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!

14 thoughts on “The Philosophy series: The Epictetus edition”

  1. I think it’s a great idea! Who wouldn’t want to get rid of negative emotions such as guilt? The problem though is the actual “practice” of not giving in to these emotions. Then again, it takes practice I guess and the constant reminder to be “above all it”. My biggest guilt at the moment is allowing my daughter to watch too much TV or play too much with the iPad just so I could have a little bit of time for myself. Yes I know, it’s the “mummy guilt” thinking again 🙂

    1. Oh I totally agree, I don’t think I could just give up negative emotions but I do think they may lessen over time if I focus on the more positive things. I think ultimately though, guilt shows that we care, that we worry about them… so it’s not all bad 🙂

    1. It is puzzling how much we beat ourselves up over things, and I don’t think it’s often helped by the amount that people criticise and comment on things. For what it’s worth, it’s apparent from your blog that you are doing a wonderful job! xx

  2. The expense of childcare is definitely one the issues that is making me feel more grumpy about going back to work. It just seems so insanely high! But I know I have to look beyond the point at nursery and look at how easy it would be to get the job I have – that makes it far easier to deal with.

  3. Interesting way to look at things, and I think it’s absolutely right to remove self inflicted sorrows from our lives. I think whatever decision parents make, we feel guilt in some way. We certainly cannot predict the outcomes of all of our actions, we just have to do what we feel is best and be happy with our decisions!

  4. It appears I’m french with my views on nurseries and children settling in. I rarely feel guilty about anything, but I’ve usually made that decision myself about what I’m doing and why.

  5. I often feel guilty about so much and like you returning to work is definitely high up there on the guilt list. Like you said realistically I can’t change it, we too need the second income so I shouldn’t feel guilty but I still do. xx

    1. I think I’m going allow myself to not want to work – there’s lots more I’d rather be doing (including looking after my kids) – but guilt is too energy consuming and I think too much from it stems from bashing each others decisions. I hope you manage to feel better about your decision in time too xx

  6. I think this is a great way of looking at things, Monkey went into childcare at 6 months and I returned to work 4 days a week. We are lucky as Hubby works 4 days too so it made it easier he was with us more than childcare. I am gearing up for my next round of mat leave and this time when I go back (after 6 months again) we will be using the same nursery as Monkey is at when the baby goes at 6 months. Monkey loves his nursery and I couldn’t ask for more with all the activities and outside play. xx

  7. Laura, I felt the same way when my son was little. I worked, his father had died, I had no choice. Then when Bruce and I got together he worked days and I worked nights, it was better. The hard thing was, the kids had us, but we only saw each other on Saturday mornings and on Sundays-we were both off. I have felt guilt from both of these things, but it’s really hard with the kids, isn’t it? I think as mothers we are wired for guilt. It comes home with us from the hospital with the baby and never leaves!

    But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

    BTW, I love the new theme and I love how you have grown as a blogger, I really enjoy visiting here, I hope to get back more often!

    1. I think guilt won’t ever really leave but it also shows love – I only feel guilty because I don’t want anything bad or wrong for them, which must be a good sign really!

      So glad you like the new theme! I really appreciate your feedback – you’re the only one whose ever commented on my actual writing style before. So helpful because it’s so difficult to be self reflective all the time! I’ll be sure to keep taking part in your linky! xx

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