Like so many parts of motherhood, the first day of school is bittersweet. Your heart melts at the sight of your child walking along with a backpack that’s half their size. You feel proud as they walk through the doors of the school – maybe timidly, or perhaps bravely forging ahead. You know you’ll miss them, but you breathe a sigh of relief at the return of structure and routine. It’s complicated, as all things parenting are, and we all feel it a little bit differently.
For me, the wave of relief that comes with back to school is rooted in mom guilt. Stupid, terrible, irrational mom guilt that gets us all sometimes, one way or another. It hits me hardest in the summer, and fades mercifully in the fall. Why? Because I’m a working mom.
This isn’t about working moms having it worse than stay at home moms do. I don’t feel that way, and I know it’s not true. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and none of us have it easy. Raising kids is amazing and tough no matter how much or little you work, and no parent is without their struggle. But my personal demon is directly related to being a working mom with kids in full-time care all summer long, and how that creates a divide in my mind. Not between myself and the other moms, mind you – between my kids and some of their friends. The SAHM/SAHD crowd…the children of teachers…the children with grandparents who step in as caregivers while their parents work. Pretty much anyone who isn’t paying a teenaged stranger to look after their children, basically. That’s what I do. And I feel bad about it.
But wait, you say. Summer camp is awesome! Well, yeah…it is. My kids loved it (they damn well better have, for nearly $500 a week). They haven’t stopped talking about how much fun they had. There was a week of art camp, a week of science camp, nature adventure camps in the woods…they did it all and had a blast. BUT I STILL FELT BAD. They weren’t with me – their mom - and I felt like it was my fault.
During the school year, all the kids are in school. The ones with two working parents, single parents, stay at home parents, step-parents, other caregivers, whatever. School for everyone. An even playing field, in my guilt-prone mind. I go to work, and it doesn’t matter what the other parents are doing. All of our kids are at school, where they should be. I miss my kids, but that’s life – I can’t sit beside them in the classroom like a weirdo because I miss the smell of their hair when they crawl into my lap. I’m not the mom from I Love You Forever, for God’s sake…though I’m beginning to feel a little less creeped out and slightly more empathetic to her.
When summer comes along, my mom guilt creates a divide. Suddenly, all I see is the parents at home spending time with their kids. They might be going crazy but dammit, they’re spending time with their kids every day. Meanwhile, mine are at whatever camp of the week I’ve signed them up for. I use a calendar to know where they are and when I’m supposed to retrieve them. They return home with big smiles and stories of the days adventures, happy as can be and not at all looking resentful or neglected. Any yet, my heart aches.
The texts from other moms in the neighbourhood come constantly. Can we meet at the park? Do we want to come over for a swim? Can we make it to Legoland or the Science Centre later this week? YES, I want to write back. THAT SOUNDS GREAT. It never happens. “Sorry, I’m working and the kids will be at camp,” I reply instead.
I love my career and have no desire to stop working until I’m old and grey, but I feel every moment I miss with my kids. The seconds are marked on my heart. During the school year, the absence feels normal – like I said, everyone’s kids are in school. In the summer, I feel like I’ve given them away by choice. It’s a punishment I’ve given myself, illogical as it may be, but I know I’m not alone.
So as my children walked back into their school this week, I sighed with relief. The guilt eased. I felt like the earth evened out under my feet, allowing me to stand with the other moms. We were all in the same boat again, with the same bittersweet pull in our hearts when that school bell rang. Whether we had to work, chose to work, worked from home or didn’t work at all, we all walked away from the school together, and there was no more imaginary divide in my heart.