Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Musings on motherhood, work and childcare

Just came back from seeing the big boss with the small boss. Every year, he makes a song and dance out of giving us our performance bonuses. I see him with my immediate boss and he shakes my hand, gives me the envelope, I open it, he asks if it is satisfactory, we chat for a while, then he shakes my hand again and I make my exit. Painless. The bonus is a nice touch and as I tell him, it will be squirreled away for the Japan trip.

This time though, he hands me another envelope. It is my contract for working half-time. Signed and approved by the head honchos.

I am glad that they have approved it for yet another year. Phew. Every year, I have to re-apply to keep working half-time. And every year, at this time, I hold my breath and see if it is approved.

Looking back, its been six years since I started working half-time. Ever since Caitlin was born. And in that time, I have also chalked up several months (easily more than a year's worth in total) of no-pay leave at various points when Owain and Trinity came along.

I realise how lucky I am that my bosses support this. Not many bosses will. Once upon a time though, it did seem as if they would not support this as well and we locked horns over a television interview I gave on the lack of support that mothers faced from employers, as well as a private email that went to then-DPM Lee. But we've since worked it out and things have been smooth ever since! :-)

Whenever I tell people I work part-time, they go: "Oh you're so lucky!"

But they don't realise that there is a price to pay. On the pro side, yes I get to spend time with the kids when they are growing, I get the time to do my own stuff eg the Grad Dip, BirthRight etc. Its also easier to nurse for a longer time than I otherwise would - less pumping in the office, which is a personal ugh for me!

On the con side, I do lose half my income. All my benefits are slashed by half. And at home, it does not mean that things are hunky-dory all the time - it can be equally, if not more, stressful to stay home and manage things on the homefront - homework, exams, sick kids, fighting kids, sulky kids, whiny kids etc.

I work 2.5 days a week. These are flexible as there are times when work calls and I work longer hours or different days. But, as I have been telling a good friend of mine, I have to keep shifting mindsets - mentally prepping myself for a work day the night or day before, recapping what needs to be done in the office, what projects are outstanding, meetings I have to attend etc. Even the kids have to keep up at remembering which days I work and which days I stay home! Sometimes it gets a bit schizo and I wish I could just fix it - either stay home or work full-time!

Recently on AP there is a lot of discussion/debate on childcare vs maid. I've been-there-done-that for both childcare, maid-care right down to my current arrangement.

Gillian went to childcare at 18months. And I remember she bawled the place down every morning for weeks. Yes, my heart broke, but I steeled myself to just leave her, believing that it was 'normal' for them to cry and consoling myself that since the CC was on the premises of the polytechnic, it would be no problem to drop by ever so often to see her. Of course, this never took off - work called and I could never walk the length of the campus just to pop in and see her. The one time I tried she howled as I left and I thought it might be just kinder to avoid the stimulus and anxiety for her by not coming at all.

At first, I liked the idea of childcare - the convenience, the idea that she was learning something 'useful' and 'productive'. It was also charming to see - all the cute little kids in a row, marching off to the toilets/bathroom to bathe, all of them sleeping on tiny mattresses for the afternoon nap etc.

But then little things niggled at me. It bothered me that the kids were put in front of a tv every day for the last 2 hours of the day. The fact that childcare is run by a regimented schedule was sold to me as a child "learning to be independent". But how does a child learn independence or exercises choice when he has to toe the line as to when to sleep, when to eat, when to learn, when to bathe etc?

Also, none of the teachers ever picked up on the fact that Gillian was inordinately clumsy. They also chalked the fact that she was moving around to chat rather than finishing her seat work as just "being a little busy-body!" The lack of form or structure in her drawings, even colouring did not ring alarm bells. Yet all these were very subtle signs of what we later discovered to be ADHD. The last straw for us came when she was bitten - twice - by a classmate. We realised that despite there being two teachers, it was still hard to manage a class of 18 kids and to give each individualised attention. And that's just what little children need - loving attention.

So when it came to Isaac, I said no childcare - he stays home. With a maid. At my mother's place. The catch was, my mother worked too, so did my dad and Isaac was left pretty much alone with the maid - Muri. I use the word maid here deliberately. I don't think she was cruel to him, but I guess she was just indifferent - he was just someone to feed, change, bathe etc. Not to engage with, read to, play with, talk to etc. Mel, Isaac's therapist, later told me that she thought he was "under-stimulated" which could have contributed to the set of autistic behaviors he displayed. Would more loving attention have made the difference? Had I someone like Lolita instead of Muri, to care for baby Isaac, would things have been different?

See how my parenting experiece is like? All trial and error! I can only hope my kids don't end up warped for life thanks to their bumbling mother!

When, after five long years, we decided to have another baby and Caitlin came along, I decided that I had to be there for them. I did not want to miss out on their early years, I no longer believed in childcare and I didn't think a maid alone would be able to handle things. Moreover by then, we had just diagnosed Gillian to be ADHD, dyslexic etc.

So that was the beginning of my journey to be a part-time employee. I believe children thrive on one-to-one care and attention and bonds need to be built between caregivers and their charges. While this person should best be mummy, I don't think the bond would be any less powerful or effective if it were someone else. If the mother was dysfunctional to begin with, showed indifference, was abusive or failed to interact responsively or positively with the child, perhaps that child would be better off under the care of someone else.

I do not agree with the government push to have more babies only to farm them out to infant care centres. How well can these centres respond to the needs of the baby who needs to feel secure, to form an attachment to one caregiver as opposed to a rotating roster of care-givers? Do we think these babies don't know any better? How we underestimate them then! Do we think that care is equivalent to a good speech/drama/maths/art programme? Why do we often equate good care with a good learning programme? IMO, they are two separate issues. Often, the best care is just simply to accompany the child on his journey and not foist things onto him that he may not be ready for or interested in!

When women nowadays say they don't want to be mothers because they feel they cannot deal with the commitment and responsibilities that mothering requires, I applaud them for their honesty! Yes, better not to have children if you feel unable to live up to the responsibility or if you feel that the opportunity cost of career and lifestyle is too high.

I think people have to understand that mothering is tiring and demanding. It does have responsibilities, commitments and the self will have to take a number and join the queue for attention because for a couple of years at least, baby does come first - 24/7/365! And if you can't deal with that, better not be a parent.

I may sound like I believe motherhood to equate with matyrhood. I don't. Mothers are not saints. I do have my share of resentful moments when I can't believe what I was thinking when I decided to have five children and all the baggage that that entails! Probably wasn't doing much thinking at that time - haha! And I do screw up - pretty often actually.

But I also believe that there is a time and place for everything. And for the baby's first year or years of life, they do have to come first. We owe them that much. There is plenty of time, in my opinion, left for uninterrupted sleep, facials, careers, friends, shopping, after-dinner drinks at the pubs, travels etc. As they grow older, we will gradually have more time for ourselves and our lives.

With five kids, I am slowly getting there. But meanwhile, I guess I'll just enjoy one more year of half-time work and more time with the kids! Next year, who knows?


Cory said...

you 4got to mention KH in your journey. was he supportive?

i haven't logged on to AP for the longest time. as you know la, i currently have my own battle on becoming a SAHM.

all i can say is, we do the best we can....

Momto5 said...

hey cory, you're right, I didn't mention KH. He has been supportive largely.

The key issue between us, if any, really has got to be that of financial independence. Some time ago on the blog, I did mention feeling invisible at one point.

I dislike the feeling of being reliant on someone financially. I like the fact that I have my own money and can do whatever the heck I want with it.

But there have been times, when the moolah ran low, the tension ran high.

Also, have to say that he sometimes, I guess like many out there, assume that a sahm's time means 100% kid time. Or many assume that if one stays at home then one is "very free"! Can't be further from the truth and sometimes he gets my dander up when he assumes that I am there "all the time" so I should do xxx or whatever.

But other than those lil moments, the guy has largely been a sweetie pie about this and encourages me to stay p/t for as long as poss.

He only draws the line at me quitting totally - can't take the heat of being sole breadwinner haha!

Momto5 said...

And to add - when I first went p/t, we were worried abt managing financially. but as time went on, we just rolled with the punches and things were ok!

sometimes i think it harder to take the plunge if one thinks too much abt it. the cliff looks scarier before the jump kwim?

also reiterates our belief (and he strongly believes in this despite being a non-catholic) that God will provide. Somehow He just will. He won't give too much or too little, but will give just enough. And that is all right. :-)

The Chengs said...

Yes, it's definitely scarier the longer you take to think about it.

That's why I thot abt it, told DH, and then quit. Poor DH didn't have much time to react. He was just in a new company that they had just started back then, so actually he was wary.

But we just have to make the best of situations. Like Survivor.