Mothers and others raising the next generation

My son and three of his classmates went to a different school this week for a writing course. It wasn’t far from our school but it disrupted everyone’s carefully calibrated transport arrangements. On the first morning, after we located the library, I found myself with the three other mothers from my son’s school, sorting out the rest of the week. I was travelling interstate on two of the days, and my husband could cover drop-offs but not pick-ups. One mother could juggle work to pick up on two days. Another, known to my son for her “excellent afternoon teas,” could have students dropped at hers because, like me, she works from home. Still another was a teacher at the school the students were visiting and said they could be dropped early in her room. Within ten minutes, we’d established a matrix that meant everyone could be where they needed to be.

It reminded me that when my son was born, I worried how I’d manage not only the demands of parenthood but combining parenthood and work. My husband’s mother, who adored her grandchildren, was gone too soon, and my own mother was on the other side of Australia. We thought we’d be on our own. But in those first sleepless months, an army of helpers trooped through our house. People arrived with gifts, an Italian stroller to tear around in, soft toys to watch over a sleeping baby, enough clothes so we didn’t have to buy anything. My friend Louise, a child health nurse, came nearly every day bringing advice, encouragement and coffee.

When I saw we had this support, I knew that whatever else happened, we’d be all right.  And so it has gone on. It hasn’t just been other parents. One of my friends who doesn’t have children sends my son clothes every year on his birthday, beautifully made clothes – the kind you’d never buy for your own child – that make him look like a million dollars. Another friend, when my son was doing a questionnaire to raise money for a school trip to Canberra, gave him $3 a question, because “I want him to know that his brain can make him money.” Our artistic neighbour, whose own child has grown, does craft and drawing with him.

Of course it didn’t escape my notice that it was mothers not fathers making the travel arrangements this week. Research shows that while parenting responsibilities are now more evenly shared, we are nowhere near equal. One study found that in households where men earn more than women, women do more of the household and childcare duties. In households where income is more even, men do more, although not half. But in households where women earn more than men, women go back to doing much more than men. The researchers postulated that these are the super-mums, working busy jobs, doing everything, going slowly mad. I must say I’m a bit suspicious of studies like this one. My husband and I would be fairly sure we each do more than two thirds of the household and childcare jobs, which means either at least one of us is exaggerating or, more likely, children create some sort of chore vortex in which doing 100 per cent of the chores requires 130 per cent effort.

Raising one child is a full-time job however a family is structured and however a family splits the work, and each additional child increases the load. My friends with teenagers tell me those years are even more time-consuming than the months with a newborn or toddler. I find this hard to believe but I imagine they’ll be proved right when we get there. Raising children is at least a full-time job and in many families both parents already have full-time jobs.

This week, getting four children to another place for five days was logistical chess for already over-committed parents. We’re at a particular stage on the great river of parenting that will see our children to the sea of adulthood. We’re all boats on that river, those with children, those without. We’re all raising the next generation, as part of the fleet it takes to get just one child on their way.