Sunday, January 13, 2013

The juggling act of being a mom (and working vs stay-at-home)

Clint has been working Saturdays and at a time of year when weekend sports have not yet started and life is a little quiet with not much going on, and no desire to get outside in the cold ... we have been playing Lego Duplo for the past two weekends. I help the kids set up their homes and businesses (they are of course grown-ups in the game) and off they go. Interspersed with the necessary fighting and having to come in and interrupt, it's a game they both love and it keeps them busy for a good few hours. Which = Happy Mama.

Last weekend Hayden built himself a mansion with a butler and a helipad, said he was very very rich and he wanted to be the owner of a zoo. We built the cages and found some animals. We had a shark tank and a car park and an office for him. He added a bakery and picnic tables and then he needed someone to manage the bakery for him. Cue baby sister Lexi. She had built herself a house with a LOT of beds. There were at least 8 children, grandparents (would that mean us ?), a nanny and a babysitter (she knows about this, not from me but because of where we live) and a few other stray people who seemed to be living there permanently. She had a LONG car to fit all the people in, and three strollers in her front entrance way. I watched her mother her little family, making food and getting them all to bed. Then came the offer to work for her brother. So off to work she happily went to run the bakery. Only she had all these children. And her nanny couldn't take them all and school was closed that day. So she took some of them to work. But Hayden wasn't at all happy about that.

'Lexi, you can't take them to work with you. And the zoo is not even open, so they can't be here.'
'OK' said Lexi. 'I will leave them in the car. Oh, but they need a grown-up. Maybe the Dad can stay in the car until they can come to the Zoo and play.'
'Lexi, why can't they stay home with the Dad then.'
'Because he has to go to work. Oh, and I need to take him to the station. I can't work now.'

And so it went. I sat on the couch watching my three year old daughter already playing out the struggle so many of us are battling with nowadays. Gone are the days when a woman expected to marry and have children and if not, she would live as a spinster, most likely a dutiful daughter taking care of her aged parents in her childhood home. If she got to study or choose a career, it would be in nursing, teaching or as a secretary. The world is our oyster now. We are encouraged to study hard at school and after, we play sports and have music and dance lessons, or learn to horse ride or ski. We care about our looks but not only because we need them to 'catch a husband'. We buy clothes which express who we are and want to be, we experiment, we take chances, we get to explore the world. We choose careers which not that long ago were not avenues open to women. We believe we can do it all. We buy our own cars, houses, go travelling, start businesses. We feel that the world is open and exciting, a whole adventure waiting for us.

If we are lucky, we find love - in one form or another - maybe more than once. We might have our hearts broken or break a heart ourselves. We take our time if we want to, or we rush into love headfirst. Sometimes we get married and our lives don't change too much, or we feel more settled and buy a home together. And then maybe there are children, and things slowly change.

Suddenly there is the question of childcare and who should take care of them during the day. Should one parent stay home and put their career on hold ? Can both parents be more flexible with their hours and pressures so as to juggle ? Are there grandparents or friends who can take share the load ? Should a nanny be hired, or a housekeeper or an au-pair. Should we use daycare ?

And so we go through the myriad of choices. If we give up work, we might be thrilled to be home or we might feel lost and isolated (not to mention poor). We might find a new confidence and identity, or we might feel we have lost one. We might thrive or we might sink into depression and sadness and feel we have lost our way. Some of us might want to stay home but have to go to work. Some women might love working and being home and find it impossible to have to choose. Some might be able to create just the right balance of working from home, or part-time or not every day of the working week.

As I watched Lexi struggle with her many children and extended family and the logistics of where everyone needed to be, how she could fetch and take and shop and care for, but also have her job at the bakery ... I was thinking that at 3 she is already aware of some of these issues facing us grown up women today. She and Hayden were discussing it all as part of the game. We have the odds stacked up against us in many ways, us women - not to complain - we have the freedom of choice (mostly) and for that I am eternally grateful. But there is still so much pressure - from businesses for those of us who work to be reliable, present, not distracted by family emergencies and sick children. To be focused and driven. Pressure from society seems to me to go both ways. Women should re-enter the workforce but 'the best place for a child is with his / her parent' is also a line I come across often. There is no perfect solution. Every family is different. Every woman is different. And so are their children.

It seems to me that we as woman keep making our camps - those who are home, those who are working. Instead of acknowledging that life as a mother is beautiful and complicated and wonderful and hard, that we all battle with certain things and find other things second nature .... that the choices we make are hard enough already - fitting in family, work, time to oneself, career, dreams for one's life, travel, family vacations, nutritious meals, school activities ... maybe instead of judging each other for our choices we should be trying to support each other. For our differences. For our decisions which may or may not be popular or easy to understand. For the very different life experiences we  have all had. For the need to be flexible, to change the pattern every now and then as we figure out what works and what doesn't, for ourselves and for our families.

It's a process, it takes time, it's a constant juggling act. For all of us. The issues we battle with may differ. The working mom might feel stretched thin and always rushing, with never enough time on her hands. The stay-at-home mom might feel like her life has passed her by, that she's not connected to the adult world any more, that part of herself has gotten lost as her days get a bit monotonous doing laundry and cleaning.

As I watched Lexi stressing and eventually sitting down in a huge heap on the floor after Hayden fired her for not doing her job properly, and saying 'I'm not playing anymore' I thought to myself how we all need support and lifelines to each other - suggestions, ideas, a helping hand, a new map for unchartered territory. How we're so much stronger together. How i hope for her that by the time she's grown up and making these choices for herself, navigating these waters of work and family and home (if she marries and if she has children),  that things are a little easier. That her expectations are realistic, that she knows that no matter the choices, something will be sacrificed and that that's ok. That it's not forever, any of this - it's a chapter in our lives - and that she will hopefully have support no matter how she decides to live her life.

Here's to all the mothers out there: to all the jugglers, magicians, keepers of secrets, protectors, holders of hands, wipers of tears. Here's to all of you who struggle a little bit, who find it hard sometimes to get the balance right. Here's to all of us in this together.


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