"Mummy, cuddle and kiss!" I'm already late and if I don't leave now, I'll never beat the traffic to the office. But my four-year-old twins are racing towards me with determination. They're going to get at least one more cuddle and kiss out of me before I go, and nothing's going to stop them. I crouch down, trying to avoid their jammy faces on my meeting-ready clothes.
"Are you picking us up from nursery today, mummy?" the younger twin asks. "Not today, poppet," I reply. "But I'll be back before bedtime, OK?" She seems satisfied with the answer, but as I close the door, I am struck by a feeling I have come to recognise well: mummy guilt.
Many mums, working or not, will know the phenomenon – the sense that you’re not living up to the expectations you had about the kind of mum you’d be. The times they get takeaway instead of a home-cooked dinner, or you shout instead of answering patiently, or get bored playing tea parties for the millionth time. For working mums, there’s the additional guilt of leaving them in the care of others while you return to your career.
Susan, 42, is a single mum who lives in Dubai. She went back to work when her son was 1 year old and her daughter was 11 weeks. Although she returned out of financial necessity and believes it’s important to be a role model and show your children the importance of work, it still “broke her heart” to leave them.
“I feel guilty every minute of every day,” she says. “Whether it’s because I miss a school concert, travel with work, forget to give the kids Dh10 for the book sale at school, because I am not at the school gate waiting for them every day, or I forget about their school clubs – and so it goes on.”
Like Susan, I started out as a single mum and returned to work earlier than planned because there were bills to pay. But here’s the extra layer of guilt: I love my job and I wouldn’t want to leave even if I were suddenly relieved of all financial responsibilities.
In the first few months of being a mum, work was a safe space where I felt in control – quite the opposite of my terrifying new role as a proper grown-up responsible for the very lives of two tiny, utterly dependent human beings.
This is something parenting expert Jacqueline Coe, founder of Intelligent Parenting, calls the "Pressure Gap". She's referring to the fact that we are prepared for most jobs through study and tuition, but there's no entrance exam for being a mum and that leaves us feeling overwhelmed and unprepared. As a result, work becomes a more attractive option than home and that leaves us feeling guilty. "Work can give you a buzz – you can feel guilty if home doesn't do this for you, too," she explains. "You feel confident at work because you know what you are doing."
Thankfully, the conversation seems to be changing. Mothers are starting to be more open and honest about their feelings – and, as a result, we’re beginning to realise we’re not alone. While some women want nothing more than to stay at home and be a full-time mum, there are those of us who find genuine fulfilment in our careers and want an escape from the cycle of nappies, fish fingers and jigsaw puzzles.
Jennifer Black, a mum-of-two in Dubai who runs a fashion and homewares brand called Wear The House, says she definitely identifies with mummy guilt. “When I travel, of course I miss them a lot and when they are ill while I am away, I question why I am not at home.” But she also believes that by working in a job she enjoys and is good at, she is acting as a role model to her children, showing them how you can have a successful career that you love as well as a home life.
“I see on a daily basis how creative my children are and how they make independent decisions, and I ask myself sometimes, is this something they are learning from me?” she says. “So, there are plus-sides to being a working mum, and I believe that mums shouldn’t see this as a negative.
“I think no matter what you do, where you are from, where you live, all mums feel like this. I think it’s important to have good friends, family to talk to and to give yourself encouragement and not to give yourself a hard time.”
Susan agrees. “I think we do put a lot of pressure on ourselves that everything needs to be perfect. Many times I have apologised to my kids for not doing something or getting something wrong, only to discover that they didn’t even notice. I think as women we just want the absolute best for our children and no matter whether you stay at home or work this is all we strive for.”
I have a feeling she’s right. I remember once going to pick up the twins from nursery after a full day at the office. Did they run to me desperately, crying about how much they’d missed me? Not in the least. They ran the opposite way, giggling and shouting about how much fun they were having and how they didn’t want to go home just yet.
At the end of the day, the issue isn’t about whether we work or not. Stay-at-home mums feel just as much mummy guilt as those who have a career. What we need is to accept that there’s no such thing as a perfect parent – we’re all just doing our best, and our children love us regardless.