I’m going to pose a dilemma.
It’s one that might present in clearly defined black and white – as it has in my experience and in my protagonist’s, let’s call her Alice – or it might have emerged in blurredlines and shades of grey.
But it’s one that is faced, to some degree, at some point, in some shape, by almost all the women I know. Our flaky job descriptions mean there are always hard choices to make.
Alice is married with young children; she is a Good Mother, that much is evident in the way she stoops to speak to her small son, answers her daughters’ interminable answers. Alice gave up a career in London, ‘I was good at it’, she says, a little forlornly, so that I am in no doubt that she misses the camaraderie, dressing up for the office, the daily need for mascara, a slick of lippe, the clearly defined parameters of her ninetofive day.
But Alice’s husband has a bigimportant job that has taken them to a remote corner of the world. His Career takes precedence over hers, because he gets paid more, because the children are little, because it’s just the way it has to be.
Alice, though, questions the fait accompli that has been thrust before her. She isn’t sure what to do; isn’t sure of the Right Thing To Do. In the briefest passage of time she has gone from single career girl to wifeandmother. Her role has been picked up and shaken so vigorously she feels disorientated: which way is up, which way is down.
She asks my advice.
What ought I tell her?
Put the Kids’ needs first: that’s the right thing to do
Listen Alice, honey, you’re a mother right? Your first responsibility must be to the kids. They’re small and defenseless and can’t effect change themselves; they can’t make the choice you know they’d make if they had the voice, the muscle, to do so: you’ve got to make the right choice for them.
And they can’t be expected to live in the sticks, with no exposure to other little people; they need the opportunity to develop social skills or god knows what they’ll be like when they get back to the real world! They’ll be awkward and withdrawn and you’ll be left picking up the pieces and end up in some shrink’s office as you weep about being a bad mother.
Your husband’s job is to support his family financially, yours is to support your children emotionally. And anyway, what on earth are you going to do about school stuck out there! No, they need to go mainstream school so you need to make a plan. And don’t’ even think about home school – they’ll drive you mad when they won’t sit still or refuse to do set tasks. You’ll just end up fighting with them and upsetting yourself. And anyway people who home school always end up wearing really bad shoes and ghastly elasticated waist bands in their skirts. Homeschooled means Homemade. Hobbled together. You won’t be able to lay on Competitive Sport – who is your son going to play cricket with? Your daughters won’t be able to have ballet classes. Besides, homeschooled kids are just plain weird.
What your children need is a well rounded and recognizable education that sustains them throughout their lives; they need the very best start.
Your job is to make sure they get it.
Put your Husband first; that’s definitely the way to go
Listen Alice, honey, you were a wife before you were a mother, right? He came along first and the kids second. He’s going to be around long after they vanish to boarding school or university. Long after they’ve grown up and flown the nest.
If you make a child centric choice now you’re in serious danger of finding yourself unable to give them space later, you’ll be forever striving for attachment to the kids, your apron strings at risk of strangling the life out of them. And you’ll look needy. God. Don’t look needy.
And imagine if whilst you’re living away so the children can go to school he takes up with some other woman. Have you considered that? Absence may well make the heart grow fonder, in the short term, but ultimately, inevitably, it will make the attentions wander. Men are just like that. You’ll grow apart and he’ll always remember that he played second fiddle; he’ll never get over that – men have chinafragile egos. You’ll never be able to make up for what you took from him – from your partnership – when you made the decision to put the kids first. You need to stay connected and you won’t if you move to the other end of the country/world just to make sure your kids get the accepted prescribed education.
If you gouge a gap in your relationship now, for the children’s sake, you’ll never be able to plug it; there will forever be a hole, a space, when you ought to have been together, raising the kids as a team, a proper family. Imagine all the important lost moments, the conversations you could have, should have, had but never did because your separate lives meant what you had to say to each other began to lose context.
And kids learn anywhere. Home school them! Don’t be bullied into believing there’s only one way to skin a cat. Think outside the box. Imagine the adventure! Your husband will be so proud of you; demonstrating you can be wife, mother and teacher! You’ll lend your kids CVs such an unusual slant; give them the edge at their Oxbridge interviews.
This is an opportunity to extend yourself. And anyway, the kids would much prefer to have mum and dad together in one home than go to conventional school.
Break the mould; what better lesson could you give your kids?
Put yourself first. Numero Uno. It’s a No Brainer
Listen Alice, honey, you were YOU first, long before you were wife and mother, right?
Don’t let either role define you entirely or you’ll find yourself swallowed whole, your identity compromised and – over time – and trust me on this – your sense of direction and selfworth eroded. Hang onto a bit of yourself. Hang on hard.
And whilst you’re at it, practice saying No. Out loud. In front of the mirror. Articulate the word clearly. As if you mean it. No I can’t play Lego with you now I am going to have a nice hot bath. No I cannot help you with that report now, I am catching up on the news. No you cannot watch the cricket, I’m watching this.
Sure the kids need you when they’re small, but they need a mother who’s going to stand well as a self-contained role model in the long term, not one that’s going to cling because she hasn’t got a clue what else to do with herself because this, this business of mothering, is all she remembers how to do. You want your kids to know as the cool person you were. You want them to proud of you, your achievements, you don’t want them ushering you off the phone when they’re 22 because you have nothing interesting to relate?
And your husband? Hang onto his every word, be at his perpetual beck and call and I promise you there’ll come a time when the kids have grown up and flown off and you’ll find you don’t have a fulfilling role at home anymore and nor do you have the attention of the man you married.
And you are too old/out of touch/riddled with self doubt to find engagement in the workplace.
You’ll have lost your looks (Alice is young and beautiful, the question mark that creases her brow as a frown as she ponders her dilemma hasn’t get ironed itself firmly to her complexion, there is no grey at her temples, the backs of her hands are smooth) and your figure (Alice is thin. Bitch) and all of that will conspire to further pick at your confidence.
Your husband will have grown accustomed to Taking You For Granted (if you made it that easy), he’ll have stopped hearing what you say (mostly because you don’t have anything new to tell). He’ll thumb texts whilst you respond to the question he has asked. The obligatory How Was Your Day. Why does he ask, you think to yourself sadly? He’s not listening. Tell him you seduced the milkman/postman/gardener and he won’t register. He’ll mumble, ‘hmmm … hmmm … hmmm?’ and then he’ll get up and say, ‘Sorry Darling I must just make this call’. And you hadn’t even got to the climax.
So consider the Big Picture and do what works for you in the long run; nurture your own sense of self and you will forever remain interesting and enigmatic, self assured and self contained. You’ll be glad you did. And so, I imagine, will your husband and kids.
PS This is my 500th post. For so many reasons, on so many levels, and in the context of this blog and who I am, this is exactly the right post for that milestone.