'Tis the first Sunday in August, and thus my self-imposed banishment has come to an end. As is customary for a person in exile, I've spent much of it thinking: about writing, about parenthood, about life. And as is customary for me, the vast majority of that thinking has ended up with me doubting my own decisions.
I'm good at that.
Call it the natural self-analysis of anyone who is forced to leave their homeland (er, this website) for a prolonged period of time (er, three weeks), but since I left, I've been questioning all sorts of things. Was I right to return to work five days a week and leave Baby Smith with someone who isn't his mother (even if, admittedly, it's his father)? Can I be a good parent and a good wife and still be a good writer, or any sort of writer at all? Is it really worth dedicating my time to blogging and interviewing when there are so many other things clamouring for my attention?
What proportion of my life do I have a right to keep for me, and what proportion do I have a responsibility to give to others?
I've visited forums on parenting sites where some of the mums are of the opinion that being a mother requires dedicating 100% of your life to your children. By that reckoning, I'm a pretty terrible one. I work, which to a certain subset of the population automatically disqualifies me from good motherhood (why have kids if you're just going to leave them with someone else?). And when I'm home, I often spend Baby Smith's naptimes and the evenings after he goes to sleep on my computer, which means certain chores get neglected to the point of, well, not being done at all. I annoy my husband, I know I do. And sometimes I annoy myself. Why can't I just focus on making a home for my family instead of indulging in what is essentially a time-consuming hobby?
The thing is, I never intended to be a working mum. Well before I had Baby Smith, I was of the opinion that I wanted my children to be looked after by one of their parents. And I always assumed that parent would be me. Yet when it came to it, it made more financial sense for me to be the one who worked full time. I have a steady job; my husband works on a freelance basis, which you'll know if you've ever done it is notorious for its unpredictability. With a bigger house to pay for and a baby to look after, we couldn't afford unpredictable. And so he got the most challenging and most important role - raising our offspring - while I went back to the office. I was torn about it, but now, if I'm honest, I'm relieved. I'm well aware that I got the lighter load.* Sure, some days are frustrating or confusing or, you know, work, but on the whole it's good to be using my brain for what it's been trained to do. I miss Baby Smith, but at the same time ... I'm glad I don't have to spend 24/7 with him.
Bad Parent Test #1: check.
And so to the writing. I'm already out of the house five days a week while someone else brings up my baby. What possible right can I have to extra time for myself? Isn't the fact that I work full time enough? Am I not, in fact, being incredibly selfish in snatching every available hour for something that isn't for my husband or my baby or us as a family, but for me?
I could argue that my job isn't for me at all - if money was no object, I'd happily give up my existing career so that Mr Smith and I could take turns raising the baby and pursuing our dreams (and, you know, maybe going on an actual date once in a while). But I don't think that's really the point. What it comes down to is the fact that I think it's more important to write than it is to clean the bathroom. And no matter how hard I try to tell myself that I should bake and sew and polish and sweep and weed, as soon as a little fragment of free time comes along, I'm right back on my computer again.
Bad Parent Test #2: check.
Yet I have a justification for all this, though perhaps not one you will agree with. It isn't the time-honoured cry of the breadwinner throughout the centuries, I work hard so I deserve a break (we've already established that's a premise built on very shaky ground). It isn't I'm doing this for my family, because one day I'll be a bestselling author earning millions of pounds; I know full well I'm doing it for me (and how remote a likelihood it is that I'll ever earn that much by writing). No, it's simply this: it makes me happy.
Yes, I know that makes me sound like the most stupid and self-absorbed person in history, but hear me out. (We're nearly at the end, I promise.)
I may pass my own bad parent tests, but I love my son. He's happy, he's healthy, he's clever and funny and affectionate. He doesn't need anything he doesn't get, physically or emotionally. And without having the balance of my other passions in my life - without writing and reading and drawing - I would lose myself. I would become less of a person. Because I firmly believe, and I have always believed, that although being a mother is a wonderful and important thing, it can't be all there is. Same with being a wife. When all the things we are to other people are stripped away, there has to be something left. Otherwise, what is it we bring the people we love? We need the ability to be happy independently of them, or we are doing no more and no less than putting the burden of responsibility for our happiness on their shoulders. And without passions of our own, how can we teach our children to find theirs?
The balance between family and self is a difficult one to get right. I still doubt my decisions. I still beat myself up over it all. But in the end, I came back from exile. Make of that what you will.
* I really mean that. Apart from maybe brain surgeon or firefighter, no job is quite as difficult or comes with quite as heavy a burden of responsibility as bringing up a child. And at least if you're a brain surgeon or a firefighter, you're not doing your job every minute of every day for eighteen-plus years. To all you men (and women) out there who come home to your childcaring partners and moan about the stress of your jobs and expect a sparkling clean house and dinner on the table, I say: get over yourselves. Seriously.