Lessons of a Working Mum
by Melody Tan | 25 October 2018 |
Last night, after my two-year-old forced me to repeatedly sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “The A-B-C Song” (or “The Alphabet Song”), I made a startling discovery. For the first time in my almost 40 years of existence, it occurred to me that both songs have the same melody—in my defense, I hadn’t sung these songs on a regular occurrence prior to the arrival of my son (unless I needed to arrange something in alphabetical order).
“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” was added to the list upon further research (why I thought it was important to investigate, I don’t know) and the internet also informed me that Mozart was responsible for popularizing the tune. This pretty much means I can now confidently say I’ve been playing—and singing—classical music to my son. My son will become a genius boy child yet.
Like most parents, singing to my child has been our bedtime routine pretty much since he was born. I have a terrible singing voice and can’t hold or hit a note but, as with most children, it has never mattered to my son. He loves it when I sing and has in the past couple of months discovered I am in effect a human jukebox. He sometimes sings along, but mostly, he simply requests, listens . . . and eventually drifts off to sleep.
About a year and a half ago, when I was still on maternity leave, the company my husband worked for decided to centralize operations in their head office interstate. Rather than move, we decided he would take a voluntary redundancy and we would swap roles: he would become a stay-at-home parent and I would return to work. With the change of roles came a change of responsibilities: putting Elliott to bed became one of my parenting duties.
Returning to full-time work with my new maternal role has been a somewhat conflicting experience. I was back on familiar territory, doing something I enjoy and believe I am good at and yet, it was difficult to shake off the guilt that I was somehow shirking my responsibilities as a parent and wife.
“Mom guilt” is not something one can understand until you’re actually a mother. And when you do, you find yourself feeling terrible about everything, even things you would not have thought were important pre-child. Should I leave them with a babysitter? Should I be feeding them that? Should I have done more/that instead/better?
At the same time, Dr Judy Rose is a sociologist who says working mums are among the highest time-pressured groups in society. Her research, “‘Never enough hours in the day’: Employed mothers’ perceptions of time pressure,” published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues, reveals “that employed mothers endure high levels of time pressure related to time poverty (insufficient time for necessary or discretionary activities), time intensity (multitasking and merging work and home boundaries) and time density (familial emotion and organization work). When women use strategies to increase time efficiency, it does not necessarily reduce their perceptions of time pressure. Juggling multiple tasks simultaneously distorts women’s temporal experiences and diminishes the quality of time.”
I wonder if these factors are some of the reasons why when Barna, a research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture, studied Christians at work and the family-work balance, they discovered “while this group is relatively gratified in their family relationships . . . working mums (compared with fathers, single men and single women) are well behind on all metrics of satisfaction—relational, spiritual, emotional, you name it.”
Barna’s study was based on the premise that Christians not only want their jobs to produce passion (as opposed to just a paycheck), but are also driven by the idea that God gives each person specific gifts to do something. Working women who may have had a deep sense of calling about their jobs appear to lose it to some extent after they have babies.
Jo Saxton is a pastor, author and leadership coach based in southern California. She says in response to Barna’s study: “If we’re helping women integrate faith and work, whether she is a stay-at-home mom or is holding down a career, we need to articulate to those women that they are both representing God in the world. . . . Sometimes the Church is talking to a world which only exists for a limited few, and that can leave feelings of guilt and uncertainty for the rest.
“There are choices that are made at certain intersections of a woman’s life, and the pathway is not as linear as a man’s often is. When you have both partners working, the woman is still often carrying the load of the domestic tasks, arranging the family’s and child’s schedules. Who is staying home if somebody’s got strep throat? I’ve heard it described as the ‘mental load,’ and that’s a job on top of another job. I think it’s like having too many tabs open on your laptop; everything slows down.”
As a mother, I have found myself often caught up in the act of doing. Working full-time often means I only have a precious few hours at home to spend with my son before it’s his bedtime—and often, that involves a litany of “No, we don’t do this” or “No, this is not how we behave” more than what I perceive to be quality time. When he falls asleep, it’s a mad rush to get chores or errands done that require your immediate attention and after that, you’re really too mentally exhausted to do anything but go to bed yourself. How do you integrate faith and satisfaction in all of this?
When you’re at work, you’re trying not to think of the missed precious moments you should be having with your child. When you’re at home, you’re wondering if you had put in enough effort at work. When you’re with your child, you seem to be nagging or disciplining him more often than you want. When you’re alone, you wonder if you should have done things differently when your child was awake. How do you generate passion and understand God has called you for a specific purpose in all of this (juggling work and motherhood)?
Perhaps the meeting point of passion and satisfaction with faith and purpose lies firstly with addressing the feelings of guilt. According to Karen Kleiman, maternal health expert and founder of The Postpartum Stress Center, a large amount of “mom guilt” generates from feelings of inadequacy—that you’re not being the best mother; that you’re not giving your child the best—that you’re not perfect. In fact, in her book, Therapy and the Postpartum Woman, she goes as far as declaring, “Women are making themselves sick with expectations of perfection.”
The irony for Christian moms is that we understand God has never called us to be perfect. The Bible tells us rather frankly that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but also gives us the assurance that His “grace is sufficient for [us], for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). And yet when it comes to being a mother, we constantly feel the need to be more—much, much more.
In the 1950s, pioneering British pediatrician Donald Winnicott introduced a concept that really needs to be told to mothers more often: the good enough mother. Essentially, he believed that the needs of a baby can be met by the “the ordinary [devoted] mother in her ordinary loving care of her baby.” A child’s needs are met from ordinary, loving care, not perfect, loving care. And if we hold God to His promise, it is only through our imperfect, loving care that He can work through us and bring our mothering to perfection.
And for those of who need that little bit more scientific reassurance, in a recently published study led by Harvard Business School’s Professor Kathleen McGinn, she discovered that children of working moms grow up to be just as happy in adulthood as those whose moms stayed home.
When you feel that what you are doing is enough, you start to believe you are contributing—be it at work or as a parent—and hopefully, you begin to understand that where you are and what you are doing is indeed where God wants you to be.
Melody Tan is a magazine editor, features writer and television presenter. When she’s not at a computer typing her life away, she enjoys snowboarding, traveling, beach activities and the not-so-grandmotherly activity of knitting. She lives in Sydney with her husband and son.