Early last month, a leaked report suggesting that working parents are damaging their children’s health caused much debate and upset among Irish parents, particularly mothers, who tend to feel the brunt of guilt-inducing headlines.
The fact that the report, (Healthy Lifestyle: Have Your Say, from the School of Applied Social Studies, UCC), which has since been published, says very little about the impact of dual-working families is almost moot — the damage is done.
As always when the topic comes up, the point was made that lots of families have no choice but to work — they need two incomes to pay the mortgage. And while this is the case for many parents, it doesn’t allow for the fact that lots of us want to work, and enjoy having a career.
Of course we’re talking about mothers, because men tend not to be asked if they’re thinking of giving up work after they have kids, and don’t feel compelled to explain that they’re working for financial reasons. Isn’t it time we were allowed to admit if we also work because we enjoy it?
I remember a conversation with a friend some years ago. Her mother-in-law had asked her how she could hand over her two boys to crèche every morning. She had told her mother-in-law it was the only way to pay the mortgage, but confided in me that she wanted to work too — she just didn’t feel she could admit it. I can identify with that, having often said the same thing. And perhaps that’s part of the problem . An acceptance that women work because it’s financially necessary isn’t enough — we also need to acknowledge that, just like men, many women work because they enjoy their careers.
Role model for my children
Software engineer and mum of three Anne-Marie McKenna works a four-day week, and her husband works five days.
“We both enjoy work most of the time,” says Anne-Marie.
“I did consider staying at home after our second baby arrived — and again after our third baby — but I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and I don’t feel ready to stay at home permanently. I had my children in my mid-thirties and my job is part of my identity; I’m not sure how I’d handle losing that!”
Anne-Marie is nevertheless not immune to guilt.
“Yes, of course; there are mornings when it’s almost impossible to walk out the door. I sometimes wonder if I’m taking the ‘selfish’ option by going to work because taking care of small children is one of the most challenging jobs there is. But I try to focus on the positives. I work in the software industry and I’m happy to be a role model for my daughters and my son; I want to show them that it’s possible to have a successful career in an industry that’s considered to be dominated by males, and that it doesn’t have to end once children come along.”
Focusing on the moment
Keelin Fagan, who works full-time as Head of Dublin for Fáilte Ireland, explains that, even though she works primarily for financial reasons, she thinks it’s very important to enjoy her job.
“I have to work but I’m now comfortable with this decision. I believe it’s important to enjoy my working environment as I spend a considerable amount of time there each day. When I’m in work I’m focused on work matters and when I’m at home with my family I’m dedicated to family life. We always spend our weekends as a family. If I won the Lotto tomorrow, I’d love to spend more time at home with my husband and two girls but I would also like to run a charity as I believe it’s important to give back to society.”
So if parents enjoy their jobs and the kids are happy, why are we constantly checking ourselves — is there any reason to think one parent should be at home all day?
It’s the level of attentiveness that matters, says child psychologist and psychotherapist Caoimhe Nic Dhomhnaill.
“If you’re mindful for short periods of parenting, it may be much more beneficial than spending all day with the children and not being mindful. Parents who are physically present all day can be preoccupied with other concerns. So it’s the level of freedom from preoccupation — that’s what I would talk to parents about. Some parents are at home all day but they may be more present to constant messaging on phones than to their children. On the other hand, working parents are often remiss about the boundary between work and home and attend to emails while spending time with their children.
“There’s an example of a child that I recently saw in therapy who, when asked to draw a symbol of their parents, drew one as a Samsung phone and one as an iPhone. So that has nothing to do with whether parents are out working or not working.”
There is a caveat, however.
“To balance that, I would always say that when I see children with two parents in the fast track – I have concerns. It’s my experience that some slack is needed in the system and someone needs to pick that up.”
This is something Keelin Fagan feels too.
“If I had a husband who was out in the corporate world 24/7 that would be more challenging for me. I’d have to look at the dynamic. I just changed career — I was travelling for the last three years and gone in the mornings, which I hated. Now I’m here every morning. My husband works shift so he’s around from 3.30pm every day. So I get the balance between the two — kids and work — and enjoy both.
“Yes, the guilt is awful, but it’s not as bad now they’re in school.”
The irony this is that we can be consumed with guilt over being away from our kids for 10 hours a day, give it all up, and then find something else to feel guilty about. Quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality.
Focus on the present
Melanie Good should, in theory, be able to relax going to work every day, as husband Ross is a stay-at-home dad to their two little girls, but again, it’s not that simple.
“I recently changed jobs which means I have to travel more, so in fact I spend more time away from the girls than I ever did previously. So, I now feel more guilt, but at the same time I have peace of mind that Ross has them.” Prior to this, her eldest daughter was in creche full-time. There were pros to this, Mia learned how to play with others and benefited from the structured routine. It was the only option but it worked.
Laura Maher recently become a stay-at-home mother.
“I’m still trying to find the magic formula for guilt-free, financially stable living!” says the mum of four. “I think with your family growing and changing, what works now won’t work in a couple of years. My new resolution is that I’m giving up guilt and I’m going to stop comparing my life to others. Happy parents make for happy kids – working full-time, or staying at home, or whatever works for you and your family.”
The bottom line? Forget the reports, don’t mind what anyone else is doing, and focus on doing what you do to the best of your ability — being present when with the children, enjoying your job when you’re at work.
You know what’s best for your family, and faraway hills may not be as green as they first appear.