I remember a work colleague of mine from some years ago, who regularly told me that work was easier than looking after his kids. "The office is a break for me," he used to say, "I'm heading home now to the real job". I didn't have children at the time and I assumed he was exaggerating. In fact, as the work we were doing at the time was very challenging, I thought it was a form of self-praise - a humble-brag of sorts.
Three kids and six years later, I understand what he meant.
Debates about whether it's easier to be at work or at home regularly come up in real life and online - many parents who work outside the home freely admit that it's easier to be in the office, while many others are envious of their friends who are at home full-time, and don't have to deal with juggling work and home; early morning crèche runs, late evening homework and round-the-clock guilt.
To scientifically* assess which is easier in my own life, I compared my four days in the office last week with my one day at home (*not very scientific at all).
Some of the good stuff from my days in the office last week:
Lunch with a good friend - our first without children for a long time - there were actual uninterrupted conversations.
Many, many cups of tea, all of which were hot, all of which were consumed in peace at my desk, and none of which were interrupted by requests for crackers, crayons or a trip to the playground.
Finishing up each day feeling I'd achieved something concrete - meetings that went well and deadlines that were met. The "I've used my brain today" satisfaction.
And some challenges from my Friday at home:
Toddler meltdowns because I cut his toast into four pieces and couldn't stick them back together, I put milk in his cereal before he was ready, and I wouldn't let him play with a scissors.
Preparing, serving and cleaning up after eighteen meals (well, three, but it felt like eighteen)
A very cross six-year-old who felt aggrieved at our lack of art supplies, prompting me to say "You know, when I was small we had no art supplies - we made everything from cereal boxes and tin foil" - I guess we do all become our parents.
A huge mess on the kitchen table after some art work finally took place, and the toddler used his hands for paint-brushes.
Then again I could put it another way:
Some challenges from my four days in the office last week:
Leaving the house at 7am, waving goodbye to my toddler as he stood at the front-door in his pyjamas - feeling that tug of guilt.
Working non-stop to make sure I'd be out of the office on time, then rushing home, caught in traffic, worrying about being late for my childminder.
Arriving home to hear my toddler had fallen and cut his head - it could have happened just as easily if I was there - but still, I wasn't there.
Rushing. Just rushing, constantly. Each day running into the next, never feeling quite on top of anything. That's hard.
And some of the good stuff from my Friday at home:
Squeezy toddler hugs and "I sowwy mummy" after every meltdown.
A visit from a friend and her kids followed by actual grown-up coffee time while the kids played, and some only partially interrupted conversations.
Delight from my daughter when I found a box of buttons and ribbons for her planned art-work resulting in a "You're the best mum ever" pronouncement.
The suppressed-smile-fun of watching my toddler use his hands for painting - yes it's messy, but when he's happy, we're all happy.
My younger daughter asking me if I'll still be off on Fridays when she starts school. "So you'll be able to collect me and do stuff in the afternoons? Friday is my favourite day!" she said, pushing away any niggling doubts about whether or not this unpaid leave is worth it.
For me, my comparison confirms what I already suspected; working outside the home at times makes my life more difficult and at times is exactly what I need. And being at home with my kids is at times very stressful and at times absolutely wonderful.
And I'd guess that that's how it is for many mothers - neither one way nor the other is "harder"; it's all hard at times, and it's all wonderful at times.
To fine-tune that generalisation a little; I would suggest that working outside the home can make the overall juggle very challenging at a macro level, but that at any given moment during the day (and depending on the job), it's probably easier.
I mean, sitting at my desk at work is easier than cleaning paint off toddler hands, but then again, work doesn't do hugs.
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