Today we continue with the Philosophy series – asking what wisdom the second century C.E. philosopher, Epictetus can impart to parents today. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about returning to work but I think that he has provided a way to look at the world a little differently.
Epictetus based his work on the philosophy of early Stoics – think logic, physics, and ethics – but the teaching we can draw on today (the Discources and the Handbook) largely focus on ethics. The ultimate aim of a Stoic teacher was to help his students reach eudaemonia (happiness). Given that happiness is a good goal to hold both as a parent and individual, I don’t think it’s a bad pursuit.
Recently I’ve found myself feeling more guilty than usual. Of course, I think parents always have a certain amount of guilt as part of the status quo. Too much TV. Too much junk food. Not enough craft time. Or perhaps the abject cruelty that one can inflict by refusing to put money into a ride on a machine?! But nothing is greater than the guilt I feel when I think about returning to work.
When I went back to work after having Katie, I was happy enough with my chosen nursery – I had toured enough of them! However, I really hated leaving her each day. She was inevitably crying when I left and would burst into tears at pick up too. Seeming relief that it was over and I had come back for her. Work was far less enjoyable given that a cloud of worry followed me around for most of the day.
As I approach the half-way point of my maternity leave with Thomas, I’ve had to think more about childcare for when I go back to work. Although I’ve already organised a nursery place for him, I cannot but think about all the things I’ll be missing being apart from him, and Katie again. So how could Epictetus help with my guilt?
Epictetus, would proffer that these negative feelings come because I’m viewing things in the wrong way. My ability or capacity to be happy is entirely dependent on my character and how I choose to act towards events. To do this, I must recognise what is in my power to change. As Epictetus remarks:
‘This is the proper goal, to practise how to remove from one’s life sorrows and laments, and cries of “Alas” and “Poor me”, and misfortune and disappointment’ (Discourses 1.4.23, trans. Dobbin).
Realistically, going to work is not something I can change. Without dramatically altering our quality of life, we need a second income. Whilst I can strive to find alternative employment, I believe I’m good at the job I have and it has the added benefit that I also get brilliant holidays to spend with the children. What is in my power is how I view childcare for the kids.
I’ve heard from my friends that are ‘stay-at-home’ Mums that people can be derisive of their choice with statements like, ‘Oh? Do you just look after the children?’ This obviously is ridiculous and anyone who thinks otherwise can come and contain Katie for a day.
But I’ve also found that there’s a backlash against working too – that you should only work if you really need to and that nothing will ever compare to the care a Mother (or Father can give). To an extent I share this view, as I left Katie crying each day at nursery (this did stop after a few weeks), I truly believed that she would be much better off staying with me. Even now she does half days at pre-school; I feel much better as I get to collect her at lunchtime and fill our afternoons with visits to the Botanics, crafts, activities and playdates. But am I right to view childcare in such a negative light?
As I mentioned in my reading round up in January, I’ve recently read Pamela Druckerman’s book, ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food‘. One of her observations regarding the French crèche (close to private nursery in this country) has really stuck with me:
French mothers do not worry about the anguish they’ll feel when they drop their children off at crèche for the first time. But they view this as their own separation issue. ‘In France parents are not afraid of sending their children to the crèche,’ explains Marie Wirink, a sociologist with France’s Ministry of Labour. ‘Au contraire, they fear that if they cannot find a place in the creche their child will be missing out on something.’
Instead of nursery being seen as a last resort, it’s seen as a crucial communal experience in which children can learn to socialise. Whilst I realise that children can gain this experience from parents attending playgroups, classes or even playdates, I question whether if it is quite the same as bustling along with a group of children without parental intervention.
This observation led me to wonder whether there were other benefits of small children attending nursery that just aren’t mentioned in British culture.
Even without going into a great depth of research, I quickly begin to find reports contrary to the apparent prevailing attitude. In 2015, one Harvard study in fact found that:
The daughters of working mothers enjoy better careers, higher pay and more equal relationships than those raised by stay-at-home mothers…. and sons raised by an employed mother are more involved at home as adults, spending more time caring for family members than men whose mothers stayed home full-time.
This is not exactly the irrecoverable harm that I was expecting to find! I’m sure you could just as easily find a study that found a benefit of staying at home – which leads me to think about what we do to ourselves as parents. Why is it that so often we’re consumed by worry or guilt that we’re not doing the right thing?
As Epictetus advised, there is a lot that we can do to – we can try and do what we think is best. We can try to model ourselves into virtuous people. What we cannot do is see the future and ever categorically know what outcome our actions will result in.
All we can ever do is act in the way we think is best, both for our children and ourselves. For some people, that’s staying at home. For others, it’s going back to work part-time or even full-time. None of those things are entirely right or wrong, and we shouldn’t take it upon ourselves to feel bad about our chosen route. There’s enough to be worrying about.
I believe working that working is different from staying at home. Not better, not worse – just different. And that’s fine. It’s time to let go of the guilt and focus on things that are within my power.
What do you make of Epictetus’ ideas? Feel free to come share your views on the Edinburgh Life Facebook wall!
Or you could always pin this for later: