Mother of all guilt trips

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am


There was a time in my earlier parenting days when, in my naivete, I honestly believed mother's guilt was something only working mums suffered from. Having returned to working part time when my son was very almost three and my daughter just over a year old, I quickly became familiar with this issue.

It attacked on so many levels. There was the guilt at not being there to pick up my son at the end of his morning at kindergarten, even though very few children at his kindergarten are picked up by a parent. His kindergarten has a large catchment area, and most children go home by school bus. Most of the rest are picked up by the family helpers. But as I was to learn, the guilt of a working mother rarely listens to reason.

There was the guilt that came at leaving my daughter when she was so young - around 14 months - when I would have never dreamed of leaving my son at the same age, the guilt that came with the realisation that she was having less time at home with me, and the guilt that an accident might happen - a broken bone, a head cracked open - simply because I wasn't at home.

But my children have always been reasonably tolerant of my working. The guilt was mine alone. For my children it seemed quite natural and normal for mothers to work. A large number of Hong Kong mothers work; most of my son's and daughter's friends' mums work. A lot of the time, the play dates they go on involve all children and helpers, anyway, so there isn't always reason to miss Mum quite so much.

Yet all that guilt was counteracted by the simple fact that not working was no longer a luxury I enjoyed. My husband and I had made the decision quite early on to send our children to what we considered to be the best primary school in the area, which meant sending our children to the best kindergarten in the area to be eligible for an interview at that primary school. As an international primary school, both it and its kindergarten charge the high fees that are the norm for middle-class Hong Kong families. Work is a necessity. There is no getting around that and so no getting around the guilt.

But there is also the guilt that attacks on the days when I realise that I have enjoyed being out of the house - days that I have enjoyed conversing with adults only and days that I have just enjoyed a social, child-free lunch.

If a child is sick and I don't stay home from work, I feel guilty and call my helper every half an hour as she reads their temperature into the phone. But if I stay at home with a sick child, there is the guilt I feel at missing a morning's work. I'm talking about children sick with a low- or medium-grade fever, a cough or cold. Anything worse and there is no guilt at being with them.

So as I embarked on my recent four-month maternity leave that began with the birth of our third child, I expected all that guilt to evaporate the day we finally brought our little boy home from the hospital and my work-free status was confirmed, if only temporarily.

How wrong I was! And I have since learned that mother's guilt plagues all mothers, be they working mums or stay-at-home mums. In fact, the more time I spent at home, the more clingy my eldest children became. They grew less tolerant of my leaving the house without them than they had been when I was working. In the first few weeks of my maternity leave, they followed me from room to room in the apartment, including to the toilet.

This only made my guilt stronger. I felt guilty if, to have a shower, I left them for 20 minutes with a helper or watching the one DVD they are allowed a day. I had to schedule my showers for when they were asleep. I felt guilty popping out to the supermarket and leaving them at home for half an hour - although that was probably easier to handle than three small children in a busy Discovery Bay supermarket. I'd take the guilt any time.

One day, however, I broke and headed out to Fa Yuen Street market by myself. It was justifiable because the baby was outgrowing his big brother's baby clothes and replacements were needed.

Of course, as I learned, with three small children the guilt is multiplied. My mind is constantly occupied with thoughts such as whether they are all getting equal amounts of attention. And how do I split myself into three?

I knew I had only four months to get it right before work would call again and I would have only the afternoons to make sure everyone gets enough quality mummy time. I miss the hour-long afternoon naps I enjoyed as a stay-at-home mum. Now it is a case of powering through the afternoon and tumbling everyone into bed at 7pm so mummy can collapse on the sofa.

I know now, as all mothers learn, that I am not aiming for perfection. It's just not possible. Some afternoons go great and the children and I lurch from one fun-filled educational activity to the next. Other afternoons it all seems to go wrong: the baby wants to be rocked and held for hours at a time while his elder brother battles a high fever and vomits frequently. Good days, bad days - welcome to parenting!

Having experienced both, I take my hat off to both working mums and stay-at-home mums. Wow, how do you do it?

Rebecca Tomasis was co-winner last year of the inaugural Proverse Prize for unpublished writing