There was one watershed day when my eldest child, Flo, was around six months old that the whole charade of being able to juggle a freelance writing career with childcare came crashing down around me.
I was interviewing a self-important celebrity on the phone from home and, having been told it would only be a quick chat, I’d popped Flo into the door bouncer so she could jig up and down, happily grinning at me while I worked.
Twenty minutes later, I was still on the phone and she started grumbling. I moved into the next room, desperately trying to extricate myself from the conversation. Flo started bawling and I moved even further from her, hating myself for putting work first but feeling completely stuck.
Thirty minutes later, she was screaming blue murder and I was, by now, outside in the garden with the patio doors firmly closed. I kept trying to end the call but there was no escape.
My palms felt sweaty, my heart was racing and all I wanted to do was get back to my baby. By the time I did so, she had fallen asleep, upright but dangling from the door frame, her little face wet with tears.
Shona Sibary (picturedwith her four children) asks how many other working mothers have found themselves in a similarly wretched scenario, racked with remorse for being forced to put work before childcare?
Of all the weeks to lay this particular guilt trip at our door – just after a relentlessly rainy half-term, with the spectre of Christmas looming, said Shona (pictured)
How many other working mothers have found themselves in a similarly wretched scenario, racked with remorse for being forced to put work before childcare?
I can only imagine their fury, matched with mine this week, that MP Miriam Cates now blames us – an army of exhausted mums trying their best – for the rise in children starting school in nappies.
Of all the weeks to lay this particular guilt trip at our door – just after a relentlessly rainy half-term, with the spectre of Christmas looming. And to pour even more fuel on the fire she seemed to focus her ire on working mothers, as if dads play no part in the parenting equation.
Cates was talking at the Alliance For Responsible Citizenship conference when she made the comments, saying: ‘Consider the rising number of young children who start schooling in the UK still wearing nappies… potty training can take weeks of dedication to the task. This is increasingly impossible when our GDP-obsessed economic system demands that even mothers of small children leave their infants in daycare to return to the workplace.’
My blood boiled. But I must admit to agreeing with part of her remarks. Toilet training is difficult. And incredibly tedious. By the time I’d had my fourth child, Dolly, I was so over this particular parenting challenge that I (look away now, Miriam) almost raced back to work to avoid it.
Happily, much of the task then fell to our useless au pair, whose modus operandi seemed to be to allow Dolly to run around the garden all day wearing nothing from the waist down, letting her pee all over the rhododendrons.
As my youngest daughter is a late August baby, she started school just one week after turning four and I’m ashamed to say she was still wearing night nappies at the time. Was this my fault for focusing on work and not spending my days encouraging her to sit on a potty? Guilty as charged, I’m afraid. But that was my choice.
Looking back, it is entirely obvious to me that once I realised I needed childcare to work effectively (no more babies bouncing in the corner of my office!), I also realised I could outsource some of the more boring bits of parenting.
But neither au pairs nor nurseries did the job as well as I could have done if I’d had nothing better to do with my day. Which, obviously, I did. And this is probably also the reason all my children were still incontinent during the night well into their fourth year of childhood. I think I might be in the minority though, as I delegated the jobs voluntarily. Meanwhile, most of the other working mums I knew fought fiercely to be as present for their little ones’ every stage of development as they could.
Not I, of course. But I believe that has something to do with having four to teethe, wean and potty train.
I remember my French mother-in-law expressing thinly veiled horror when she discovered how behind they were. Apparently, Gallic babies are plonked on a potty the moment they emerge from the birth canal. She kept telling me to refuse the children fluids from lunchtime and get them into pants tout de suite!
Naturellement, this helpful advice was pointedly directed at me, even though, at the time, my husband Keith was between jobs and seemingly spending most of his days on a golf course. Would it have occurred to him to pick up the potty-training baton? Don’t be ridiculous.
My husband Keith was between jobs and seemingly spending most of his days on a golf course. Would it have occurred to him to pick up the potty-training baton? Don’t be ridiculous (file photo)
I’m utterly convinced that as two working parents with demanding careers during our children’s early years, we would be divorced by now had it not been for getting outside help.
As mothers with careers all too painfully know, we women can work if we want but boy will we pay for it at the end of a long day when the lunchboxes still need to be emptied and the washing machine filled.
For many of us, school comes as a blessed relief because it allows us – by law and general acceptance – to get on with our jobs with far less hassle and expense. There are no complicated childcare arrangements to organise and no guilt to contend with.
Perhaps if I’d been a hands-on mother from the off, spending my days doing nothing more stressful than making things out of Play-Doh, I might have felt differently.
Certainly, I packed off all four of my offspring to school with a spare pair of pants in their rucksack feeling a rush of guilt that none of them were truly prepared for this next big step in their lives.
In particular Dolly who, on the way to school, would suck desperately on her dummy like a death row prisoner having their last fag.
As we arrived, I would try to prise it from her mouth as she begged: ‘One last suck, Mummy,’ before dejectedly leaving it behind in her car seat.
And yes, Miriam, I would sob all the way home. Because that’s the thing about motherhood. None of it is easy.
It’s all one big, complicated, guilt-inducing mess that we’re all just trying our best to navigate without ending up in a loony bin.
My many failings as a mother tore at my heartstrings then, and still do 24 years later as my brood fly the nest still not wholly prepared for the world that awaits them.
But I’ll tell you something for nothing. Drunken nights aside, none of them are wetting their pants today. That’s a success of sorts, isn’t it?