I've never been a thrill seeker, but everyone's day needs more than the highlight of walking to the post box and back

9th June 2006 at 01:00
I'll never forget my first Inset day as a teacher. Striding through the silent and empty corridors, I had the fulfilling experience of a day in school where I actually managed to get stuff done. Talks with colleagues weren't broken up by the bell, or a knock on the staffroom door. Schools, I realised, are amazing places to work, provided the kids are away. Teaching, in fact, is a fabulous job - stimulating subject matter, great colleagues, amazing holidays - if only you didn't have to engage with the pesky little critters who can wreck the most well planned of lessons with a sly comment, or the illegal appearance of a mobile phone.

Now that I am firmly established on the relentlessly turning hamster wheel that is the life of a working mother, I often think back to that moment of epiphany on my first Inset day. Just as being a teacher is great if you don't have to teach, I am secretly beginning to suspect that being a mother is also great, as long as you never actually have to see your kids.

Before I get the emails telling me what a terrible mother I am, I should point out that obviously I love my children. But as my second maternity leave drew to a close, I was feeling that if I had to build one more tower, or read one more Bob the Builder magazine, or rescue one more toy car from behind the sofa, I would go stark staring mad. The daily trudge round the park in the Arctic wind was getting all the more difficult to bear even as the days got longer. All the child-rearing manuals tell you that babies love routine. They do, but pity the poor mother who grimly executes that routine hour after bleeding hour.

I've never been a thrill seeker, to be sure, but everyone's day needs more than the highlight of walking to the post box and back. So now that I see my two boys for a grand total of two hours every day, you could say that I've begun to appreciate those things that a few months ago were driving me to a nervous breakdown. Could it actually be that the old oxymoronic cliche - I'm a better mother because I'm away from my kids - is actually true? My new-found enthusiasm for Bob the Builder and noisy skidding cars is definitely not lost on my thrilled toddler, who is getting all the rides he wants on his little wooden wheelbarrow, and my delighted baby is getting "The Wheels on the Bus" sung to him endlessly without the grating edge of hysterical despair that I realise may have somewhat ruined the fun.

Full-time motherhood wasn't all misery and scraping spilled raisins from the carpet, but now that I never see my children I feel I'm beginning to excel at bringing them up. Of course there's the mandatory overload of guilt. I wonder why my lovely childminder seems to enjoy being with my children so much more than I did. I wonder why being endlessly immersed in the lives of other people's children is so much more satisfying than being immersed in the lives of my own. I think it may be to do with the idea of being valued, emotionally and monetarily.

As a stay-at-home mother, I felt invisible, dependent and permanently broke. Now that I have rejoined the ranks of the paid I seem to have regained my sense of status and direction in life. Maybe my childminder does her job so well because she feels she is taken seriously as a trained professional.

Much as I love my job, I know I won't feel happy if I miss my toddler's first words, or my baby's first steps, but I simply can't bear the idea of being back at home full-time. Somewhere, somehow, something has gone wrong with the way that we value women who stay at home to bring up their children. I don't want to mother from afar, but the idea of getting too close again still fills me with a kind of dread.

Gemma Warren is head of inclusion at a London secondary school. Email: gemmablaker@hotmail.com

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