Today I had a message from a friend of mine. She is going to quit her job this morning. She has two children, and her childcare arrangement has let her down again. She is intelligent, educated and highly capable but when push comes to shove the juggling act that has been her life just doesn't make sense anymore.
Women, work and childcare are not three words that sit together easily on the same page. I spent a year with my son on maternity leave, which was of course a huge blessing but in the last few months of that I swear I could hear my brain dissolving. I had imagined myself taking easily to life at home, filling the days with joyful baking, hearty coffee mornings with other like-minded parents, and wholesome trips to story-time at the local library. It turns out that being a stay at home mum isn't quite as picture perfect as I had allowed myself to believe. Add to that the fact I need to work to help pay the monthly bills and the writing was on the wall - I would not be a stay at home mother, I would return to work. In my mind nothing could be simpler. Work was a luxurious and independent option; my son would go to a child minder and I would hop, skip and jump into work each day, with only a handbag, magazine and coffee to carry. Bless my naïve little heart.
Around that time I was also reading, rather earnestly, a book called 'The Feminine Mistake,' by Leslie Bennetts. 'Are we giving up too much?' the book boldly asks us. 'Yes!' I shouted from the side-lines (sofa) 'Yes, we are! And I for one won't put up with it.' With that, I marched back to the office, with a sense of purpose and determination (and that all important take-away coffee)... and so started the hardest year of my life.
It turns out that I can't condense the hour and a half commute to London into an hour simply through the power of thought. So, I was always late for work... every single day. I also had to leave at 4.30pm to do the whole thing in reverse. The office doesn't close until 6pm, so that was slightly troublesome. I felt like such a shirker plodding out of the door early every day, and even though my colleagues were calm and understanding, it just didn't feel right. Those, of course, were the good days. On top of all the 'smooth' days consisting of only being late in the morning and leaving early in the evening, there was also the fact that 'child minder' should really be code for 'child viral pit from hell...' Every other week the phone rang, usually just before a series of meetings, to inform me that my son was ill and would need to be collected asap. Cue cancellation of meetings, and a mad dash back to Surrey. We can't afford a nanny, the nursery presents the same issues as the child minder does, and despite the best efforts of family to be supportive and helpful, every week became a logistical nightmare.
It's not possible to sum up in words how hard it is work and have children - only those who do it can possibly know. Despite the fact that I am pretty sure that I didn't conceive my son without the help of my husband, somehow women are nearly always the ones left to manage this perilous arrangement. Despite seeming to have so much in the way of opportunity, we are still left paralysed by circumstance, and there has been no obvious cultural shift to help absorb the practical realities of families where both parents work. Our previous generations fought so hard for us - the right to vote, the right to work, the right to a life outside the home, so isn't it sad that all this choice and opportunity simply feels like a pressure all of its own? It feels more like an expectation than a right; and this expectation to work, manage the house, and find some magical childcare solution to last the best part of two decades of child rearing, is huge. Some describe it as a juggling act, but that assumes that all the balls are in the air - I dropped all of mine within a few measly months, there was no juggling, just mad-dashing, a fair bit of crying and, ultimately, failure. That awful word: failure. When it came to managing work and family side by side, it happened almost immediately in my house.
I worry about some of the messages out there - Leslie Bennett's book is wonderful; inspiring and full of belief that women should work come what may, which in theory at least is a valid viewpoint and one which she debates fully and intelligently in her book. 'A man is not a financial plan' is the core message and one which resonates with most women in the modern world. But men simply don't share the burden of childcare in our society so how can we really address this issue without coming apart at the seams? Do we really want to sacrifice everything in order to 'have it all?'
Cityfathers was launched in April 2014 to 'provide a forum for working fathers balancing office and family life,' Many men, my husband included, are hugely supportive behind the scenes and would love to step-up more often to help when a childcare issue rears its head. However, for most men the expectation in the workplace has not changed to reflect equal parenting, and without equal parenting being part of our cultural subconscious, satisfactory arrangements are more to do with what is manageable, practical, and actually acceptable than what is simply legal. Whilst it might not be ideal for men or women, we are still living in a man's world when it comes to work. As Emma Cahusac says; "Unless mothers mimic successful men, they do not look the part for success in organizations."
So, the debate, the battle, the cultural warfare continues. I usually like to end a blog on a fitting quote and oh the irony that this quote is actually from none other than Sheryl Sandberg, who is of course a great advocate of women and their choices and has plenty to say on the matter (although I wonder how real her childcare issues actually are when she is said to be personally worth more than $1bn):
''If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can... and accepting them.'' Thanks Sheryl, I'll bear that in mind.