Juggling Act

'Mummy I hate you and your dresses are disgusting...'

Ouch, my four year old sure knows how to hurt me. Once her insults start targeting my favourite leopard print frock I know we're on very shaky, painful ground.

I am not looking forward to the next couple of hours. My daughters and I have reached that ugly, time stretches into a black hole part of the day, when silver stars burn out and collapse under their own weight. It's the witching hour(s), the time travel between 5pm and 8pmwhen everything is harder, takes longer and I am at my weakest. And tonight, the words of a four year old won't easily brush off my fake tanned skin. Even my glue on false eyelashes are starting to wilt under the pressure.

Long ago I had managed to lose the self imposed Wonder Woman crown under the vast collection of Barbies crammed into the pink storage box along with the loose, worn out glitter pens. As the mother of two small girls and the wife of a good, golden headed man, I knew I couldn't do it all, have it all and be a domestic goddess and a demon in the bedroom. Although I managed to throw out that super woman nonsense I still cannot wipe away the mother guilt that seeps heavily into my soft, mushy heart.

You see, I've returned to full time work for the first time since I had children seven years ago. I skip out of the house each morning, my handbag packed with my favourite fuchsia lipstick, a padded Pleasure State bra plus my shorthand notebook. Sneaking out of the front door just as the cheeky kookaburra's are clearing their throats makes my heart sing. I am happy for the first time, in a long, long time. I smile, soaking in the lilac morning light before getting in my car.

I didn't realise how lost I had been without a paid job. A job that has helped my brain waves rediscover their silver, zapping rhythms independent of controlled crying routines, dirty sandpits, playground politics and endless routine. Unsuspectedly I had allowed my identity as a woman become secondary to my role as mother, nurturer and keeper of everyone else's happiness. At last I felt like myself again and I had missed her.

But isn't there always a rub, when something is too good to be true? Alas the sting in the tail, the obstacle that breaks my stride is my guilt. A whisper that sometimes gets a little louder, especially when I'm tired, not able to do canteen duty, or have forgotten to fill out the lunch order, that I am depriving my girls because I am not with them 24/7. How do I make up for this hole? Bribery, corruption and then the spoiling that I can't resist when it comes to the greatest loves of my life. I'm fearful of the terrible consequences that come from relying on such shallow tools to soothe my guilt.

Are you also weary of the endless studies about how soft parenting styles are turning our kids into juvenile delinquents? I try not to read them, and I won't read them. Tough love has never been my style... But there is that whisper again that I'm turning my daughters into spoilt brats who have no boundaries and believe the world owes them.

Of course, mothers are to blame for all that is wrong with their children, it is never the fathers... Hey, I have spend years and many hours dealing with 'mother issues' when I see my therapist each fortnight. Rarely do we hear about how your father issues have ruined your life forever. And no, I'm not neurotic... well not too much. Oh but I know I am a soft touch and my daughters can smell my vulnerability.

'Mummy, will you pick me up early from preschool today?' says my youngest daughter.

'Sure, I'll get you just before your afternoon tea and we can have some special time before we pick up Allegra from school', I reply.

Bolting from work and a record breaking trip around Coles I make it to the pre school gates just as the class is sitting down on their miniature plastic chairs to start on their cheese and fruit snacks. I crouch down next to my cherubic child.

'I'm NOT ready to go yet!'

'But, but you wanted me to pick you up early...'

'This is my favourite part of the day, I'm NOT going yet..'

I pull up one of the spare weeny plastic chairs and squish next to my indignant daughter, waiting for her to be 'ready' to leave day care. I'm a bad mother, bad mother... she would rather be here than spending time with me. But my husband doesn't have the same inner dialogue. I don't know any men that do. So why do we do it?

A girlfriend of mine buys her sons Lego, she calls it Lego guilt. If she feels like she has had an especially busy week at work a quick trip to K Mart is compulsory. The shopping bags sit on the kitchen bench top, in time for her sons to discover their treats once they're home from school. Her boys don't ask or whinge to get the latest Lego, my friend simply does it to make herself feel better.

I do the same. Not with Lego, but I like to have a treat for my girls most afternoons. Not top shelf toys, but sometimes a punnet of fresh raspberries, Vegemite scrolls, colouring in books, textas, Bubble-o-Bill ice blocks and the 'occasional' Barbie. Why? Because I put this ridiculous pressure on myself and won't back my mothering skills.

I've sought the wisdom of the iconic Ita Buttrose, who I am lucky enough to sit next to and work with every day.

'Jessica, guilt means you've done something wrong. You haven't done anything wrong.'

Yes, she's right, going back to full time work is not wrong, it is so right for me. Maybe not for all of us, but it has given me my sparkle back. And that my dear Allegra and Giselle means I am the best mummy I can possibly be for you, because I am happy. And going back to work also means I can afford to buy you Barbies dream house.

First appeared in Sunday Life magazine.