It is an easy conversational turn to remark lightly that working life prepares you well for small children. Long hours, conflict management, multitasking, impossible demands, difficult bosses, etc. We get the point. It’s a nice line. It’s also bull. Our workplaces are far more civilized than we let on — even when your chief exec is prone to an emotional outburst. And our children, by definition, are much less so.
I was eavesdropping one morning in a coffee shop while a team of Kiwis and South Africans talked about their work. A woman said: “I just want people who are efficient. Who do what they say when they say they’ll do it. I just love that. That guy, Bill in Nairobi, you know him, he’s so efficient he doesn’t even sign off his emails. Fuck, I love that guy.”
Children are never like Bill in Nairobi.
Years of running on schedule, thinking through ideas, delivering practicalities, planning budgets, being listened to, and massaging the ego of a big-cheese boss doesn’t prepare you for the pure nihilism of life with small children.
Part of the problem is that many of us are not hugely experienced with kids.
Historically, when extended family social groups lived together and spent evenings around fires they demonstrated experienced parenting and balanced each other’s approaches. It didn’t come naturally — it was observed, copied, and improved through generations.
Single-generational modern living provides us with precious little observed experience to learn from. Not only that, but we are also so involved in getting through the working week that we’re barely even aware of our high stress levels until we see them played out. One mother I met, who worked for a local government, watched her four-year-old daughter pushing her one-year-old son in his buggy, while she walked behind on a call from work. When her young son started to fuss and cry, her daughter imitated her mother, dramatically waving her arms and “shhhhhhh shhhhhhing” aggressively before running her finger across her neck in her mother’s own “cut it out” gesture. The mother was mortified to see herself played out so accurately.
Another woman who works for a fashion brand was startled one day when a woman she’d never met asked her how her son Miles was. “Sorry, do I know you, do you know Miles?” she asked in some confusion. “Well, no,” said the woman cheerily, “but I always hear you screaming ‘MILES, MILES!! COME BACK HERE RIGHT THIS SECOND!!’ across the park.”
But it’s not just the “shushing” and suppressing of our children when they don’t fit into our working life that’s the problem. It can also be explosive rage. The emotional place that you didn’t think you’d ever get to: when otherwise stoical and unflappable adults find themselves screaming, shouting, and slamming in ways that they find appalling. A first-time dad recalls his first sight of that rage in his usually serene wife. He was helpfully doing the first wash after the baby came home from the hospital but accidentally mixed the whites and colors. His wife wanted to do things perfectly. Which didn’t include having her firstborn dressed in mucky greige. She was so upset that she picked up a discolored Babygro and yelled, “I am going to smash your fucking face in with this” to her stunned husband. He says they laughed about it later. But many, many months later.
There is something special about the speed, ferocity, and frequency of professional parent rage. Which isn’t to even hint that at-home parents don’t lose their shit now and again. They surely do and, in some ways, it isn’t so different. Yet, it’s certainly true that the workplace “task” mindset is incompatible with happy childcare and this, combined with very limited skills to manage children, is a recipe for disaster. At its simplest, it’s rooted in a fundamental disconnection from the way children think and behave, also being poor at predicting their next actions and motivators. For example, you might think, “I’m so damned late and he is trying to waste my time,” while an experienced parent or child minder, in tune with their child, thinks, “He loves to pick up small rocks and talk to them as if they were his pets, I’ll join in the chat.”