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Comment: Defence of the working mother

As I was dropping my kids off at school, my younger daughter's kindergarten teacher took me aside. The day before, my daughter had confided that she was feeling sad because, as she put it, "My mommy works all the time." Oof. Sucker punch.

As I was dropping my kids off at school, my younger daughter's kindergarten teacher took me aside. The day before, my daughter had confided that she was feeling sad because, as she put it, "My mommy works all the time."

Oof. Sucker punch. I'm glad the teacher told me - I want to know what my kids are thinking and feeling. She thought it might be linked to some behavioural problems we'd been having at home.

But my first reaction was to defend myself: I only returned to work last year after a year off. I'd love to work part time but can't.

I am my family's prime breadwinner, an increasingly common situation for working moms. My husband builds wooden boats, which has never, as far as I can tell, been a lucrative profession.

Because he's self-employed, however, his work offers the family a lot of flexibility. He can pick the kids up from school every day - we don't need after-school care. If one child is sick and needs to stay home, I don't have to take time off.

Sure, my job requires me to work until 7 p.m.

That means on weekdays, I usually only see the children for an hour before bedtime, a very hectic hour of pyjama-donning and teeth-brushing and book-reading and have you done your homework?

Sometimes, when I work an afternoon shift that ends at 10: 30 p.m., I don't see them until the next day.

My six-year-old doesn't like that one bit - every day, when I drop her off at school, she wants to know if I'll be home at supper time.

But it's not all bad - my later start time allows me to walk the kids to school every day. And I don't bring my work home with me - when I'm home, that's where my attention is.

Later on the day the teacher spoke to me, I was catching up on old episodes of the new Upstairs Downstairs after the kids were in bed when something caught my attention. One of the characters is a German Jew who comes to work in the family's home as a maid.

She's been forced to go into service after fleeing Germany, and it turns out she has a young daughter that she has paid someone to look after. It was a condition of her work that she have no attachments. So she sees her daughter only once a week, on her afternoon off.

My English grandmother made a similar sacrifice when her first husband died in the First World War. She had three children ages seven and under when she had to go into service. The middle child, a boy of five, went to a relative's home. She never saw him again. The older and younger daughter, ages three and seven, went to live in a boarding home for children of soldiers who had died.

She was probably already grieving for her husband.

How did she feel about having to part with her children, one of them forever?

(Although she didn't know that at the time.) Times were tough in wartime England and she did what she had to do. Still, it couldn't have been easy.

Most stay-at-home mothers I know have husbands who make enough money to support the family. In Victoria, where the cost of living is high, they take a financial hit for that choice. Many rent out suites or take in foreign students to make it work.

Would I still work if I could afford not to? Probably. Work offers intellectual stimulation and adult company that I crave when I don't have it. But would I work less if I could? Absolutely.

Most working moms are on a quest for the holy grail of mom jobs: one that's both stimulating and flexible, fulfilling and family-friendly.

They are rare. I only have one friend who has struck gold on that front. She's a lawyer who works a four-day week with shorter hours on some days. She'll probably stay in the business a lot longer than many of her female colleagues at firms that aren't so flexible.

The night after my daughter's teacher told me what she'd said, I was helping her brush her teeth. "Did you tell madame today that you were sad because mommy works all the time?" I asked casually. "Yes," she said, a big grin on her face, as if she'd done something mischievous.

The little monkey. Somehow, that made me feel a little better.

pcoppard@timescolonist.com