of the other parents. Three of them were mums who didn't work outside of the home. Everyone was lovely.

"None of the other mums work!" Emily cries. "I feel like the worst mother ever."

Really, Em, NONE of the other mothers work? Of course they do. Out of the 30 families that make up Jenny's class, she met three "Stay At Home Mums". But those are the ones Emily is choosing to measure herself against. Because "full-time" mothers are the gold standard against which all other mothers judge themselves.

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I am a few more years ahead in school life, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that really, no-one knows what's going on, most parents have no ideas when Library Day is, and everyone thinks everyone else is doing it right.

So, parenting as usual.

Listen: Would you let a stranger drive your kids? This Glorious Mess discusses the new service. (Post continues after podcast)

Today a News Ltd story by Editor and columnist Sarrah Le Marquand stirred up a predictable pot of outrage by proclaiming "IT SHOULD BE ILLEGAL TO BE A STAY-AT-HOME MUM."

The story below that provocative headline was far more measured than those lock-caps suggest, of course. Le Marquand argued that in Australia, women's participation in the workforce lagged behind many other western countries, that men and women needed to share the load of parenting more equally and that it should be the expected norm, not an exception, to have two working parents. Reasonable stuff, really.

In my world - and yes, I am a Sydney-dweller - it is absolutely the norm to have two working parents. One of them might work a little more than the other. One of them might sit in the role the "lead parent", one might work from home, or work shifts when their partner's home. Some might work a few days a week, or finish early every Tuesday, but it is absolutely unquestionable that it is 100 per cent "normal" that in two-parent families, two parents will be participating in the winning of the bread.

The juggle - well-documented by now - is real. There's nothing easy about trying to fulfil the needs of your children and your boss at the same time. Many have tried and failed, reimagining their working life as a less regimented beast. But most just keep trying, and trying... We either have no choice, or we couldn't imagine life without out work.

"In my world, it is absolutely the norm to have two working parents." (iStock)
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So if that's our most common reality, why are so many women still plagued with guilt over not living up to this one particular view of what a parent - who am I kidding, a mother - should be?

There is no doubt that in capital cities, with record-high costs of living, being able to raise a family on one income is a hard-won luxury, a status symbol, even. So is the freedom - as working parents imagine it - of not being beholden to someone else's timetable. But aspiration aside, the reason mums like Emily, and millions more, are beating themselves up about being a working parent is because they are holding themselves against the culture's preferred vision mother - the one who stays at home and sacrifices all for her family. And it's time we re-drew the fantasy.

The argument about whether mothers "should" or "shouldn't" work is as outdated as flares (wait, shit, are they back in?). The so-called "Mummy Wars" have been shown up for the divisive baity nonsense that they are. But women will always keep talking about their lives and their choices and their struggles.

If only the conversation were different. Instead of women endlessly apologising to everyone else for not being at the school gate at 3pm every day, we celebrated the community spirit of shared pick-ups and respected the skills of the professionals who care for kids until we dash in the door.

Listen: This Glorious Mess covers ALL the parenting issues. (Post continues after audio.)

Imagine if we congratulated women on the many ingenious ways they carve out moments of quality time in a fraught day. Imagine if a woman wanting to work "flexibly" weren't the last words a boss wanted to hear.

Of course Stay At Home Mothers shouldn't be illegal. Of course wanting time for families - whatever they look like - to be together is a priority worth fighting for tooth and nail. But the notion that every mother who isn't at home all day, every day is failing is an idea we should kick, with full-force, into the past. And then dance away from.

Emily, you are not alone. There's an army of mums by your side. And the truth is, we all think you're doing a better job than we are.

Because that's parenting.

*Names have been changed. Of course. There hasn't been a child named Jenny since 1989.

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