Monday, 12 September 2011

Lessons in guiltfree living

ALL week long, I've been trying to work out why I didn't cry. After all, the first day of primary school is supposed to bring a tear to the flintiest eye: all those anxious little faces, swamped by brand new uniforms, tightly clutching parents' hands. The end of an era, the beginning of the long slow terrible process of letting go. Waterproof mascara all round.
It's not that I didn't feel some sadness, as he trotted off into the classroom, at that particular chapter of our lives coming to an end. Or even a tiny pang of envy for the mothers still squeezing pushchairs through the school gates, for whom the story isn't over. But still, I walked back across the playground with unmistakably dry eyes.
For what I felt most strikingly was a tiny whoosh of liberation - not from him, but from the weight of guilt you hardly realise is there until it's gone.
This isn't the first time we've spent days apart, since I've worked (first full-time and then part-time) since he was eight months old. But it is the first time the choice - that terrible, double-edged choice - about whether to be home or not has been completely taken away from me. The little nagging voice in my head when I work, the one that used to say you could be with him, instead, has fallen silent: because now I couldn't, even if I wanted to. Even the most zealous champion of full-time motherhood is now suddenly behind me having 30 hours a week to myself (or rather, to work: for me, it's virtually the same thing) where a few months ago I would have been damned for it.
And when I opened my laptop that morning to finish off some edits for my book, it hit me: this is what work would feel like all the time, if you could only be relieved of the guilt, spared the guillotine of public disapproval, real or imagined. (Only that morning the Today programme devoted several minutes to a debate on whether daycare damages small children: God knows how many mothers listened to that one in the car on the way to nursery, a neat little dagger in the heart).
Well, school is the point where for some parents the cloud of self-doubt lifts completely - if you can find work that fits around school hours - and for others it surely lifts a little. The switch flips, the pendulum swings, and the only tiny hitch is wondering how long before that other guilty little voice starts up in one's head: the one that says now they're in school, shouldn't you be working harder than this?


  1. Enjoy!

    You still have the joys of juggling school holidays to learn about. I am eternally grateful that I am not one of those low-paid mums who have to stop work at this stage because holiday care for part of the year is harder to find and fund than full-time nursery.

    I am looking forward to the book. Good luck with finding other relevant projects.

  2. I really feel that women are born with an infinite supply of guilt...
    I wish I was a man.

  3. Thankyou AE....and coraliewww, interesting you say that. At first I nearly wrote that this must be what work feels like for men, freed of all the guilt & feeling you should be somewhere else: but then I suspect they feel guilty too, just about slightly different things. Suspect guilt is part of the parental condition (though I agree women are probably more vulnerable to it, and about some things that men don't worry about)

  4. Exactly! And so true....the "shouldn't you be working full time now" voice will be here soon....enjoy the silence!

  5. Exactly how I felt waving goodbye when daughter started last week. She and I skipped away in opposite directions happily. Then got to work where they said "Now about going to five full days..?". Back to guilt and inadequacy so soon...