Working mums are being sold an impossible dream about work/life balance - and how to set the record straight
Glossy portrayals of super-organised working mothers do not reflect Christine Armstrong's experience, nor that of other mums she meets. Families are damaged by these big little lies, she argues
The feminist push to get women into the workforce was sold as liberating them. It did nothing of the sort. It enslaved them to work.
My mother was a traditional wife. She never worked. She brought up four children mostly on her own as my father was a manual worker who always came home tired. But she had time to chat with the neighbors over the fence of a morning. And of an afternoon she would read a book and doze off into a refreshing nap. She had nothing like the stresses in her life described below. We lived a rather humble life but better that than impossible ambitions.
Society today is much richer than it was back in the '40s and 50's so it should be even easier to live on one income now than it was back then. Sticking to the essentials is all that is needed. Keep up with the Smiths instead of the Joneses. The Smiths are probably much more relaxed and have more time for friendship. And if you can't afford to send your kid to a private school, why does that matter? As a stay-at-home mother, you can homeschool him/her and they will get a better education than they would in most government schools -- JR.
My friend had called at 7.40am to say she couldn't cope. "I got up at 3.30am, my mind was on fire, I couldn't stop worrying, so I got out of bed and cleared my email backlog for the first time in months. Then the kids got up and I chased and shouted to get them ready and now I'm charging into a long day of meetings that run into each other and I feel like I never see my kids and I never get through the work and when I get home tonight my email will be full of more stuff I need to do. I'm at full capacity. Beyond full capacity. I can't do anything more than I do. And yet people keep telling me I should do yoga. Of course I should bloody do yoga. But when? Oh God, when will this end, what do I do?" She had dropped her kids at nursery and was walking ("Got to get some steps in") to the station to get the train to her sales job in town.
If history is told by the winning men, I worry that the story of equality at work is too often being told by the winning women, the ones with the board seats and big pay packets, most notably Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, whose 2013 book advised ambitious women to Lean In. Sometimes they have a nanny (or two), and sometimes an at-home husband as well. Either way, they are the exceptions. I remember reading an interview with Karren Brady in which she said she split her time between her kids in the country and her job in town, and that it worked really well for her. Which I'm sure it did; it just didn't much help me - or my friend in sales, who has a full-time working husband and is currently confronting the bitter reality that modern working life doesn't combine very well at all with having a family.
This mother, like most of us, doesn't have her sights on a board-level job and is just working to get to the end of the month and pay the bills. She says her children are "the love and light" of her life and yet sometimes she feels they don't even respond to her because she's away from them too much and is ready to cry with tiredness when she finally gets back home.
When I was working full-time with two small children, I also tried hard to make it work, but couldn't. There were some memorable lows. Like a work trip to America when my breast pump broke and, after seeking help from the concierge, I had to take a taxi in the middle of the night around Austin, Texas, to buy a new one, before spending the dawn hours crying and pumping milk down the drain of the hotel shower. Feeling desolate, I started to seek advice. I read a lot and went to talks and events about what women need to do to "get ahead". High-profile female business leaders spoke at many of these. They inspired. But very often I found that the advice boiled down to "you have to work really hard, get great childcare and be super-well-organised". This all made sense, but didn't seem to help.
Some of these superwomen talked about "flexibility". It took me a while to realise that what they often meant was the flexibility to leave at the end of their contracted hours - say 5pm - to pick up, feed, bath, read to and settle their kids before working online again later to catch up. One mum-of-three, describing this in practical terms, told me: "I start eating my dinner and catching up on work at 10pm, just as everyone else is going to bed. It's completely normal for me to finish at 1am or later." The underlying message seemed to be that modern jobs are fine - as long as you're willing to work all the waking and non-waking hours of the day.
Which means that it mostly doesn't work well. Not only does it not work, it's getting worse. Twenty years ago, the average working day was about seven hours and many mothers didn't have a job outside the home. In the years since, the working day has grown by an average of about two hours and a million more mums have jobs. This is partly because house prices have quadrupled in that time (a change attributed, ironically, to the rise in women's incomes). Most households now need to have two parents out of the house working for long periods of the day. But, in that time, the needs of our children and the structure of childcare and the school day haven't changed at all - as every parent of a school-age child is finding out right now, with more than two weeks of the summer holidays still left to go, their own leave used up, their finances spent and the kids going bananas with the need for our involvement, our undivided attention.
We've all got so used to accepting that it has to be this way that we keep at it. But my mum and my mother-in-law seemed so perplexed by my experience that I started to ask their friends and women of previous generations about their experiences, so I could shed some light on how we got here, trying to be superhuman and feeling like we're failing ourselves and our kids.
I found that women in their fifties and sixties are often highly conscious of how working life has changed for the worse. There was a time, they explain, when you left work - probably frantic - at about 5pm and went home to your kids. But then came the laptops, mobiles and BlackBerrys that mean you still leave work frantic at about the same time, but then are expected to answer a call later or edit a document. Now, even when we are home, we aren't really able to be present with our children and partners. Now, all over the country, we have parents wrestling their kids away from TVs and iPads to get them into bed without for one second letting go of their own mobile phones as they continue to field messages from work or dial into a conference call hoping no one can hear the kids splashing in the bath.
I realised we needed better answers to these questions on a freezing January night when I met a friend in a pub. Between us, we had four children under three and two full-time jobs and, as the wine flowed, we let rip about how hopeless we were. Our lives were shit. She was leaving work by the fire escape in the desperate hope of seeing her kids awake once a day without annoying her colleagues. I was crying before work because I didn't want to go in. We felt remote from our kids and our partners. We both wondered how we'd screwed up so badly and become such disasters. But then we began to question whether the world of work was set up for both parents to be in it full-time. Maybe there was a different story to tell where, however hard you work, there are very tough choices along the way and just being well organised doesn't fix it.
Hungry for better advice, I set out to find it myself. I persuaded the magazine Management Today to let me interview women, and some men, who were managing to combine work and family life to see what they had found out. We had great conversations. People read their words diligently and responded.
As the interviews went on, though, I was increasingly niggled by gaps in the stories I was telling. I would, for example, interview a wonderful, witty, smart woman and she would tell me about her family's life. She would describe some manageable challenges and how she was tackling them. But then there were the things they told me but begged me not to write up, like the woman who'd put on a vast amount of weight immediately after giving birth and suffered terrible depression but didn't want her colleagues to know. Other times, I was asked to tone down a light joke about their partner not doing their fair share of the household jobs, or an admission that sometimes they ended up screaming blue murder at their kids, or maybe to take out one too many references to needing a few glasses (or bottles) of wine to get through the week.
It didn't bother me too much and I would still finish the interviews thinking we had got somewhere. But then a week, a month, six months later, I might run into some of these women and something more complex might emerge. Perhaps she was no longer with "the rock" partner who made it all work. Or her boss was a bully. Or her daughter was anorexic. Or her son was struggling at school. Maybe she'd been signed off work with stress or depression. Or she expressed regret at not being around enough during her children's early years. Others said they didn't have time for many friends. Another revealed she was saving for a hayloft in the Hebrides so she could escape her life.
A psychologist explained to me that the couples who have spent years being in control of their decisions - living in a nice place, choosing everything they do - can find the shift to parenting especially hard. A nanny told me the mums she worries most about are those who are desperate to keep up appearances. It matters to them that they drive a decent car and that the house looks neat. But they are, she says, often also the parents who come through the door glued to their phones and wave hello before hiding somewhere to work more.
The airbrushing hit me hardest when I was asked to interview a senior woman onstage at a corporate event so she could inspire her colleagues with her progression. I called her in advance and we had a brilliant chat about some difficult "time vampire" bosses she'd had when her children were young and how she had to change jobs to escape them. We talked about the battle to find the right nanny in the early years - which at the time she could barely afford - and the total crisis when the nanny left. We talked about the pressure her job put on her relationship. So far, so familiar. But on stage, fearful of being judged by the audience for being a bad or lazy mum or too negative, she said none of this. She sat up straight, smiled and told me a completely different story. All her bosses had been on side. She'd never had a nanny, let alone one upon whom she wholly depended to keep the household working. Her husband was her biggest supporter. I left the stage furious with myself for not cutting through it.
I started to wonder why this clean-up routine was happening. She, like many others, didn't want to conceal these things one-to-one; she wanted the catharsis of talking about it. But in public she feared everyone would judge her harshly if she was honest. As my articles about work/life were published, I could see the judgment pouring in and realised her instincts were right. In response to one piece I wrote about a high-powered woman with four children who said that the nanny cooked the family dinner, someone commented: "She might be powerful, but she is no mother." Ouch.
I was starting to understand that social expectations of mothers have not moved much in the past few decades. We still tend to see mothers as linked to homes, small children and domesticity. Despite the fact that 80% of all mothers now work outside the home - and 25% of those in professional jobs - expectations about maternal roles have not changed. However much we might fight it, being found wanting as a mother, being judged by other parents in this way, really hurts. Especially when your boss, team, competitors, partner and older kids will read what you say. And the wound is even deeper if those critical comments compound your own sense of unease about decisions you have made or are making.