A girlfriend of mine sent me an article from the UK's Daily Mail entitled Working mothers risk damaging their child's prospects. It was rather a timely piece, because I was still brooding over something my cousin had said when we met up a few days ago.
We were sitting with a friend, who is also a fulltime mom. Her son is a fine, upstanding 15-year-old -- courteous and kind, actively involved in sports, with friends who are equally well-mannered and behaved, all of whom his mother knows. He doesn't smoke, swear, futz with an iPhone or stay out late, doing goodness knows what teenagers like to do. To me, a wonderful product of my friend's hands-on parenting.
All this however, does not seem to strike my cousin -- or most people I think -- in the same light. You may already know some of my thoughts on fulltime motherhood, as well as the comments I have to deal with. On this occasion Ro was also present -- she's three -- and looking at her, my cousin said, "Well good, a few more years and you can go back to work -- they won't need you to look after them then".
What he meant was that when Ro turns seven and starts grade school like her older sister, I can hurry back to real work, make real money, and have a real purpose in life.
Honestly, I don't get this. Before my husband and I got married, we agreed that if we did have children, there should always be a parent in the home raising and caring for them -- being, well, a parent. When the kids were babies and toddlers, this concept of actually being a mother who mothers somehow seemed a little more acceptable (although obviously I did still have to deal with the comments).
Now that they're older, there seems to be this increasing idea that they're old enough not to need proper parenting anymore. It's as if seven is a magic number or something, and as soon as they hit it they won't be needing any further parental care, nurturing and guidance -- or that grade school is some sort of perfect childcare facility that frees parents from responsibility.
But the fact is, grade school is ultimately only half a day -- from very early morning to early afternoon. What happens after that? If my, and my friends', experiences are anything to go by, this is what happens -- you come home to some indifferent childminder or doting relative, get your homework done, and then spend the rest of the day in mindless, aimless activity.
Because honestly, I don't think most young children actively look for ways to positively enrich their personal or academic lives. Left to themselves, their focus is on a hundred other things, many of them fatuous, imprudent, or regrettable. My girlfriends recall how their parents would come home at the end of the day or late at night, with no clue about what was really going on with them. When one looks back on one's growing-up years and thinks of what might have been...
And now I'm a parent. I want to do better by my children. To me, raising a child is not simply having some grown-up around overseeing them to make sure they don't set fire to the house or get kidnapped. Nor do I think Xbox, Wii or even Barbie qualify as appropriate childminders. One simply cannot expect any of them to give one's child sufficient, conscientious attention and time.
Of course, I know people who say, "Well, look at me -- nobody bothered about me when I was growing up and I turned out fine", but I find that flippant and shallow, because honestly, nine times out of ten, you're not "fine". The deep-seated insecurities, fears and hang-ups; the detrimental character flaws that hurt friendships, marriage, career and spirit; all the consequences of misguided decisions, reckless actions, and irrevocable choices... And again, to think of what might have been, how much better one might have done...
Telling me that I can (should) go back to work when Ro starts school, essentially reflects how much value a person places on the work I do as a fulltime mom now. My cousin is not the first who feels that the work I do as a mother cannot compare with that of a money-making career woman, and I should give up the former in favour of the latter.
If anything, I think hardcore parenting begins when children turn seven -- and yes, when they go into grade school -- because that's when they're becoming more worldly, start forming their own opinions and branching out more, become susceptible to peer pressure, and get exposed to all sorts of outside influences. I remember reading in university psychology that around this age, a child's self-esteem is fragile, and there is a tendency to worry more, and to be more sensitive, perfectionistic and self-critical. I remember, too, the line "strong need for love and understanding, especially from the mother", because I used it in one of my papers.
But then, I don't really need to think back to Psych 101, do I? I have a girlfriend who once said, "I don't know why my parents had me -- I hardly saw them, except maybe at bedtime. They never knew what I was up to, and so I did badly at school, messed up my career, and made wrong choices in men. O well".
And that Daily Mail article my girlfriend sent me? "Mothers who return to work after their baby is born risk causing serious damage to the child's prospects in later life, researchers revealed yesterday.
"Such children are more likely to do worse at school, become unemployed and to suffer mental stress than youngsters whose mothers stay at home to bring them up.
"The findings from the Institute for Social and Economic Research are a severe blow to the Government, which has used the tax and benefit system to encourage mothers to work while stripping away tax breaks such as the Married Couple's Allowance.
"They are an endorsement of the instincts of thousands of women who either give up work or drastically cut down their job commitments to devote most of their time to raising a child" (extracted from the article by Steve Doughty, May 2, 2012).
Well yeah, there are all the studies and the research, but I go by personal experience and observation. In the meantime, I need to go over some math with Ro (of which she says "when you squish 8 and 2 together, they become 10").