on wasting my intellectual life on my children
I’m sitting in an auditorium on Hobart’s waterfront listening to a debate on ‘Women in Power’. The Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings has ditched her prepared speech and is speaking off the cuff. Young children these days, she tells a packed audience, are very fortunate. They aren’t handicapped, as children were in the past, by having a traditional mother at home who makes them feel guilty for all that she’s given up for them. ‘I have a number of working mothers in my Cabinet’, the Premier says, sweeping her arm to one side as if they might be standing beside her. And she speaks in a tone that suggests that, like global warming, the debate is now over.
Seated in the audience I feel at once naïve and middle aged. Tonight’s debate started at 6.30pm – a hellish hour for a mother of schoolchildren to be anywhere other than home. Just to arrive on time I’d cooked supper ahead, and generally squashed two hours of housekeeping into one. Hang on, I thought with a jolt, peeling off my jacket after running from my car. According to the Premier’s description I am a traditional mother. I sat there for a bit, sweating and pondering. Does this mean, I asked myself, that as my children move through their teens I’ll be making them feel guilty for my supposed overinvestment in them?
For the split second that followed Lara Giddings’s off-the-cuff comments (aged 39, no children), I was my mother. Had I wasted my best years looking after my children? Writing a PhD, publishing a book, being an ex-university lecturer and psychotherapist – none of these seemed to count. To all intents and government purposes I was a traditional mother who had wasted her intellectual dowry on her children. I may currently be working in magazines, but my friends and family know that this is just a cover. Writing and editing may keep me up late at night, but everyone knows that my real job is my family. Why else would I be living in Hobart and ironing my husband’s shirts?
Of course this is my ambivalence speaking, a tone that, in my mother’s day, was hushed up and assuaged by the odd cigarette. However my mother belonged to a moral majority of mothers who put their families first, and felt validated for doing so. Whereas I belong to a silent minority of mothers who feel split between common views about motherhood (like those of Lara Giddings’) and their private beliefs (such as children thrive on a mother’s devotion). With the result that, at least in public, I cover up the fact that I put my children first.
Over the years I’ve learnt how to dodge curly ‘and what do you do?’ question. I know that in most social situations it’s the work that I do which makes me interesting to others, and not the mother that I always am. For years, on leaving parties early, to get back to the babysitter, I’d stare through the car’s windscreen and ask myself this question. Is devoting myself to my family some kind of mistake that I’ve made? Like losing my bankcard, or marrying the wrong man? And then I’d get home, chat to the babysitter, check on my children asleep in their beds, and know that it wasn’t.