Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Working mothers: is it working?

December 2009 has proven the first major obstacle for two of my highest-flying female friends. One a Director of a major publishing company, and another a partner at a major accountancy and consulting firm, both of them had not only survived giving birth, one to 3 children, the other to 2, but had determinedly gone back to work, and stayed the course. One had managed to arrange her hours so that she went in at 8ish and left to pick up her children by 2.30, then worked at home in the evening. The other had a fantastic nanny arrangement. Both were up at nights, and never missed a school bake sale.

This Autumn, both were called into meetings, one an appraisal, the other to inform her about restructuring, and told that there wasn't room in the organization for them. Both have fought back, through unions, and both have or will walk away with payouts to prevent tribunals taking place to investigate constructive dismissal. Neither woman has ever received anything but the highest praise, and both had been on straight rises through the company, until the point of having children, and had held their own since then. In the case of one woman, her youngest started school this year, and so she was breathing a huge sigh of relief at having got through those early years, when the going seems so tough it's not worth the fight. Now she is faced with typing out a CV, which she hasn't had to do in a decade. As she commented, it is amazing how quickly company loyalty dissolves when you're being done over.

Most of my other female friends have encountered pretty serious obstacles to going back to work after children. I didn't have that many academic friends with children, but on the whole they have managed it pretty well. I'm the exception, but I had a husband and baby in London while I had to keep term in Cambridge, and I just found it all too painful and pointless. One of my girlfriends has had a career promotion from Head of 6th form in a London college to Head of 6th form in a very good girls' public school. It's been quite an eye opener for her, and she feels enormous guilt about her youngest, but she is clearly also relishing the upgrade.

But apart from this friend, I think that it is fair to say that all my other girlfriends who have had 2 or more children have had to grapple with huge career changes, downsizing, going part time, changing career altogether. Ones who have managed well, such as a friend who became an MD of her company between children, then later left to set up her own consultancy, have masses of family support nearby, or have the money to buy in excellent childcare.

I'm talking, obviously, about women who had careers before having children. A few of them now have jobs -- one retrained as a teacher, and I wonder if others will follow?

What is most upsetting about the two latest victims is that they seem collateral damage of the recession, an opportunity to retrench on progressive employment practice, in favour of younger, cheaper models without family commitments. So my friends are no longer exactly victims of patriarchy, since they have been well educated and enabled to soar in the first half of their careers (and I have no doubt they will go on to achieve amazing things). They are victims of capitalism. Yet not quite in the way that men are also victimized by capitalism, and laid off, expelled when they become too expensive or troublesome. These women were distinctly targeted because they do not participate in presenteeism. There is no other problem in their performance. They were well liked, and did their jobs well, without simply sitting around in the office until all hours. They simply did not fraternize.

I think that my girlfriends have disappeared in the central portion of the Venn diagram that exists connecting capitalism to patriarchy. Where these two powerful ideological forces overlap, there is a crosscurrent strong enough to drag the toughest of mothers under. Because to be a mother is to be vulnerable, in a way that no previous life state prepares women for. Until they become mothers, women only have to worry about achieving good exam results, the extent to which their physical appearance helps or hinders their working lives, avoiding sexual predation, finding a partner, building their careers.

Once they are mothers, they have a double focus that they cannot undo. However conditionally, they are still and always mothers. Perhaps this begs the question: is it possible to care more about one's career than about one's children? I think the answer is that the two spheres of affect are completely incommensurate. The two sorts of caring are fundamentally different. Caring about one's career means caring about how one is perceived; about making money that supports a lifestyle, which might include providing for children; it means caring about personal achievement, using one's talents to make an impression on the world, to change things for the better.

Caring about one's children means worrying about their development, being aware that they are innocent, striving not to damage that innocence, worrying about their education and their potential. And when all the worrying is momentarily in abeyance, it means simply loving them and knowing that you would lay your life down for them if you had to.

None of that caring can really be quantified. Perhaps some of it can be translated into economic terms, but that's really only to make a joke. There's no real contest: the children come first -- sometimes even as they are put in second place. It really is all for the children.

I know that it's easy to mock idealism like that. I know that I shout at my kids with the best of them, and that it feels as if it goes wrong every single day. I know that I get to the end of each day and wonder "what was that all about?". But I also know that I had to leave various career paths because of my children, and my feelings about them. I also wanted to focus on writing, which isn't connected to my children except insofar as I harbour dreams of penning novels as I pick them up from school and cry at their plays. It don't quite work like that I've found. But I haven't been trying recently.

I wish I could see ahead with 2020 vision, and know what the coming decade has in store for me, and my female cohort. The illnesses, the mastectomies, the divorces, the redundancies, the accidents, the deaths, the triumphs, the jealousies.... We really are just caught up in the great game of life now. I want to know where I sit -- is it in the window bay, just behind a curtain and out of sight, commenting on it all?

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