(1/3) This story forms the first part of a 3-part story series, exploring the experience of parental burnout. Follow The Hard Truth to be notified of the next release.
As she reaches over to her baby, Daisy, to feed her another spoonful of breakfast, she can smell burnt toast in the distance. Bugger. She runs over to the toaster and, as she does, she notices the time on the oven clock. I’ve got to get to work, she murmurs to herself. Tooommm… She yells out. Her 6 year old comes bounding into the room. Great, she sighs a sense of relief… And I thought getting Tom ready was going to be a mission.
She looks at her watch. Ok it is 8am now and the meeting is at 9am. She glances up and realises Tom has managed to get undressed from his school uniform and is standing there proudly in his school swimming speedos.
What are you doing, Tom? You need to get to school I told you I had this big work meeting this morning, she says tersely. Tom looks at her for a moment and she can see tears beginning to well in his eyes, while she hears Daisy whimper in the background.
The guilt begins to swell inside of her. I am sorry, I didn’t mean to speak poorly. Can you please put your uniform back on? She asks while trying to juggle feeding Daisy with her other hand without looking.
As she looks back to Daisy, she realises there is vomit on her dress. Oh my gosh, I am sorry Daisy you’ve been sick and mummy didn’t notice. The feeling grows. She uses one hand to start cleaning Daisy’s mouth and the vomit down her front as she flicks her other hand to Tom. Please just put on your school clothes Tom.
She looks down at her watch again, 8:15am. She is going to be cutting it fine. This will be the fifth week in a row where she has been late to an important meeting. Her manager has been so understanding but she feels she is still letting her and the team down. The feeling inside builds further.
Tom returns to the room as she finishes cleaning up Daisy. He has his school uniform on but hasn’t lifted his eyes up from looking at the floor. What’s wrong now, Tom? She asks impatiently.
I think you’ve forgotten it is my school swimming carnival today, Mum. I assume you can’t come, he says as he kicks his foot with half a sock on to the floor.
While taking a short breath in, she closes her eyes, feeling the overwhelming ball of emotion grow bigger and bigger inside. Her mind is going a thousand miles an hour and she can see the vague memory of a swimming carnival and promising Tom that she would be there because she missed the last one.
As she opens her eyes again, she squeezes out the words, I am sorry, sweetie, I did forget.
She looks deeply at Tom’s sad face and back at Daisy when she realises she hasn’t managed to clean her all up as she had thought with bits of food still down her front. She can see Daisy whimpering away and Tom still hasn’t lifted his eyes off the floor.
She stands there, just wanting to cry. The guilt at full momentum now.
As she lowers her head, her body jolts at the sound of a text message coming through. It is her manager.
She reads, “Hey. I am assuming you cannot make the meeting. We’ve waited 20 minutes but will proceed with the meeting if OK.” Confused, she looks at her watch and realises there was dried baby food on it, and it is actually 9:20am.
She lets out a big sigh and feels this unusual sense of apathy sweep her body. She lets herself sink in the feeling, looking at Tom then Daisy and feels indifference.
As the feeling sinks further, she notices it and feels this weird disconnection from where she is and who she is. She shakes the feeling.
Come on, Tom, let’s get you to school.
I always think about what it must feel like to be a working parent would be the same as those pin ball machines where you have to make sure the ball doesn’t fall into the hole, which seems like an easy enough task, but there are also twenty different things in the machine making noises, distracting you, pulling you from one direction to the next. You can watch the ball fly to the top, then slowly drop down, then it will go at warp speed in multiple directions that your eyes aren’t even capable of keeping up.
It feels as though this small round ball is being pulled in all directions, knocking over things in the process, surprising you every once in a while, and instead of it being a fun arcade game, it is called parenting.
This analogy is what I refer to as the impossible role of the working parent.
I remember in one of my very first jobs, I was 21 years old, I had just moved to England and a woman from the finance team had got ready to go home, and said to me “OK, well I am off to my other job now”. Being naive and young, when she said it, I thought “You work two jobs? Wow!”, then I went on to realise what she meant was that she was going home to her kids, and that being a mum was essentially like having another job. Of course, a different job, but one that still requires patience, persistence, energy, and an ability to handle the wide array of emotions that come with being a parent.
You just don’t stop. After your ‘professional’ job, you don’t get to go home to have a bath or get to spend 30 minutes to yourself. You go home to chaos, to kids running around, vying for your attention….and all the while, the guilt from feeling as though you aren’t succeeding at work or home builds up in the back of your mind.
It doesn’t help that we live in a world of social media that makes many parents feel like they are never doing enough, like they are on a treadmill going too fast, as though that they cannot stop for a moment to enjoy the roles that they’ve chosen to take on.
The reality is that the perfect parent doesn’t exist, and the idea of being able to ‘perfectly’ balance is a mystical idea that cannot be achieved when you’re a working parent. Despite this, there is this level of expectation that all parents must be perfect parents with perfect children with a perfect amount of balance between work and home. It is an unspoken expectation that parents can do it all. It drives this inconceivable perfectionism that truly doesn’t exist.
Inconceivable perfectionism drives guilt, shame, fear, and feelings of not being good enough. Not because you actually aren’t good enough, but because the world tells us we should be better.