A report released recently on the impact on children of having a working mum, tipped fresh fuel over the smouldering ‘Mummy Wars’ debate.
Working mums have ‘higher maternal sensitivity’ than their stay-at-home counterparts, according to the University of Columbia’s report: First-Year Maternal Employment and Child Development in the First Seven Years. They ‘seek higher-quality childcare and can return to work within a year of giving birth without harming their babies’ development’.
‘Queue all the screaming and bitter stay-at-home mums!’ one online poster commented in response to the story. ‘You breed them, you feed them!’ retorted another. Another described a ‘generation of disconnected kids with mental problems’ (presumably the children of mums who work), amidst a barrage of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ proponents.
Breakfast television, drive-time radio and online media were inundated with impassioned talk-back from parents who have chosen one path but feel compelled to stomp and trample on the other – not unlike the behaviour of tantruming two-year-olds (something you see, incidentally, in both private homes and childcare centres across the country).
I can’t help wondering who was looking after the children while the grown-ups slogged it out on the front line, ripping apart each other’s choices and grasping at snippets of scholarly data and anecdotal evidence that might be used for the dual purpose of piling more guilt on the other side, while building a protective fortress around their own decisions. As with the Breast versus Bottle debate that plagues new mums, it was all about Doing The Right Thing, as if a black-and-white solution exists.
I’ve been a parent for nearly twelve years and, as far as work goes, I’ve tried it all. I’ve stayed at home full time. I’ve worked full time. I’ve worked part time. I’ve job-shared. I’ve worked from home.
If my kids are ‘happy and well-adjusted’ (the Holy Grail over which Mummy-War armies fight unnecessarily, not realising that there’s plenty of this to go around), it will have little to do with my work and parenting patterns and everything to do with a much bigger picture. Parenting is not about clocking on. It’s about switching on. And then holding on for dear life.
We all have days when we’re ‘in the zone’ as parents, just as we have days that we fervently wish we could re-wind and start over. The key is to work out what puts us ‘in the zone’ as switched-on mums most often (we’ll never get it right all the time).
For some women, this means staying at home full time, without the distraction of paid employment. Others find they’re more effective as parents if they combine parenting with a career. Some stay at home and make a hash of it. Others work and make a hash of that. Good parenting is not as simple as which room you’re in.
The parents who seem to do it well are the ones who are most ‘present’ for their children when they’re together – the most ‘switched on’, engaged and focussed (which is not to be confused with smothering and spoiling). They spend time together with their kids and time apart. They hold out a hand when it’s needed and they know when to hang back and let their children work it out for themselves. They’ve nailed ‘tough love’, yet they sit in the dark, holding back tears during the school play.
They’re often fulfilled by more than just their parenting, and this fulfilment is not necessarily derived from paid work, though it can be. They value themselves. Their children have the same sense of ‘wholeness’, opportunity and possibility. They’re flexible, resilient and able to cope well with change.
Or maybe they’re not. Sometimes parents do everything ‘right’ and their kids go off the rails regardless. Parenting is about what we do, what we don’t do, our triumphs, the mistakes we make and how we learn from them. A large part of it is about who we are parenting, the choices they make – and the luck of the draw.
How we reach that Holy Grail – happy and well-adjusted kids – is not important. How the parent-next-door gets there is not important either. All we can do is have our hearts in the right place, our heads on our shoulders, take a deep breath, plunge in and learn to swim.
And if a parent in the next lane appears to be swimming a different stroke – we can resist the temptation to push them under. Our kids are watching us, after all.