Changing Times

It’s been a quiet few days. My son has been suffering from a bad cold and all he’s wanted to do is listen to audio books. So we have worked our way through Hercule Poirot and Paul Temple and Sherlock Holmes. Strictly speaking, I suppose I didn’t have to keep him company, but I find I respond unquestioningly to his urge to have me around when he’s poorly or troubled or just involved in another stage of growing up, and it is a sweet maternal pleasure to be there, armed with stories. The psychoanalysts have talked about the way that young children and babies are soothed by immersion in their mother’s world of calm thought. We can imagine a child dimly trusting, before it even knows what trust is, in its mother to make everything okay, one way or another. Some childcare theorists have suggested that one of the most important things mothers do in that early phase is to keep the child company while it feeds and struggles and cries and settles, thinking of solutions and things to try so that the child itself will eventually learn to bring calm, problem-solving thought to its own adult life. As children grow, the sense of their mother taking care of the bits of thought still beyond their reach never really alters, although none of this could be put into words by either mother or child. There’s a lovely passage in Peter Pan that describes it better than I could:

‘Mrs Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. […] When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.’

Funnily enough, I saw the advert for my old job go around on the email listings last Friday. I’ll admit it caused me a pang of regret for a moment. Rather as I imagine it would feel to come across one’s ex-husband in a bar, flirting with lots of other women. I had a ten-year marriage with that job and it was full of passion and drama. It was literally all-consuming. Cambridge terms are deemed to be short, at eight weeks each, but once you add in every evening and every weekend for working, you can see how it concentrates a more usual three-month term within its bounds. And then there’s everything that happens in the so-called vacations, weeks of admissions interviews, exam setting and marking, graduate examination, PhD students and of course, endlessly, research. Not to mention preparation for teaching, when the average lecture on a new topic requires about forty hours dedicated input. But I did it because I loved it and I still consider myself so very lucky to have had that experience. It was amazing, and I had a blast.

But the hardest thing was always juggling work and childcare. When my son was ill, it was a big problem. Even on a normal weekend I never had the time I wanted to give over to his needs when there was work to be done for non-negotiable deadlines. And I felt, probably most acutely of all, the uncomfortable wrench between different mindsets, between my academic thinking mind, and the dissipated, quiet, dreaminess that children respond to so well. It felt to me like changing time zones, and I was permanently jet lagged. Not to mention guilty. Researching this motherhood project, I’ve read an awful lot about women who give up on meaningful careers to care for children, and it’s curious (and to me frustrating) the kind of reactions its sparks. Women don’t really want careers, I’ve read, and once they give birth they find their true destiny. Women don’t have the stamina and the dedication to make it to the top. Women like staying home and being taken care of financially. This is just nonsense, and worse than that, a kind of insidious propaganda. Anyone who’s had a child knows that the minute that baby is put in your arms, you have just signed up to a lifetime’s job that no one else can do. No one else can be your child’s mother, no matter how good or bad you are at the tasks, no matter what mistakes you make or what else is on your life agenda. No one else will ever tidy your child’s mind away as efficiently or as efficaciously as you. Now that certainly does not mean that mothers cannot work. No mother need tend to a child’s developmental confusion twenty-four hours a day. What it does mean, though, is that while they are at work women need good childcare backing them up, the kind of childcare that allows them to work with a clear conscience and a serene heart and therefore return to their child with enough of that maternal firepower left to be truly present, in an attentive, healthy, vibrant state of mind, receptive to all that loving, amorphous thinking they need to do. In fact, if mothers can do that three days out of five, then that’s probably good enough. Perfection, where mothers are concerned, is only ever scary.

This weekend was the first one that I really noticed my new sense of spaciousness. For the first time, I had the experience of being healthy and employed and able to simply shelve anything I’d intended to do for some other, distant time. I didn’t have to sit with my child, calculating how many hours I would need to make up and where I would get them from. I didn’t have to try to be calm and unflustered about an everyday illness whilst furiously thinking up contingency plans for the week ahead. It was restful. Occasionally I would stir and wonder whether there was anything I really ought to be doing. And then I could think, with satisfaction, that there wasn’t. I might still miss things about my old job from time to time – people taking out notebooks and writing down what I say, for instance, although that’s probably not healthy for anyone to experience – but the madness of its overwhelming, exacting demands is not something I miss in the least. Finally, I feel I can just be me, in one place, rather than being pulled in conflicting directions by my responsibilities as a mother and as a professional woman. It was an exercise in tidying my own mind that I liked a lot.


14 thoughts on “Changing Times

  1. How coincidental that I should come across this particular post on a day that I wrote about my own mother on my blog, after a long and difficult weekend. Thank you.

  2. I’m home today with a sick child, and cannot tell you how grateful I am to have a job that’s both intellectually fulfilling and flexible enough that I need not feel guilty about being home for the day. Sure, the work piles up a little bit, but not so much that it can’t be done. And although it’s been years (my goodness!) since I had the other kind of job — the high status, high stress, high paying kind — I have never once in all that time regretting stepping aside from it.

    As for Mrs. Darling, the most interesting and challenging thing about parenting adolescents is their increasing need for privacy. Honoring that, while still being present is not always easy.

    I’m so glad you changed jobs! xoxox

  3. I can imagine what a pang it must have given you to see the ad for your old job. But really, it came at good time because you got to have an experience to counterbalance and confirm why you aren’t in that old job anymore–validation to a certain extent. You post had a dreamy quality too it that was nicely indicative of you mood. I hope your son is feeling better!

  4. I love that passage from Peter Pan–what a nice image. I wish there was a fairy godmother type who could come around and do that for adults. From everything I’ve read you sound like a wonderful mother, Litlove. I’m so glad your work life and home life have finally balanced in a way that doesn’t completely stress you out! And I hope your son feels better soon.

  5. I remember the first time I had the jet lag between child-caring and working – it hurt so much that I didn’t work again for two years. Now I do it all the time, from minute to minute, hour to hour, and I see that it is possible. I have learned to love that I can do both successfully, without too much evident strain to each.

    I am glad for you that your working life is so much more flexible, and free of demands and madness. And also glad that you had that wonderful experience of job about which you were passionate, and to which one day you could conceivably return.

    Thanks for the great post – you are writing about motherhood and it is sooo good!

  6. Grad – your post was extremely touching. I’m glad we came across each other, and I’ll be thinking of you and your mother in the weeks to come. Take care.

    Bloglily – I am very glad the sick child is not too sick, and also that you have the flexibility you need to do everything well. It’s the only way to stay sane. I find with my son that I just keep in the background until he makes obvious signs I need to step forward. I send my husband in more these days, as that manly bonding thing seems to go down well! 🙂

    Stefanie – you’re right, it’s been a dreamy couple of days! It’s funny because I did feel a pang on Friday but even then it didn’t last very long (it was so lovely not having to go out in the snow and the freezing rain!). I’ve been on the receiving end of much providence lately, and I’ve been conscious of and grateful for all of it.

    Danielle – oh I couldn’t agree more! I’d love someone to tidy my mind every night. 🙂 My son has returned to school today, reluctantly it must be said, but with a note of excuse for rugby this afternoon, which I hope will soften the blow!

    Lilian – oh thank you so much! Spaciousness just is plain wonderful, and I wonder now how I lived without it for so long.

    Emily – it makes me very happy if you like what I write. And you will also have had experience of those two lives, and know what it is like.

    David – thank you so very much. 🙂

    Charlotte – the French have this great phrase: reculer pour mieux sauter – it’s hard to translate but it means taking a step backwards in order to move forward with some real verve. It sounds to me like that’s just what you did. And I’m so glad you are liking the motherhood theme as it is much on my mind at the moment and I don’t doubt there will be more to come…

  7. This was so lovely to read, and it makes me happy to hear that you’ve gotten yourself into a “place just right: as far as the balance between work and family. It’s like being able to breathe a big sigh of relief, isn’t it?

    I hope your son feels better soon, but I know it’s kind of a nice respite to have the excuse of a minor illness to play “mommy” for a bit while he still welcomes that kind of attention.

  8. Becca – you’re so right, about work and parenting. I hardly ever get to play mummy these days, so it was nice for a while. He’s healthier now and back to normal! 🙂

  9. Reading your description of academic life makes me exhausted … I can’t imagine working that hard for eight weeks. I can understand the pang of seeing the job posting, and also your satisfaction that you did the job for the time you did, but what a wonderful well-deserved break you have now. It sounds great to have the balance of a job that’s not as demanding and more time for your son and yourself. And also great that you’re in a position to truly appreciate what a good thing that is.

  10. Dorothy – I don’t know how my colleagues do it! I couldn’t any more. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m just lazy, but actually I think it’s just that I need to have some life as well as work, and ten years of intensive work has made me wonder whether that’s permissible. Time to change that line of thought, right? 🙂

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