I often whinge about being a working mum.
I struggle to juggle the roles of mother, housekeeper, cook, gardener, dog walker and daily breadwinner.
And while I love what I do for a living, my passion is often dampened by the ever-present guilt that I’m not spending enough time with my son, my husband, my hound and my house.
And let’s not even mention the whole ‘me time’ issue.
But do modern mums have it any harder than any other generation? Or are we just a bunch of sappy moaners?
I don’t mean the Victorian working-class mothers with 17 children and a prolapsed uterus, struggling to repair the washing mangle and bleaching their sheets with urine. And I don’t mean the 1950s trophy mothers with their new-fangled vaccum cleaners, freshly pressed aprons and perfectly baked pies either.
I’m talking about twenty years ago—my mum’s generation. Did she have it easy?
Mum looked after four of us: me, my brother, my dad and the occasional hamster. We lived in a regular house in a rather bland estate, with patches of lawn in the front and back yard.
Mum stayed at home until I was about seven. Later she got a part-time job, but she still cooked our dinners, ironed our clothes, did the shopping… well, you get the idea.
And she seemed to manage it all with ease, achieving the perfect work/life balance.
Compare all that to my life at the moment:
My mum’s world – I was home with mum 24/7.
My world – My son is in day care three days a week so I can work.
My mum’s world – Mum made healthy nutritious meals every night.
My world – Sometimes we have cereal for dinner.
My mum’s world – My childhood home was immaculate.
My world – Our home is clean, but not always presentable.
My mum’s world – I had a brother.
My world – My son isn’t getting any siblings because one more would finish me for good.
And I still struggle every day.
But, like everything else in life, there’s a flipside:
Mum was often bored to tears looking after us, and I know there was resentment that Dad got to ‘escape’ to work. My job keeps me interested and vital, and makes me look forward to time with my son.
Dad was a somewhat absent figure during the week, coming home late and exhausted. My son spends a fairly even amount of with both my husband and me.
When I was growing up the division of labour was pretty clear: Mum cooked, cleaned and looked after the kids, while Dad went to work and looked after the garden. But in our house the jobs are spread a little more randomly. My son gets to see his dad cooking dinner and washing clothes, and me taking business calls and working. And I like it—we get to be role models for both work and home.
While I feel guilty about day care at times, my son enjoys it. He has friends, and they do cool stuff like make bughouses and have super hero days. (I’m pretty imaginative, but it’s hard to keep the creativity going day in, day out.) It also teaches him independence and social skills.
My son often has to entertain himself while I’m busy with a call or an urgent task. But is that really any different to when Mum told me to play outside while she cleaned?
Of course, this is all from my perspective.
So I talked to my mum about it, and here’s what she had to say.
“When I was first married back in 1968, the concept of work/life balance didn’t exist. If you were a housewife with children your family came first, and it was supposed to provide all the fulfilment you needed. None of us considered juggling home life with a career.
In those days it was still the norm for husbands to be the chief breadwinner. Many men would have felt challenged if their wives insisted on working—it would have implied they weren’t capable of supporting the family.
In the 70s the idea of the full-time career woman was taking off, but options were limited. I’d always wanted to teach, but my plans were put on hold once the family began to arrive. When I did return to work it was to a series of fairly low-paid jobs that fitted in with family commitments to earn extra money. There was hardly any affordable childcare provision available. Part-time work was mainly limited to shop work, caring or clerical work—none of which paid very well.
I couldn’t afford childcare, and wouldn’t have dreamed of paying someone to clean my house. In any case, childcare and housework were my responsibility.
Yes it was limiting, and frustrating at times. But most of my contemporaries were doing the same thing, and I felt I didn’t really have a choice. Eventually I returned to pursuing a career and, like my daughter, had to juggle home life with work life.
It was hard going at times but if I wanted a job, I didn’t have a choice.
I think whoever takes on the main carer role in a marriage or partnership will always feel they’re being pulled in several directions if they choose to work as well.
I don’t think it’s any harder today than in the past. In many ways I think it’s easier. More childcare provision, flexible working arrangements, better career opportunities and the chance to take career breaks have all made it easier to be a working mother.
Given a choice, I too would much rather be a working mum today than in any other era.”
I’m not sure if today’s mums have it any easier or harder than the mums back then. Yes we have more household gadgets. Yes we can afford day care, cleaners and nannies if we work. But we also set ourselves incredibly high standards. It’s no longer good enough to be a great mum. You also have to run your own business, maintain a whippet-thin figure, cook organic, teach your kids Japanese and have an awesome sex life with your loving husband.
It’s easy to yearn for a simpler life, where roles were clearer and expectations lower. But would I swap places with my mum? Probably not.
So despite the stress, the mess, and the guilt, I’d rather be a working mum today than in any other era.
Over to you
How about you? Comment below and let us know how you and your mum’s worlds compare?
Originally published at Breathe Online
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