Person, partner, parentBy Dr Gemma Munro | Mar 27, 12 08:40 AM
It's time for Gemma to return to work after having a baby, but she's finding herself needing to justify the decision to others as well as herself. Here she explains the person, partner, parent recipe that’s helped her get past working mother guilt
Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s back to work I go. Actually, I’m not back at work for another 6 weeks or so, but me being me, I have started thinking about it ridiculously early. And my mind has been wrenching with the concept, just a little. I know it has because I find myself justifying my decision to others – even to total strangers. “It’s just 1.5 days a week”, I find myself saying. “Abigail is such a settled baby; I know she will be fine. The money will be useful. Plus she will be with her dad for one day a week, which will be great for them both”.
These statements may all be 100% true, but why on earth am I finding myself using them as justifications? I could blame the media, which in recent years has generated a rather large shitstorm about the effects of childcare. I could blame other women, who are said to be somewhat judgemental about their fellow females. But in truth I blame myself. It’s as if I need the world to confirm my status as a ‘good mother’ and, in the end, the only people who are qualified to do that are my children.
As I wrestled with thoughts of going back to work, I realised that – in my eyes – the stay-at-home vs. working debate has a serious flaw. In considering which of the two is better for the children, we often fail to examine what is best for the parent – and in doing so, we are neglecting to take into account one of the most reliable predictors of our children’s wellbeing. Let me explain.
A few years ago, I came across a recipe for avoiding family dysfunction from a therapist who has seen countless dysfunctional families. He said that every parent needs to see him or herself as a person first, a partner second and a parent third. The ‘person, partner, parent’ recipe can fly in the face of some fairly powerful maternal and paternal instincts, but increasingly I am starting to think this therapist (excuse the lack of referencing, I have totally forgotten his name) knew what he was on about. There is a reason that, when flying, we are instructed to fasten our own oxygen masks before our children’s. We are much more capable of looking after our children when we have first ensured we are in a good position to do the caring.
The wonderful psychologist and Business Chicks member Jodie Benveniste has undertaken some research on family wellbeing, and she posits a similar argument – that we cannot expect our children to be happy or healthy if we are not happy and healthy ourselves. She points out that our children do not always listen to us (cue my flashback to World War III – aka getting my three-year-old dressed this morning), but they are always watching us and learning from what they see. Are our kids learning how to live a stressed and unhappy life, or a happy and well life? Are they learning how to survive, or how to really thrive? Do they have the opportunity to see a functioning, loving partnership in action? Our happiness, or lack thereof, provides a potent example to our children of how to go about the business of living life.
Drawing on this research, I believe that we make our most valuable contribution to our children when we are at our happiest and most fulfilled. When the decision to work or to stay at home is ours to make – and I acknowledge that this isn’t the case for many parents – I believe we should consider, as part of the mix, what makes us feel fulfilled and alive. This will in turn help us to be the best parents we can be.
Realising I was thinking something a little controversial; I tested this argument with a few people. All men agreed with me. Many women said “Amen, sister” – or some kind of equivalent. But other women have had an almost visceral reaction to the suggestion that, as part of our parenting toolkit, we should sometimes put ourselves first – not just for our sake, but for the sake of our children. So, in response to these women, I should make a few caveats. Of course I am not suggesting that we pop out our babies and continue doing exactly as we always did in pursuit of our own agendas. Please. Anyone with a newborn (or a three-year-old, for that matter) will agree with me that this is ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE if we are committed to raising well-adjusted children. Parenting is a serious and wonderful responsibility that necessitates multiple sacrifices on the part of the parent. These sacrifices make parenting unendingly demanding, but also unbelievably meaningful.
In deciding to work or stay at home, then, the first criteria must be our confidence that our children are thriving. But the great trap is to unquestioningly believe that the more we attend to their needs at the exclusion of ours, the more our children will thrive. My view is that, in fact, we are better parents when we spend a goodly proportion of our time in pursuit of that which makes us feel delighted. This will mean different things to different people. For me it is a balance of doing the work I love – coaching, facilitating, writing – and being with the kidlets. For others, what rocks their socks is spending every day raising their children. Others get a kick out of spending more of their time at work. In all cases, what matters is that our children are in a safe and caring environment, and that our life provides them with a wonderful example of how to live joyfully.
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Gemma Munro is an Adelaide-based coach and facilitator and the Director of Inkling Coaching. Gemma has a PhD in performance psychology and ten years' experience working with business leaders to maximise their performance and enjoyment at work.