Andrea Mara

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Not guilty

Working mother guilt – does it ever ease? If we’re not feeling guilty about being apart from our children, we’re feeling guilty about an un-ironed uniform, unsigned homework or giving toast for dinner. And sometimes we feel guilty about work too.

While I would argue vehemently that parents in the workplace are working just as hard as everyone else, and often working smarter out of necessity; with the need to do crèche pick-ups or fit a five-day-week into four, there are times when it all falls apart. And then there’s “work-guilt” too; feeling bad for not living up to our side of the bargain with our employers.

I had one such day last month. It started at 3am to the sound of my alarm – not my phone, my toddler-alarm. He goes off at around the same time every morning. We usually bring him into us and get him back to sleep, but on this particular night, he was ready for play-time. He sang, he clapped, he lay with his small but noisy feet up on the headboard, kicking it intermittently in time with his song. He clambered over my husband’s head, as though he was just a very lumpy piece of carpet, desperately trying to get the phone so that he could watch Mickey Mouse. He climbed on my head too, for no discernible reason – boredom perhaps.

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Finally, finally, he nodded off. And then the real alarm sounded. I could have cried. I possibly did. Bleary eyed, I started the process of getting the morning up and running; my husband and I bumbling around the room, unable to speak, each hoping the other was going to dress the kids. I was due to work from home that day, so at least I didn’t have a commute to worry about.

Then I noticed a text. My childminder was sick. She wouldn’t be able to make it. She has never been sick before and I know if she had any ability to work she would have done so. These things happen.

Suddenly I was not only faced with doing a day’s work after four hours sleep, I would now have to simultaneously look after children. I wasn’t physically able for either task, and certainly not both together.

After the school-run, I stocked up on coffee (for me) and giant chocolate chip cookies (for the two younger kids) who were flabbergasted to be given such treats on a Thursday morning. They were even more delighted to have TV turned on for them when we got home; I could see them exchanging glances in a “say nothing, she’s clearly lost the plot, just go with it” kind of way as they sat down with their cookies to invest a little time in Scooby Doo.

I got about four hours work done, condensed into two, knowing that sticking the kids on front of the TV again for the afternoon would not help any of us. Which is how I found myself at 3pm, trying to type an e-mail with my crying toddler on my knee, while a half-prepared dinner sat listlessly on the counter.

My two daughters couldn’t understand why we weren’t going out somewhere, my cranky toddler was most disappointed in my determination to send e-mails (“perhaps you shouldn’t get up at 3am then” I said to him politely) and we were all miserable.

I was feeling guilty about not giving the kids my full attention, and also feeling guilty that I wasn’t getting work done.

I stopped for a moment to take it all in; crying children, half-written emails, a half-cooked dinner, a fully exhausted me, guilt running over.

It wasn’t the kids’ fault. It wasn’t the childminder’s fault. It wasn’t my boss’s fault.

And none of it was my fault. I didn’t make the toddler stay up playing all night, I didn’t cause the childminder to be sick, yet here I was, feeling guilty about all of it. Guilt is such a wasted emotion that we put on ourselves, and it is often, despite best intentions, unavoidable. But it’s all the more pointless if the situation at hand is not one of our own making. While it may serve a purpose if it forces us to think “What could I have done differently?” it is utterly pointless in a situation like this, where there was no “Ah! I should have ..” moment; nothing that could have changed the outcome.

So I stopped. And I made a decision there and then – I won’t be able to stamp out the guilt for good, but at least in situations where I’ve done nothing “wrong”, I’ll give myself a break.

And I did. I closed the lap-top. We all sat down and read stories, drank hot chocolate, ate our remaining cookies. Once everyone was calm, the girls helped make dinner – disproportionately excited to be grating parmesan and chopping olives. I checked in on e-mail. The world hadn’t fallen down while I’d been offline. But I knew that.

The next morning, in gale force winds and rain that felt like shards of ice, I did the school-run. My four-year-old was sobbing by the time we got back to the car; soaked in spite of her long, waterproof coat, hair plastered to her face because the wind kept blowing her hood down, and sore after slipping and falling on the path. I felt guilty. Then stopped myself. I didn’t cause the rain, I had to do the school-run. So I put my energy into comforting my four-year-old instead.

I’m pleading not guilty.

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