I was sitting outside a coffee shop this morning with my husband and son, and I happened to overhear the following snippet of conversation:
1st woman: “I saw x last week, she was complaining about the children.”
2nd woman: “What was she saying?”
1st woman: “She said she would do anything for a lie-in, and I thought, well you did choose to have them!”
2nd woman: “What can she expect?!”
I don’t know if these women have children of their own but they didn’t have any with them. Abundantly clear, however, was the assumption that because the woman under discussion had chosen to have children, she had automatically abdicated the right to desire anything for herself. The tacit agreement between the two women seemed to be that, because we have chosen to have children, we are automatically forbidden from embracing in life anything other than childcare and domesticity.
Of course we know that life is never going to be the same again and of course the welfare of our children must and always will come first with the majority of parents. But that shouldn’t mean that there can’t be space in our lives for the little things. Maybe, just once or twice in the next 18 years, we would like a lie in or a night out. Or have 5 minutes peace. Or maybe all three! Not all in the same day, of course. I used to wonder why women would smoke when they had children in the house, even if they went into the garden. Now I understand completely; it’s five minutes of peace and quiet, time to themselves.
I wonder what the women would have said if it had been a father voicing this need for more. Do we say to fathers, ‘well, you did choose to have them?’ How outraged are we when a father expresses the wish for a lie-in? And how much more likely is he to be facilitated in that, do we think? I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I do know is that this woman was voicing only the desire for a lie-in, not a fortnight’s holiday in Barbados, just a lie-in, every now and then: a little thing. Even if it’s practically difficult to organise, perhaps as a single parent for example, she should still have the right to express her need without this kind of smug reaction from other women.
All parents are different and some aspects of having children will bother us more than others. For example, I don’t mind the early mornings and don’t particularly crave a lie-in, but I do find that the chronic lack of even a few consecutive minutes of peace and quiet does bother me. I have a friend who doesn’t seem to be aware of the noise level produced by her children but does notice the state of constant disarray into which her house has descended since their arrival. Another doesn’t care about the chaos but does mind the early mornings. Different things will push different buttons in different parents and I do not believe that having a child automatically means that we no longer have any right to the things that once made us feel human and grown up.
I think this is why I’m so irritated by the phrase ‘stay at home mum’ when it’s applied to me (others are entitled to use it if they wish). Stay at home is the last thing I do, with or without my child. It feels like a judgement and makes me sound as if I have opted out of the world and chosen only the safe domain of my own four walls. Good luck to anyone who has done that and is content, it doesn’t suit me. I may be a full time mum, but I’m still a social human being too. At least I was, the last time I checked properly. Poorly informed comment of the kind displayed by those women this morning only serves to indicate how much retaining an identity of our own really matters.