Tuesday, July 9, 2013

How I came to own the philosophy of work-life balance naked, wet, at seven o’clock in the morning


I was in the shower, steam everywhere, when someone walked into the bathroom. I twitched open the shower curtains to peek and there was my four-year-old, sitting on the loo and swinging her legs. 'Hi Mum,' she said, 'we're going to the zoo. Are you coming?'

It was school holidays. My husband had taken two days off work to be with the kids and free me to study; apparently he was taking them to the zoo.

As the water pounded my back, I shook my head and said, 'No thanks, today I'll stay home and do some work.'

'Because it's more important,' she said wisely, then gave me a kind smile.

Such a dagger to the guts. I grew up in a house where my mother's work was more important than everything else, and didn't we know it. As children, we were given to understand that we were highly treasured and highly privileged; as such, other less privileged people needed her time more than we did, and we were never to complain. I often dreamed of having a stay-at-home mum, the sort of comfortable person who enjoyed being with me and who baked cookies. And yet, when I spent time with other people's stay-at-home mums, I often didn't feel very comfortable; and it wasn't actually something I wanted from the woman who was my mother. If she'd stayed home, she would have gone berserk, and driven me crazy in the process. She drove me crazy enough as it was.

But I resented the primacy of work in her life; everyone else knew her better than me. And my sister and I spent so much of our childhoods just waiting. We'd hang round church for hours, waiting for her to be done, and not allowed to leave without her; we'd hang around the house waiting for her sudden gallop through the hall, clutching a pile of papers and yelling at us to hurry up. We'd sit on the back step after school, hot, thirsty, and busting to pee, waiting for her to come home from wherever she was and let us in; for years, we couldn't have a key because she worried about 'latchkey kids'. (As to whether being a 'doorstep kid' is worse, I'm not sure; I certainly was happier when I could let myself and get a glass of water.)

I can see that the stressors on her were enormous. She was a ground breaker in her field and worked far more than full time, yet she was also never able to relinquish the idea of the 'proper mother'. Despite her work hours, she also tried to iron the sheets and make pizza from scratch and pretend that work had no impact on her children. I can see this and I feel sad for her; but I'm still not at peace with her choices. I have no problem with parents working, but they have to make good arrangements for their kids. So when my four-year-old asserted, very comfortably, that my work was more important than wandering around the zoo with her, I felt sick.

Was it true? I wondered. Did I really think my work was more important?

Well, when it came down to it, probably yes. She hardly needed both parents walking her through the butterfly house, and her dad would do a good job. I had spent the last three days fooling around with her, her sisters, and their assorted friends, and now I needed to do something different. On the other hand, working wasn't more important than spending time with her, per se; it was just more important right now. Such old scripts and philosophical knots one has to untangle in the shower while a four-year-old is staring fixedly at one's breasts!

All this reflection happened in a second or two. Then I said that work wasn't more important; but that what was important was to have balance. 'I need to play with you and read you stories a bit, and I need to work a bit, and I need to cook, wash and clean the house a bit. I've done lots of playing and reading and cooking and cleaning and washing this week, so now it's time for some working. And I can do this while you're at the zoo.'

'Okay,' she said, as her eyes travelled curiously up and down. It's too cold for regular nakedness in my house and I realised that it had been a while since she'd seen me undressed. She hopped off the loo, flushed, washed her hands, took one last good look, then wandered out of the bathroom.

So that was how I came to own the philosophy of work-life balance naked, wet, at seven o'clock in the morning. Meanwhile, with any luck, my four-year-old learned two things. One, that balance is important. And two, that some adult women have pubic hair.

Thanks to her dad for the photo of the hand and the butterfly!


  1. Great, thoughtful post! I struggle a bit with work/life balance but for the most part I know that (a.) it's important for me to be able to care for my family should anything happen to my husband and (b.) my daughter should see me going to work each day. She's a girl after my own heart - she loves a good time and will pursue it relentlessly, so I think we both need the balance and responsibility of school and work to keep us balanced.

    1. Thanks Courtney. Many mothers I know struggle to find a balance between work and parenting; we are all figuring out what works for our families and our selves and our bank balances at different stages, and those things are always in flux - which is why we have to talk about it!


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