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Monday 2 October 2023 Dublin: 14°C
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Column Motherhood, guilt and the fantasy of 'choice'
Guilt may not be the defining emotion of motherhood but it is certainly one of the most consistent, writes Emily Hourican.

AT A post-drop-off coffee with school mums the other morning, talk turned to Things People Regret Before They Die, and how more spending more time on housework or in the office isn’t ever one of them – but more time with family, and especially small children, often is. One mother, who works full-time, made a face and said: “Please, stop. I can’t bear to talk about it. I feel guilty all the time.”

Quite apart from the almost inevitable tragedy of reaching the end of one’s life filled with regret, hers was a rare admission. Certainly a rare sober admission. Working mothers mostly do not let on to constant guilt, because they can’t afford to. Admit it and you are very quickly in a place where you have to consider doing something different – which is at best uncomfortable, at worst impossible.

Working mothers keep their guilt to themselves, because they are well aware that society is waiting in the wings with buckets of the stuff to tip over them at every opportunity. Every time a new and judgemental report comes out about how it is ‘better’ for children if they don’t go into daycare until the age of three, or – worse again – exposing the sometimes shocking inadequacies of our crèche system, working mothers everywhere respond by trooping the colour; putting their bravest face on over deep despair, and setting forth. Some produce the economic argument – ‘I can’t afford not to work. I don’t have a choice, and so I refuse to be made to feel miserable about possible repercussions on my children.’ Others will insist that ‘working mothers are good role models, and my kids do not need me hovering around them 24 hours a day.’

The debate is always defensive

Both have a perfectly valid point to make, but the problem is that any debate is always defensive. There is so much judgement around mothers and whether they work or not (think how vicious the media gets around ‘welfare mothers,’ even though they are ostensibly doing something ‘good’, which is staying at home with small children), that the automatic starting point for any discussion on the matter is not honest admission, it is the sound of heels being dug in on both sides.

And so these working mothers may not know that stay-at-home mothers often feel guilty too. Not all, of course, but many. I have at various times over the last ten years heard mothers who don’t work outside the home confide that they feel they are not setting the best example to their children. That they worry they have wasted their education and experience and are not inspiring their children, boys and girls alike, to believe that women can achieve in the world. Ask these at-home mothers what they wish for their daughters, and the response is often ‘a good career,’ rather than ‘a chance to stay at home.’

Setting an example

Meanwhile, the world is a vastly more expensive place than ever before, and it is pretty unlikely that our kids are going to succeed without financial help from us. And so, other stay-at-home mothers, having absorbed the inevitable loss of income that comes with not working, agonise that when the time comes for their children to launch themselves, these same children will think ‘Gosh, I’d take the loan of a deposit on a house over all those afternoons playing Animal Snap, any day.’ Those same women worry that they will have given so much to child-rearing that, when the children are gone, they will have a hard time filling their days. ‘I don’t want to one of those parents who clings,’ a friend said recently, as she tried to reconcile herself to a teenage daughter who had abruptly lost interest in spending any time with her.

Elsewhere, there are mothers who feel conflicted and frustrated, who would like to work, but don’t wish to leave their children. Their fear is that this frustration will seep into domestic life, like water through a sandbag, and prevent them being the mothers they would like to be. Anyone who has ever spent a cold wet afternoon in the house, snapping at small children and secretly wondering where all the strategic tolerance formerly displayed to co-workers has gone, will empathise with that.

‘Choice’ is quite often a fantasy

The thing is, all of these worries – of both working and non-working mothers – are nonsensical, in that most of us do not – cannot – plan our lives in clinical isolation. We do what we have to do, when we have to do it. Sometimes circumstances change and we do something different, or we find that we can no longer continue as we were, and we so move heaven and earth in order to do something else. If we’re lucky, we get a break and can maybe take a few years off, or go part-time. But ‘choice’ in the way of a set of possibilities between which we can carefully select the most appealing, is not just a luxury, it is quite often a fantasy.

And yet we feel guilty anyway. Guilt may not be the defining emotion of motherhood, but it is certainly one of the most consistent. Like death and taxes, it’s a sure thing. A nasty little virus, it burrows into so much of what we do and rots it from the inside. And the fact that it is a useless emotion, depressing rather than galvanising, doesn’t stop us. However, we are probably better at calling it in others than ourselves.

And so when the working mother begged us to stop that morning, we stopped. And then we rushed to remind her of the important things – ‘your children are lovely, and happy, and they accept their world for what it is.’ Because another of the Things People Regret Before They Die is not being kind enough.

Emily Hourican is a journalist with the Sunday Independent and author of How To Really Be A Mother, a funny, honest examination of modern motherhood. Follow her on twitter @EmilyH71

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