Life as a working parent is a constant juggling act. Should the children’s primary caregiver be able to travel for work?
The guilt. Nothing in the trip preparation could prepare you for the guilt of leaving your children behind. In a workplace dominated by Standard Operating Procedures (handily shortened to SOPs) funnily enough there isn’t one called “how to leave behind your under 5s” or infact one titled “10 step SOP to guilt-ousting”, nor “running your home from the road”.
No-one really wants me to go, it’s a battle from the beginning. Husband is generally supportive, tolerates the need and bears the brunt of the extra work. Parents also tolerate it and sometimes find it hard to grasp why I need to do this in order to do a good job. Why do I even work? Some people wonder, we could survive if I didn’t it’s true.
I work for money obviously, but also for me. There is a person in there somewhere who is not just a mother/wife/homemaker, she has an identity and before her (adored) children arrived she had some sort of career. I am no high flyer but I have always loved my job and felt fortunate. Whilst friends earned (and still earn) buckets more than me my work is interesting and takes me to corners of the world where tourists have no reason to go, sometimes where tourists have never been. I meet people who live a life so far removed from my middle class suburban bubble it brings me smack down to earth.
So back to the trip. A Reconnaissance or “recce” to Bolivia which I had squeezed into 12 days including flights. In reality the trip needed probably 4 more days but the childcare was impossible. Two weeks of exhausting juggling is what it takes to even arrive at the airport. Long days at the office organising the recce and meeting other deadlines, hectic organising of childcare for whilst I am away, list after list after list.., instruction writing for each day of absence.
Packing for one is of course a breeze after packing for three and a baby, but packing whilst looking after two children is a very slow process. In between periodically running to stop Baby putting her hands down the toilet and never ending shouts of “mummy” from Elder Daughter echoing around the house, somehow I have a bag full of work kit, uniform and enough jumpers to survive an arctic expedition ready.
In the car we all merrily go. Elder Daughter chats on as usual, talking about how many friends she has and naming them, surmising about when the first road was ever built, and telling tales on Baby who is contentedly throwing toys around the back seat. That’s my normal life, and within a few minutes it’s gone. A heartfelt hug with Elder Daughter at the drop off zone (last words are “don’t forget to text Daddy when you’ ve bought my present”), an oblivious cuddle from Baby and a nervous hug from Husband who knows what is about to come. Then I am alone.
What does that even feel like? It’s so long I can’t remember. I carry only food for myself and one bag. I can make my own decisions and I am responsible for only myself. It’s a surreal feeling for a while as I breeze in a peaceful, calm manner through check-in, passport control and security, arriving at the gate early. (Manner I am now more accustomed to would be arriving in frazzled state at the gate loaded down like a camel with Baby crying/ needing changing and Elder Daughter tantruming about something).
For every moment of savouring this peace the guilt inches itself through my brain. How can I expect him to cope alone for 12 days? Will they eat any vegetables? Will Baby develop an attachment disorder whilst looking under the sofa for me? Will Elder Daughter behave badly due to family instability?
“Someone else could go” chorused Parents and Husband when I broke the news. Yes it’s true. I am part of a team of twenty/thirty-somethings who could up and leave tomorrow, but why should they? The results of this recce will shape my working life for the next 8 months at least and not only that, they will also make my job infinitely easier. Why should I have to depend on someone else to do this?
If Husband had to go somewhere would anyone actually comment? No. The house would continue to run. Vegetables would be consumed, homework would be done and stories would be read. *
*Possibly at the expense of my sanity
No one would say “how could he?” or suggest his colleague could do his work for him. I will miss them everyday with physical pain, but that doesn’t mean my work is less important because I am also a parent. Most importantly they will know that Mummy does have a life away from them and they will grow up accustomed to the fact that a Mummy’s contribution to the work place/economy is as valuable as a Daddy’s.
I arrive back 12 days later to a slightly indifferent baby and a joyous 5 year old. Those moments are both so special. About a week later Elder Daughter says to me “Mummy I can’t wait to have a baby in my tummy (cue huge gulp from me) but I do want to be a teacher as well. I think i can do both”. Watch this space.