A few days ago, I snapped at a friend I haven’t spoken to in years. It was on Facebook, which I guess just makes it less surprising and more pathetic, but anyway, I did*. She put up an article entitled ‘Why have kids if you don’t want to spend time with them?’ and I thought ‘finally a piece that rips that stupid question to threads!’ and clicked on it. But the article did no such thing; it was just another entitled article describing the selfish behaviour of parents who put themselves first sometimes, who want ‘me time’, who don’t cherish every moment with their children enough.
It’s worth talking about the choices we make and how they impact on our children. Actually, it’s crucial that we do. It’s important that we, as a society, have an ongoing conversation about the needs of children and how their many relationships affect them, not least their relationships with their parents. They don’t get a say in this, so we have to take that responsibility. Articles that ask why you’d bother to have kids in the first place if you don’t want to be with them, however, don’t tick that box.
The article in question was published in a Swedish tabloid, so it must be understood in the context of Swedish norms; childcare is heavily subsidised and all children over the age of one have the right to a full-time place in crèche, most of them funded by the local council, with the huge majority of parents working. Workers have a right to a minimum of two consecutive weeks off work, and most white-collar employees take at least a full month off during the summer, with the country almost going into shut-down for two months after Midsummer. This particular article was triggered by a crèche note about planning the summer season, reminding parents of the importance of giving their children a break and spending your holidays with them.
‘All this never-ending talk of me time. I hear it everywhere,’ the writer complained, insisting that the fact that a crèche even needs to remind parents to spend time off with their kids is a sign that our need for ‘me time’ has gone overboard. And I get where she’s coming from; it’s sad that some parents feel that their children are happier and more stimulated in crèche than they are at home, and it sucks that many parents are so exhausted that they’ll consider using their holidays for a break over time with their probably just as exhausted children. What pushes all my buttons is the question: ‘Why have kids if you don’t want to spend time with them?’
I went for a morning stroll by the sea the other day before I started working. I’m lucky that my job allows me to do that, and boy did I need it; it’s been a hectic few months. But it wasn’t without a moment of guilt – because I know how people talk, and I know people like the author of that article. Where were my kids? In childcare, of course. Other times, I’ll go for a run instead of taking a lunch break – again, I’m lucky that way. I could meet a friend for a coffee at 11am and work through my lunch; if I’m really tired and stuck for inspiration, I could even wrap up early, get some fresh air, and pick up work after the kids have gone to bed at night.
Not everyone’s lucky. Many people are stuck in their remote office building even on their breaks, can’t check in on personal messages and social media in work, and can just about leave five minutes early even in exceptional circumstances. When they’re run down and having a bad month, where are they supposed to catch their breath? Compare those who live in the same town as grandparents, old friends and cousins and can easily get a Saturday afternoon to themselves to run errands or hit the gym, to those with no family support at all. No one’s asking parents why they had children in the first place when they leave them with the grandparents for the weekend, do they?
The author of the article is clearly disgusted that some parents occasionally add a few hours to their children’s schedule when they’re not actually working – hours they instead spend cleaning, resting or just enjoying themselves. The children, she argues, are stuck in crèches with overworked staff who don’t have time for the children’s individual needs. Funnily enough, she doesn’t seem to take issue with the children being there on a full-time basis. She doesn’t argue with the fact that parents have full-time jobs. No, it’s when parents stop being productive, when they’re being selfish – that’s when the children come into view. Sure if we’re working, we’re working, right?
In Ireland, the situation is different. Childcare is a costly thing – a ‘second mortgage’, we’ve come to call it – and it’s far from a given that both parents in a two-parent household will work. As there’s no such thing as paid paternity leave, bar the recently introduced two weeks, the by far most common scenario is that mothers stay at home with babies and then choose whether to return to work or not. If they do, they tend to go back much earlier than Swedish mothers – and not always by choice.
Ironically, the ‘why have kids if you don’t want to spend time with them’ question is still a thing, but in Ireland mostly directed at mothers who work. It’s funny, that – isn’t it? Swedish norms allow mothers to work, because working is the done thing and not really deemed selfish, but as soon as they clock out they become greedy if they want to do anything bar being with their kids. In Ireland, because returning to work after having a baby is a new thing, comparatively speaking, that’s what’s seen as a mother’s road to freedom – her little bit of ‘me time’, her being selfish. Why have kids if you’re going to spend all day every day in an office? Unless you’re a man, of course. If you’re a man, who knows why you’d have children at all anyway, other than to make your wife happy.
I thought about the fact that the criticism of parents, or mothers, is the same despite the culturally different norms, and I realised that there is one very clear exception to the rule in both countries. Not once did I ever hear a straight couple asked the why-have-kids question when getting a babysitter for a romantic night out. Everyone agrees that relationships require a bit of effort every now and then; couples need make-up and nice drinks and a change of scenery to keep that spark alive. See, a night with your spouse doesn’t qualify as ‘me time’, no matter how much your kids are being minded by somebody else. A woman isn’t being selfish when she’s out with her man.
‘If you choose to have one or more kids, ‘me time’ isn’t something you can take for granted the first ten years,’ writes the mother-of-two, who works as an account manager for a big IT company and still lives in the town where she grew up. I don’t know how much family and friends she’s got nearby, nor do I know how many struggling single parents she knows, how much her friends talk to her about their post-natal depression or the fact that they regret having kids and can’t wait for the next ten years to pass. ‘Being with my children beats everything else in life,’ she adds. ‘I enjoy every moment they want to be with me.’ She’s one of the good mothers, in case you’d missed her point.
But seriously though: why have kids if you don’t want to spend time with them? To those of you desperate for ‘me time’, who had kids and fear that it might have been a big mistake, those of you who love your children above all else but would kill for a day away just to remember who you are underneath it all, who are stuck in the house and haven’t been able to get out for a drink in years, those who hate your jobs but can’t manage without the salary and love the weekends with the kids but would just like to be really, really selfish and alone for once – there’s the question you should ask yourselves. I hope it helps.
*And here’s where I apologise for snapping and acknowledge that I do that to the people I love and admire all the time, because I suck at keeping my thoughts to myself and think talking stuff through is good and healthy – and, clearly, inspiring.