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December 16, 2011 / playforth

Guilt-edged

After another stressful school run and some hastily proffered excuses for not attending the Christmas church service, I felt moved to issue the following cry for help on Twitter:

Tweet text

If I’d been hoping for inspirational tales of how to juggle work and parenting without feeling a failure at both, I didn’t get them. What I did get was a torrent of replies confirming that guilt is pretty much a constant companion for the working parent (full-time or part-time). Both men and women responded, although I think it’s fair to say that the women seemed to feel the pressure of competing demands, roles and expectations even more acutely.

In the movies, the parent who misses their child’s school play/concert/football game is almost always portrayed as a blinkered careerist who at some point in the story will have an epiphany about the importance of family, exit their miserable office in a dramatic fashion and rediscover their joyful inner child as they bond with their newly adoring offspring. In real life, missing the school play probably just means you’ve used up all your holiday for the year trying to cover the stupidly long summer break and you can’t chuck another sickie because your boss is still suspicious after the last time. Guilty working parents only make good movie heroes if they stop working. Most of us don’t have that option.

Before I had children I felt strong social pressure to work for a living and be economically productive. So why do I feel a different pressure now? The fact is that the school system is set up to suit a two-parent family where one parent works (earning enough not to rely on the state for any support whatsoever, naturally) and one stays at home, popping out to collect the kids at 3.15 every day and constructing costumes and cakes on demand. Have the nerve to need two incomes? Or even worse, WANT to work? Then bring on the guilt. (It’s interesting to think about the actual causes of this kind of guilt – how much is internal psychology, how much is cultural, and how much is externally imposed divide-and-conquer propaganda by a cynical and self-interested ruling class… ahem, but that’s another post altogether.)

I feel this guilt much more keenly since my daughter started school, which is odd really because – wickedly self-indulgent workaholic that I am – I CHOSE to send her to nursery but all kids have go to school, theoretically freeing both their parents to do paid work. Though perhaps not so odd, since the other nursery parents were self-selectingly in the same situation as me (it was a workplace nursery). At school, there’s suddenly a sharp divide between the parents (and yes, by ‘parents’ I mostly mean ‘mothers’) who can attend every daytime event and stay at the gates chatting, and those who have to fling their kids in through the door before dashing off again, if they even manage to make an appearance at all. I just wish this didn’t seem to trigger such defensive and oppositional feelings on both sides.

The fact is that no stay-at-home parent could judge me as harshly as I judge myself for not going to that sodding Nativity service this morning…

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