I’ve been working too much recently. My book has a deadline. My blog commitments are growing. I don’t see my bed much before midnight and my weekends are mostly spent locked away with just a laptop, a strong cup of coffee and me.
Last night I felt the full weight of my absence from my girls. At precisely 1am it all came crashing down upon me and left me reeling and scared.
My youngest has night terrors. She wakes every evening, thrashing about like a fish out of water, still trapped in the icy grip of her nightmare. My husband and I take turns to soothe her back to sleep. It only takes a few minutes and it’s a burden we’re both willing to share. Up until last night she always called out for me. Always.
Not this time.
When I awoke my husband was already halfway out of bed. I lay there in the darkness convinced I’d misheard. Then it came again. A small voice but of big significance. My little girl didn’t need me. She wanted Daddy instead.
A second later the magnitude of the moment hit me like a bucket of cold water. Her pleas reverberated around my head like a dirty word. I’ve been there from the beginning, you see. I took four years off work to be a stay at home mum. From Day 1 I’ve been omnipresent in my children’s lives. From play dates and emotive nursery drop-offs to primary school applications, ballet classes and doctor’s appointments. If someone falls off their bike or scooter it’s always been me that they scream for first.
As I watched my husband’s silhouette exit the room I felt that close bond with my children, the one I’d worked so hard to nurture, slipping through my fingers. I hated it. I wanted to undo the last six months right away. All those evenings my husband put the children to bed because I’d been too busy. The missed trips to the park because I’d had another chapter to write.
I felt angry with myself. No, furious. What did I expect? I’d checked out of my children’s lives – momentarily – to pursue an exciting career break. In my absence, my husband had become the No. 1 Parent. And whilst I don’t begrudge him that accolade (God knows he deserves it – he’s an incredible father), this transferal of affection has hurt me deeply.
I felt indignant too. Why can’t mothers earn a living and not be made to feel so bad about it? I was gifted an expensive education, and from an early age it’s been tunnel vision for me; good results, excellent degrees and ambition. But lying there, listening to my husband calm my daughter, I started to feel short-changed. I felt duped. A 2.4 family has always featured in my plan but I’d been reckless and shortsighted to assume that the puzzle pieces of my life would fit together so neatly.
My generation has been sold a lie. We can’t have it all. We may shoot for the stars but in doing so we’re forced to sacrifice precious time with our children. We run the risk of them calling out for Daddy instead of us at 1am in the morning.
It’s the harshest of penalties, and I place the blame squarely on society’s shoulders. More specifically, the default setting that generations upon generations of women have adhered to – the mother, the carer. There’s no point chucking another ‘e’ at the middle of that word. Not if you want to live up to the hopelessly high standards that they’ve set in the home.
I grew up in an immaculate house. My mother cooked a meal for the family every night and she was always there to collect me from school. I can’t remember a single moment when she wasn’t present in my childhood. For my generation it’s an impossible scenario to recreate when you’re competing in the workplace too.
Still, such indigence won’t stop me feeling like a failure when my child chooses her father over me. For that I blame mother’s guilt or The Guilt Fairy or whatever it is that drives us mothers to the brink of madness. And it’s all very well transferring the guilt by demanding that men ‘step-up’ but what if there are no more steps for them to climb? My husband unequivocally supports my career, works full-time and spends more hours playing with our children than I do. I couldn’t ask for more.
So I find myself looking inwards instead. It’s me who is culpable. It’s time to surrender my controlling stake in parenthood if I want to achieve that happy work-family balance. Working mothers may ‘have it all’ but we can’t ‘do it all’ as well. Our mental health is suffering as we strive for perfection in all areas of our lives, as recent reports suggest.
The next time my youngest calls for Daddy in the night I won’t self-flagellate myself with guilt. I won’t even spare a thought for what tradition decrees. Instead I’ll roll over and buy myself ten extra minutes of sleep, safe in the knowledge that my husband and I have this shared parenting thing licked.
This article was first published on Huffington Post ZA