Recently, my husband came home with the happy news that he has been promoted at work, with an accompanying pay rise. I am genuinely very happy for him and glad to see his undoubted ability rewarded. It’s good for me too, obviously. He has never been anything less than extremely generous and entirely fair.
It made me think, though, about how things have changed for me. I’ve certainly made some poor career choices in my time, but I also feel compelled to have a small foot-stamp about how hard I have found it to be a mother and a professional and to try to justify to myself why I’ve failed at combining the two.
When we met seventeen years ago, I was in my late twenties and was his equal in career terms. We were both educated at a prestigious university and had both gone on to professional roles in our twenties, after elongated periods of study. I was a qualified solicitor working at a City law firm, with all the earning potential that came with that. I was buying my own flat in London, I wore suits and heels to work, I hung out at upmarket wine bars after work, drinking white wine spritzers and eating marinated olives and artisan bread with witty, public school educated colleagues.
I never quite felt I belonged though and hadn’t yet gained the wisdom to know that very many people think that whilst putting up a convincing facade. As a northern, state school educated girl, I was never quite able to shake the feeling that I wasn’t measuring up to the elite. I knew I could not justify the extortionate hourly rate that my work was charged at, even as a junior solicitor, and found billing clients excruciating and intolerable. I had also had time to take a good look around at the women of the private, city centre law firms. There were plenty of bright, thrusting young women trainees. Plenty of youngish, recently qualified female solicitors. And then only a few senior women, only one of whom had children. I already knew that having a family was important to me and so I sought a way out of the commercial world and found myself working as a lawyer in the Civil Service.
A few years down the line, I had my first baby. I was entirely happy to be at home with him for a year’s maternity leave and dreaded going back to work. However, the Civil Service was a great employer to have and it was no difficulty to negotiate a return to a three day a week role. I do recall, though, that on my first day back at work, I got telephoned by the nursery where I had reluctantly placed my son to say that I would have to go and pick him up as he had conjunctivitis. With no family in the area to call upon, I made my excuses to my boss and left. In retrospect, I am astonished that it did not occur to me to ring my husband, who had dutifully gone in to his job every day of my maternity leave and who could have made his excuses more reasonably than I could, but it did not occur to me and I cringe now at the impression I must have given.
Less than a year after going back to work, I became pregnant with my second child and, together, my husband and I made the decision to move out of London. Whilst he applied for jobs around the country, I worked into my pregnancy until we moved to a strange city when I was seven and a half months pregnant.
I think that, had we stayed in London, I would have returned to my well paid, part time Civil Service job. I suppose, having had my daughter, I should then have looked for a job in our new home town, but I was exhausted looking after a toddler and a newborn. Although I can see that it would have been the ‘right’ thing to do, to continue a professional career, it felt completely impossible to me at the time. Having left London, I had no job to go back to and I knew no-one who could help me get my foot on a strange ladder.
Then, when my daughter was seventeen months old, I became pregnant with my third child and that made any vague thoughts about working go completely out of the window. It was all I could do to get through the day with three children under the age of five. If I’m being honest, I really didn’t want to work and no longer felt capable of it. Sure, I felt guilty about not doing so, but not guilty enough that I was going to do anything about it.
But as the children grew up a bit, I felt lost and ashamed at what I perceived to be my lack of status. I didn’t readily tell new people I met what I had done before, as the reaction I got when I did was astonishment that I was content to be a stay at home mother. I looked jealously at the many grandparents hanging out in the school playground, making working life that bit easier for my friends and felt a complete failure.
When my youngest child started nursery at the age of three, I volunteered at a local advice centre. I got offered some paid work there after a while and so I did that. Then I fell into the job I am still in, working part time for a charity. I couldn’t see a way to work longer or harder with all the other boring, repetitive things that needed to be done. Not just the obvious cooking and washing and driving to activities, but let’s not forget the constant thinking about food, the daily stream of letters and emails from schools, the buying of replacement clothes, uniforms and kits, the planning and organising of birthday parties, the buying of the many birthday presents for other peoples’ birthday parties, the Christmas shopping, the Christmas cards, the homework, the play dates, the dentist appointments, the travelling hundreds of miles to visit distant grandparents.
In many ways, I have a great job which I am fortunate to have. It is interesting and worthwhile and I work directly with the vulnerable in our society. I work school hours and have a good deal of flexibility to manage school assemblies, vomiting bugs, Inset days and all the other difficulties of the working parent. However, I am paid considerably less than I was in the 1990s. I have not had a pay rise, not even inflationary, in the three years I have worked there and I have no prospects for promotion. From earning a similar amount to my husband, I now earn a fraction and it feels unjust. I work hard as a part timer, as do my (predominantly female with children) colleagues. I don’t even take a lunch break, as I finish at 3pm and have to race against the clock to make it to the school gate on time. My husband, on the other hand, regularly goes for a swim in his lunch hour.
I have found it hard to reconcile myself to a parallel universe I can imagine for myself. What could my life be now, if only I could have been the kind of person who made the effort to go back to work after a second child, who perhaps thought more carefully about the impact of a third child, who did not suffer the catastrophic, disabling lack of confidence after years out of the workplace, who had seized opportunities at the right time, without taking the easy option, who had been happy to consider a nanny?
I see now, too late, that the time to push yourself in your career is probably through your thirties and forties; that the time when children are actually easiest to combine with a career (although it doesn’t feel like it at the time) is when they are young enough to go to nursery and preschool; that once they go to school, things get a whole lot more complicated with childcare after school and in the school holidays – especially if your children are in different schools, with different holidays, as mine currently are: that when they become teenagers, they can need you just as much as they did when they were toddlers.
And yet, if I am expected to work until I am 67, what on earth am I supposed to do with the rest of my working years? My skills are out of date and jobs which I am interested in will not consider part time or job share opportunities (I have tried). I could retrain of course, but the prospect of having to fight for my space, competing with those young enough to be my children, ruffles my feathers. I could carry on doing what I am doing – working in a worthwhile but undervalued part time job, mopping up the Government’s public sector cuts and volunteering in my spare time. Or I could come up with a miraculous solution to my first world problem, which hasn’t yet occurred to me. What I will definitely be doing is talking to all my children, boys and girl, about their career choices and their views on how they might achieve a meaningful work/life balance (with my support) for themselves and their future spouses.
My conclusion is that, contrary to the message I was given in my all girls grammar school in the 1980s, I can’t have it all. Some people seem to manage it, and hats off to them, but I’m not one of them. I’m going to try to stop feeling guilty about it and focus on the many positives. I recognise that I am very fortunate to be a co-parent with a financially sound partner, which has allowed me to work part time. I know there are very many women, and men, working full time and still doing everything else as well who would love to be in my position. And most importantly, I’ve had the invaluable opportunity to spend lots of time with my fabulous children, which I wouldn’t have been able to do in my parallel, high achieving fantasy world.