A bit of a follow up to my last post.
A week ago my parents were visiting. I was chatting to my mum about how I was finding life having 2 children. She rather pointedly commented that “yes, it’s quite hard work having two at home isn’t it, much harder than going out to work”. This was directed at my dad, as he was a working parent and she was a stay at home parent when my sister and I were little. Neither really tried the other life – my dad never spent more than a couple of days at a time in sole care of small children – and my mum did have a full time job in the days before children, but once we were born she gave up work for several years then had part time jobs fitting around school hours. It got me thinking about which is harder – full time office work or full time parenting. It’s not as clear cut as it seems….
On the face of it, office work wins this one. I have a demanding job where we are all expected to be on the ball all the time, to be professional, self motivated and to deal with a large volume of work. Using your brain all day and juggling the constant demands of meetings, telephone calls and emails (and also finding the time to actually do some work) is hard.
But its a different type of hard work at home with children. It is relentless. At least at work I get a sense of achievement, that I have been stretched and used my talents. At home I am not using my brain in the same way, but the tasks I am completing will need doing the next day, and the next, and the next. And the nature of the work is different – its menial, which means you can let your mind wander but you don’t get that same sense of accomplishment that you can get from doing work that utilises your personal skills and years of experience.
Overall, a narrow victory for being at work as the easy option.
I work in the city. The hours are not good. We are paid for 9 till 5 every day, but are expected to work around 2 hours overtime each day on average, out of the goodness of our hearts. OK, so the salary is good and that is one of the reasons it is good. But at particular times of year – month ends, or quarterly reporting cycles – you just have to work until the job is done. It’s not uncommon for some teams to work through the night to meet a deadline – often without any payment including time off in lieu. It’s not the sort of industry where people go home and think that someone else will finish it off.
And then there is child rearing. The hours are literally 24/7. There is no sick leave. There is no maternity leave. If you are in hospital at death’s door you have to find a childminder first. You do actually get some time off – by a wonderful quirk of nature children need more sleep than adults – and you will probably get an hour or two in the daytime during naps as well as a couple of hours after their bedtime but before yours. You will have to fit in household chores in those times though. And the more children you have, the less likely it is that they all sleep at the same time. Plus, there is no office job on the planet where going to the bathroom requires you take your work with you. Until you have tried to have a wee whilst singing nursery rhymes to one child and desperately rocking the screaming other child you have not scratched the surface of “busy”.
So, the office wins again as the easiest option.
Most of my colleagues are great people, smart, funny, with interesting opinions and the ability to discuss everything and anything. There are always one or two you don’t naturally warm to, and the occasional one you can’t stand. On the whole they are good company, and its a shame we are usually working too hard to enjoy each other’s company more.
But my family win hands down. My toddler might not have an opinion on the latest business news or be able to debate whether the Euro is over or not, but few people can match the unbridled joy of a small child giggling at something silly, or the fascination as they learn something for the first time. Full time parenting wins this one.
At work we are expected to be grown ups, to get on with it and not need patting on the head very often. Every 6 months appraisal season comes around and if you’re lucky you get a thank you from your boss, or some positive feedback from colleagues. I am a grown up, and I can work this way just fine, but it is nice to get some encouragement.
One of the unexpected things about motherhood was the amount of encouragement. From midwives when you are pregnant, to health visitors after you come home with the baby, from little old ladies on the bus to the other mums you meet, almost everyone is pleasant and positive to you. At first I felt it was really weird, almost like people were walking on eggshells around me. Then I realised it was exactly the opposite – that in the hard-nosed world of banking in central London (where everyone is grumpy by default) we routinely stomp through the day with scant regard for any eggs lying around – whereas in the real world most people are quite nice to each other and take time to respect each other’s choices and feelings. So lovely!
Plus, when you have a snuggly newborn to show off, most people’s default setting is a gooey smile rather than the battleweary clenched teeth of office politics.
Work pays money. Being a parent costs money. In financial terms, work wins.
But what about the non-financial pay? At work that means being appreciated by people you respect, a sense of achievement, perhaps the occasional free glass of wine at a presentation. At home it is being the recipient, and the cause, of your baby’s first ever smile. It’s being the only one in the world your small boy needs when he falls over and hurts himself. It’s hearing someone call you “mummy” and knowing they are actually saying “I love you”. The love of a small child is open-hearted and completely unreserved, pure and delightful. You can’t buy that for any money. You have to earn it by being there when they need you, by loving them first. Nothing compares to being that adored by someone as innocent and transparent as that.
For the young working person, retirement is a long way off. It keeps getting further away too – first it was 60, then 65, and now it seems we might all be working at least part time well into our 70s to pay for our nursing care when we are even older. Sure, there might be a few changes of job or career in that time. But the time when it will all be over, that is a long way off. And there is a good chance that early death will come first. Harsh.
Children are different – there is an end in sight. Yes, you will always be a parent. But most children grow up and move out at some point – maybe at 18, maybe at 25, but you are likely to get your life back at some point. And as your children grown their needs change. Have teenagers it isn’t the same as having toddlers. At some stage you are able to go out without arranging a babysitter, to share the housework a bit, to have a grown up conversation with your offspring, even to share a bottle of wine. I’m looking forward to getting to know the people my sons will become. One thing is for certain, if they are still living at home when I’ve reached retirement age they had better be paying their way and doing an equal share of the chores.
So, whilst child rearing might take up more hours of each day, it probably takes fewer hours over the course of your lifetime and wins another point from this category.
This is important to someone like me. I know my own mind and have strong opinions on things. I’m sure you’d never have guessed.
At work I generally get to plan my own day, but ultimately I have to do what I am told to do.
At home I am the mummy and I am in charge. What I say goes – well, some of the time anyway. I do find it refreshing to be able to do my best in my own way, without following someone else’s arbitrary rules or beliefs. If I think its OK for bedtime to be 10pm then its my problem if I’m wrong. If I decide a healthy lunch is a couple of packs of cheese strings and some chocolate cake then its me who deals with the resulting sugar rush.
I do have one person to report to – my other half. That isn’t too difficult, Darren and I usually agree on most things in the sphere of parenting. In the longer term I will have to answer to my children when they grow up, and to God of course (who seems fairly silent on appropriate bedtimes). I am doing my best, and hope I am making good decisions for my family – but it is a lot of responsibility. One I enjoy, but also one that is hard to be blase about.
I think this point is a tie, there are advantages to both sides.
So, which is harder – staying at home with the kids or going out to work full time?
Well, I think both are hard in different ways. Being a stay at home parent is not the easy option by any means. But being able to have a wee in peace and talk to another adult doesn’t make office life easy either, especially when you have a demanding career.
Which is why I shall not be doing either. Both options are too hard for me. If I stayed at home all day every day I doubt all of us would survive – my nerves would fray and I would end up strangling someone. If I was at work full time I would feel so guilty about missing out on my children’s formative years, and would be so full of stress and aggression that I would not have any fun (let alone be a good mother) on the weekends.
For me, the solution is to get the best of both worlds. 3 days in the office (60% of the working week), 4 days at home (57% of the whole week). On the days I am at home I really enjoy reading “the hungry caterpillar” for the eighth time in a row, and I don’t mind so much cleaning up the poo and dealing with the never-ending mountain of washing. On the days I am in the office I savour being able to eat a meal while it’s still hot, and I have some perspective on the power struggles and politics that go on. After all, if you’ve seen one toddler tantrum you’re well equipped to deal with any trader’s rant.