Liz Fraser, 10th November 2009
A call comes in from Radio Cambridgeshire. Can I go on Antonia Brickell’s Drivetime show again, this time to comment on a story about what makes the ‘perfect mum’? This is like asking a six-year old boy if he would like to come to the MatchAttax factory. Of course I would like to comment on this! It’s the question I ask myself and write about every day in my books and columns. In fact, it’s the question ALL mothers ask themselves and worry about, approximately four thousand times a day.
The interview comes off the back of a survey done by a parenting website, which asked 3000 children aged between 6 and 15 ‘What makes the perfect mum?’ And whaddaya know?? A whopping 75% of them said that what they wanted most of all from their mum was for her to enjoy spending time with her children. That’s it. Time. And looking like you’re enjoying it. Could anything be less difficult??
Well, yes it could, because the way most of us live, time is as rare as a smile on Victoria Beckham’s face. We are time poor, and, these days, cash poor to boot, and the people who are suffering the most are the poor little blighters who need our time the most: les enfants.
The results of this survey, somewhat obvious though they might seem, are worth taking a pause to reflect on. Sure, the kids were given some pretty out-dated things to choose from (‘makes homemade cakes’ – 65%. Wowzers, I’d better get the apron out…Or my favourite: ‘likes getting dirty in the garden’ – 41%, though I suspect this was filled in by the dads), and there was no ‘gives me loads of dosh and lets me eat sweets whenever I like’ option. And of course if you ask a kid if a perfect mum should let them watch more telly, all but the goodiest of two shoes out there will put two ticks in that box – and a healthy 71% of the those asked were honest enough to do so. But all of that aside, the results surely tell us all something we should take note of.
They tell us that kids want their parents, and in this case their mum, to be there, and ENJOY spending time with them. Not have the cleanest kitchen or a living room that looks like a Living Etc feature; not fold the laundry into neat piles or arrange the books in height order on the shelves; not even keep the toilets clean or have sex with daddy once in a while to keep him happy. No, none of these things we add to our ever-growing list of chores, jobs, stresses, worries, and, ultimately, valuable time-sappers are of any interest to our kids at all. (OK, OK, the sex bit isn’t a chore. Calm down.)
They just want us there. With them. And enjoying– or at least giving the impression of enjoying – being there.
But it’s not quite as simple as all that, and the word ‘enjoy’ turns out to be central: if you look at other studies of this kind, time and time again you see that the significant majority of children asked want their mothers to work, ideally part-time. This might seem at odds with the ‘I want to spend more time with you’ idea, but I think it’s not, and it ties in neatly with a 1999 study called Ask The Children by the American sociologist Ellen Galinsky, in which only 10 per cent of children asked wanted more time with their mothers, and instead many wished their mothers were less stressed and tired, said they hated feeling rushed, and worried about their mum. Wanting mummy to be happy comes up repeatedly in such studies.
What children seem to want is for their mummy to be happy, fulfilled and less stressed, which all ensures that the time she DOES spend with them is good, happy, stress-free time. It doesn’t have to be a lot. But what time there is together should be unhurried, enjoyable time, not time snatched between emails or hoovering.
A had an interview at a Very Big TV Production Company in London recently with the head of Very Important Things. She was a formidable woman – the kind who makes you frightened to sit wrongly in case you get a slap. She was fiercely intelligent, highly successful, immaculately turned out and smelled of authority and power from across the room. I was wowed by her and liked her enormously, even though I also wanted to run away and hide under her B&B Italia sofa. And she had something very interesting to say to me, when conversation turned to work-life balance and I admitted that I don’t have a cleaner because I wasn’t brought up to have a cleaner and I feel bone-crushingly embarrassed to ask anyone to clean my house, even though I pay them to do so and they, presumably, need the cash. She cut all the crap and told it to me straight:
Liz, this is how it is: I work long, hard days. I earn a lot of money. I like my job, but I also like my kids. When I work, I work. When I go home, I don’t work any more. I use the money I earn to pay someone to do all the shit for me: someone else cleans for me, and shops for me, and cooks for me. That leaves me free to play with my kids and give them two hours of my uninterrupted time every evening. Get a life, and get a cleaner, and give your kids some of your time.
That told me.
Of course, not all of us earn quite enough to pay for 3 members of staff, but what this no-shit lady was saying makes a huge amount of sense, and a cleaner is surely not too much to ask if you’re working every day. Even guilt-ridden people like me can offload some of the chores when we’re using our own hard-earned wonga to pay someone to do it and it improves our lives, right? When I don’t work, I have so much time on my hands I don’t know what to do with it because my kids are all at school now. So I merrily do all the house work, all day long. And why not, if I’m not working elsewhere?
But now that I’m back at work, cramming an 8-hour day into 6 hours to fit round the school day, with deadlines and emails and interviews upping the ante every hour, I’m suddenly not coping at all. I’m stupidly doing what, depending on which study you believe, anywhere from 60 to 85% of working women do: still doing all the house work and parenting duties (taking kids to piano lessons, organising play dates, filling in school trip forms, writing cheques for ballet classes etc etc) on top of my day job. And I’m consequently failing at both because I’m just knackered, thinking of a billion things all the time, and not concentrating on any of them. My Sunday was spent washing the bathroom, polishing the mirrors (we have many, many mirrors in our house!), doing five loads of laundry and hoovering the whole house. I didn’t help my daughter properly with her maths homework, or with her cello practice or play with my son and his pirate Lego, which he had been waiting all week to do.
I was, in short, a very very very crappy mummy indeed, giving my kids the very opposite of what they needed, and I felt TERRIBLE about it.
So something’s gotta give, and as of today I choose the housework, not the relaxed, good time with my kids. Desperate mum seeks good, reliable cleaner for immediate start. All offers welcome…