I don't know the names of my seven-year-old's friends - and that's okay

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty 

Running my seven-year-old's birthday party earlier this year, I realised I did not know the names of most of his friends.

They were all "Sweetheart" – a mob of excited, sticky-fingered sweethearts taking turns bopping each other with pool noodles.

A friend and I laughed about the gap between the imagined perfect kids' party and the messy reality, but I felt bad for having become so distant from school life that I didn't recognise our guests or their parents. I wallowed in working-mum guilt.

Looking back, I also worried about what the other mums would think of me, because I have been conditioned by a decade of parenthood to fret about this stuff.

Although it is no longer politic to mention the Mum Wars, a term that has taken on the desperate whiff of a mothballed 80s power suit, most mums will admit to tension and misunderstanding between those who work and those who don't.

We don't like to acknowledge it because it is painful, and because it casts us in a poor light. But when we're honest, we know there are many instances when we let the sisterhood down with our judgments.

We also know that fathers, for the most part, are left out of the scrum, continuing their working life post-children without missing a beat.

"It's still an issue because people choose to make it one. It doesn't need to be," says working mother-of-two Ana*. "Shut up and let people do what works for them, either because they choose to or because they have to. Surely we can realise now that it's not a competition? There's no situation that suits everyone."

Ana is right of course; no-one "wins" mothering. And yet the schism remains, despite the fact that few Kiwi mothers will not work at some point during their children's school years. Chat to mums on the hockey sidelines or over a big glass of wine, and the anecdotes tumble out.

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Working mums will mention the non-working mums they see "running for their lives", desperately exercising to maintain the interest of rich husbands (or so they assume). They will tell you they would rather give the school cash than faff about with fundraisers that will, by default, be organised by the non-working mums, who "have time for that sort of thing".

They will tell you that even if they knew the other mums at school, they couldn't make time for more friends and that makes them sad. They will tell you that sometimes they feel left out of the cool girls' club.

Non-working mums will tell you about being blanked at social events when they are asked: "What do you do?" They will tell you that their working friends say things like, "I don't know how you do it, I would get so bored at home."

They will tell you that they have been running the school sausage sizzle for so long they aren't qualified to do anything else. They will tell you that sometimes they feel left out of the cool girls' club.

Angela Meyer, co-director of Double Denim, a creative agency that focuses on the female market and undertakes research to understand it, says New Zealand women across the board are anxious, overburdened and exhausted. The company's Gender Intelligence Report, which surveyed more than 1000 women, found that 82 per cent believe society needs to be more supportive of women's choices.

"Women in New Zealand are having a really hard time," says Meyer. "We looked at the results and it was, 'Oh my God, this is a crisis here.'"

While part-time work is often presented as a solution that allows mothers to experience "the best of both worlds", it can throw up a different set of challenges, says Meyer.

For one thing, it is seen as "easy" to manage a part-time job and children, when in reality women who take on part-time roles far too often end up shouldering full-time responsibility, which is not recognised or rewarded.

"Anecdotally we had heard that part-time working mums were really struggling," says Meyer. "They don't feel like they are doing either 'job' – mothering or working – well. It is very difficult to be everything to all people. There is a perception that we should be able to manage this work-life balance and be all things to all people and, of course, we can't."

Structurally, many workplaces and schools are arranged to suit a family in which one parent works and the other is available for childcare and household management, which creates an obvious problem. As comedian and writer Michele A'Court puts it, we carry on as if it were the 1950s.

"We need flexible working hours, job sharing, and more affordable childcare that matches working hours," says A'Court. "Most workers will also be parents at some point, with a partner who is also a worker.

"I didn't look for work for the first year [after having my daughter in 1993]. During that time, one of the people I'd worked with at TVNZ encouraged me to work as a contract presenter on the lifestyle show Really Living. I resisted, she persisted. I'm really glad she did now, but at the time I felt like I was being judged as lazy or lacking ambition for wanting to parent full time, and there was a general sense that you should do both."

A'Court regrets behaving then as if she were a childless man, furiously pedalling behind the scenes to keep her mum-and-child show on the road. Separated from her daughter's father and with little support nearby, she was grateful for help from Plunket and visits from her mother.

"It was wildly frustrating to me that the people who produced TV comedy assumed everyone was childless," she says. "'We'll have a script meeting or rehearsal or shoot some time next week.' When? Which day? 'We'll let you know.' I had to plan and book childcare days in advance, so this was incredibly frustrating. I was reluctant to admit to this, to push them to plan better because I needed to plan, because I thought it made me less employable."

Her advice to mothers – and fathers – is to be honest about the challenges of parenting while holding a job. Men's voices can be particularly powerful here because they are more likely to be heard. "Don't do that thing I did of pretending you don't have a child. Say you are late because your kid sh.. the car seat – don't cover up the messiness of real life by saying you had a flat tyre."

More importantly, she says, working and non-working mothers should stop criticising each other and turn their anger in the right direction.

"Neither choice is 'perfect' because the system doesn't support either choice fully. Get mad at the fact childcare is underfunded, and paid parental leave is inadequate, or employers expect you to work like you have a 1950s wife at home."

Girls of the 80s and 90s grew up believing they could "do it all", and should want to do it all, and many now feel they were fed a lie, notes clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo. "While it's possible to parent well and succeed professionally, it's not easy and it can come at a high cost. Physical and mental wellbeing can suffer, as well as relationships."

Ana felt lucky to be able to work flexible hours while her children were young. "But it also meant if I left work early to do whatever after-school activity, I'd feel guilty walking out the door, often be on the phone while on the sidelines of whichever sport it was that day, and then completing the hours that night. It's hard and unrelenting."

When she volunteered at school for an hour a week, Ana was torn between wanting to contribute at school and needing to get on with her paid work. "Even at only an hour a week, it added a horrible layer of stress, knowing I would be late to work, even though probably nobody would have judged me for that. Eventually, I stopped because I didn't need that extra pressure, on top of everything else I was trying to fit in."

After 20 years as a stay-at-home mother, shepherding three children to school, dancing, swimming lessons and everything else, Lauren* admits she has been the judge, jury and the accused.

"It's not easy being a mum, you never get to achieve anything," she says, only half joking. "Your child is the litmus test of how good a job you're doing. If my child doesn't shine, my time is wasted at home."

Lauren has encountered many working mothers whose choices have made her uncomfortable. "You will need to make me anonymous," she says at one point, "because now my inner b.... is coming out."

She recalls the working mother she met at a party whose son was at boarding school in the same city so she would not have to deal with his after-school activities or weekend sport. Lauren considers this "outsourcing your child" and is appalled by the thought.

"I have met mothers who have to work and it's not to stay afloat, it's to have the latest BMW," she says. "I haven't bought designer shoes since I had a job."

Tracy* first felt judged as a mother when  she enrolled her infant son in daycare so she could return to work part-time.

"I need it, because my career is important to me," she says. "A caregiver commented, 'This is the youngest child who has ever been in daycare here,' and I felt like a terrible mother. I felt quite defensive about it."

Then a near-stranger who had raised three children tartly commented: "I hope you don't regret spending that time working." A close friend told her: "Babies don't belong in day care." And someone at a party said: "There's no point having kids if you're not going to look after them." No wonder she feels wobbly. Yet Tracy works just three days a week, until 3pm, when she picks up her son. The other four days are all about him. "My mum stayed  home with us and I pretty much knew I would be a working mum," she says.

"I am surprised there is still that judgment."

"Women are relentlessly critical of each other and the online world has made it scarily easy to negatively compare yourself against other women," says Karen Nimmo. "Parenting is just another way to compare yourself, but it often comes at a time when women are vulnerable: sleep-deprived, anxious, isolated, struggling with weight or body changes and adapting to their new lives. So it can take a hefty toll on mental health and wellbeing."

Nimmo says that criticism comes from a place of self-judgment. "In my experience, women judge themselves more harshly than men judge each other, or men judge women. Ideally, women should believe in their own choices, and support other women in theirs. The challenge is not to let guilt and anxiety undermine whatever you choose to do. In the end we are all building lives – not just careers – and it's important to keep a hold of that."

I recently left full-time office work. Freelancing from home allows me to organise my day to suit the school schedule and to better manage basic life stuff, such as paying bills on time. The house is tidier, the dog is getting more exercise, my boys are happier. Has my guilt been assuaged? Honestly, yes – a little. Do I still encounter the occasional unwelcome comment about how I am parenting? Yes, and I expect I always will.

* Names have been changed