parent opinion

"I say I went back to work to stimulate my brain. It’s time to talk about the real reason."

I often used to say I went back to work because I needed to stimulate my brain. But it’s time to talk about the real reasons for the apparent ‘lack of brain stimulation’ I got from raising my own children. I want to talk about my real reasons for going back to work because, if I’m honest, I know it was NOT because parenting was that easy that it was making me dumb and I needed to go to the gifted and talented class for adults. It was because parenting was way harder than I had ever imagined.

For me, going back to work was easier. I did the work, I got paid, I got to buy nice things, society patted me on the back for being a working mum, no one was allowed to judge me, I knew where I stood and I was among other adults having rational conversations over coffee rather than having a toddler scream at me about the colour of his cup.

I blame my rush back to work on 25 years of solid career woman pep talks that caused me to undervalue the importance of the role I would play as a mother, to have no understanding of precisely why that role was important and to completely underestimate how crucial it is that we spend time on our kids. I have just spent three years unlearning two decades of social conditioning and learning how to love being with my kids.

I literally had to read books on how to play and interact with them. Not packing the dishes or checking emails while they are in the same room, but actually giving them my time and my full attention. Is it sad that I had to learn that? Maybe a little, but not as sad as crying ‘mum guilt’ and never trying to address my own shortcomings as a parent in the first place. I was bored with my kids because I found it difficult to connect with them, not because of some kind of intellectual superiority.

"I want to talk about my real reasons for going back to work." (Image: Instagram)
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I initially became concerned upon noticing that I would often prefer to write articles, check emails and social media accounts, work out or do general adult stuff rather than actively play with my kids or interact with them. I always seemed to be waiting for the next nap or bed time, wishing away the hours they were awake.

Occasionally I would wonder – why did I have kids if I don’t want to play with them or be with them? Am I collecting them? But those kind of thoughts made me feel uncomfortable so I kept reverting to my default setting of convincing myself that my presence or my attention was not that important for my children. My attention span waned after five minutes of hiding and seeking because, let’s be honest, as an adult these kind of games seem a bit pointless.

After about a years worth of therapy I was able to identify that I found it difficult to be fully emotionally present with my babies because my self worth was still completely tied up in my career. I constantly felt compelled to seek out that validation I got from other adults through being a journalist. And when I couldn’t do that because I had a baby hanging from a shredded nipple it made me feel really uncomfortable.

I was confused about how to feel good about myself. I felt alienated from the vast majority of the people around me on the payroll. So I set about constantly distracting myself so that at least I would be seen as ‘busy mum’ and wouldn’t have to sit still too long with these difficult emotions around my current situation. And eventually I did what the vast majority of mothers do these days – I put my kid in daycare and went back to work.

I’m not into ‘mum shaming’ – it’s not helpful. And I don’t want to go back to the 1800s when women had no rights. But I do want to discuss a universal truth that is not often spelled out for fear of offending. I’m kind of mad that this was never explained to me in detail – so here goes: It is really (very) important for mothers to be emotionally and physically available to their babies the vast majority of the time in the first three years of life. It is extremely difficult to do this if you are either at work, working from home or if you are sitting at home with the kids wishing you were at work.

"I’m a real person, sitting across the table from you being vulnerable about my parenting journey and trying to share some information that helped me make sense of the career mother quandary." (Image: Instagram)
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I know this because I lived it. I can already hear you indignantly tapping furiously onto iPhone screens ‘But I DO love being with my kids, I didn’t have a choice I had to go back to work. Why aren’t you telling dad’s to get back to the kitchen sink?’ And I understand totally – because I was you. But please hold a minute on your internet rage and imagine I’m a real person, sitting across the table from you being vulnerable about my parenting journey and trying to share some information that helped me make sense of the career mother quandary.

The reason the mother’s role in particular is so important is due to complex hormone production relationships that occur specifically between mother and baby that affect the way neural paths are formed in a developing brain. So, yes, mothers do have a unique biological role to play in raising kids that males just can’t sub in for unless they can undo evolution and start producing elevated levels of the love hormone oxytocin. Women produce more oxytocin than men and are better at getting their babies to produce healthy levels of this hormone. Fact. There are also oxytocin nasal sprays available for men but the side effects are questionable. Also, fact.

Anyway, it’s science and it’s nature and women just aren’t the same as men. But people don’t talk about this. Why? Because we don’t want to be seen as backwards and sexist. And because those who largely control the information that is made available in the main stream – researchers, journalists and editors – don’t want to make working mums feel guilty. And obviously, people in these kinds of professions are also working mums that don’t really want to write about research that flies in the face of their decision to put their children in the care of others.

Remember that study that found working mums were more likely to have successful daughters and more caring sons? The media frothed over it. Went berserk. Remember that study that found stress hormone levels in baby saliva increased significantly when they were in daycare rather than at home? No you don’t remember that one, even though there is a whole body of research dedicated to this, because no one reports on it.

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"I’ve come to realise that my most empowered self is the one that is confident to re-enter the workforce in 13 years time when I am 45 and my youngest child is in primary school." (Image: Instagram)

This is not about stripping back the rights of women – but rather about taking a long, hard impartial look at the evidence on how much maternal absence is too much, how our current reliance on child care affects the emotional development of our children and what we can do as a community to address this.

I’ve come to realise that my most empowered self is the one that is confident to re-enter the workforce in 13 years time when I am 45 and my youngest child is in primary school. I feel most empowered when I choose to direct some of my raging career woman force to figuring out better ways to enrich the early years of my kids. I live in hope that my daughter will grow up in a society that supports her decision to invest those years in her children and that supports mature age women re-entering the work force.

I’m not claiming to be perfect. I still really struggle daily at being present with my kids and I fight the urge to sit at my computer and bash the keyboard for a while so I can feel like I ‘worked’ that day. I still work too, writing this post at 12:06 am while the kids are asleep. And they will pay the price for this tomorrow when I am hunched over a coffee cup trying to muster up the energy to ‘play’. You could argue that is worse than daycare. But I just can’t ignore this persistent, nagging feeling that we have gravely misjudged what ‘progress’ looks like for women.

I believe we have placed women in an even trickier spot by telling them they can do it all. I believe there is a strong case to argue for at least the discussion of this sort of taboo subject matter more often so that policies may be implemented that support women who choose to schedule their mind blowing careers outside of child raising years. To at least start exposing young women to some evidence based information about the biological role of a mother so they can make informed decisions around when and if they have children.

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"I would be interested to know what percentage of mum’s are actually back in the workplace out of pure financial necessity." (Image: Instagram)

I know, I know – some people need to go back to work for financial reasons. But I would be interested to know what percentage of mums are actually back in the workplace out of pure financial necessity. How much of that second income do we actually need and how much of it do we want? I needed to go back to work so I could have designer clothes and sunglasses and upgrade to the best, latest iPhone every year. Maybe that’s just me. It was with a degree of horror that I looked through my bank statement and realised my kids were actually a little way down the priority list in terms of my spending.

Once I was able to appreciate the true value of consistent maternal physical and emotional presence, I became determined to find ways to live on one income. And on that note I want to leave you with a quote from civil rights activist Jesse Jackson that I think of every day I’m not in the office.

‘Our children need our presence more than our presents.’

This post originally appeared on Bush Bambinos and has been republished here with full permission. You can find more on Virginia Tapscott on her blog and her Instagram.

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