I was at the pub last night with some fellow parents from school. We were chatting about this and that, and then suddenly the conversation kicked up a gear.
I was droning on about how rubbish mothers' lives are, as usual, when a friend of mine, who is a lawyer, interjected to say, 'Way before I had children, I was working in private practice. A partner sat me down and said, "You have the potential to go all the way, and make partner, as long as you focus completely on your work, and stop doing all this creative writing stuff".' My friend was writing a novel in her spare time, and had an agent. She went on, 'What I thought was, "Stuff that, I just don't want to sell my soul into lawyering if it means I can't do what I want". It made me realise that having a baby was actually a radical thing to do, when there was such a weight of assumption that all I would want to do was make partner.'
It felt as though a ray of light had burst into the pub. Another friend chipped in with a similar story: she had been sat down in Hong Kong, and told that she could go all the way, or some such phrase, if she just dumped the boyfriend. The boyfriend is now the father of her two children.
When I was being shown the range of Cambridge Colleges I could choose from, on becoming a lecturer there, the Bursar at one of them pointed out that there was a college creche. The woman from the French department, who was showing me round the college, interrupted him to say, "Oh, Ingrid won't have time to have a baby," and laughed. I made myself laugh too, but mentally put a big, black cross through that college. This woman already had two children. A man appointed at the same time as I was subsequently took up a Fellowship at this college. When he and his wife had twins a couple of years later, they duly used the college creche. The woman who'd shown me round? She eventually became the head of the French Department. When I had a baby, she forced me to resign.
Women are told all the time in their early careers that having a family is in conflict with their ambitions. They are warned that having babies will cost them promotion, cost them income, cost them status. They're also told that they will be unfulfilled if they don't have a baby. Men aren't told this.
Having a baby for me was an existential choice. I knew very well that procreating would put potentially intolerable pressure on me and on my career — everything I had ever witnessed in academic life had taught me that. I knew the odds were stacked against me if I reproduced. And I went ahead, I made the choice, with my partner, to go for pregnancy. I took the consequences.
Having a baby, and what was then done to me in terms of employment and career path, security and pension, forced me into a situation in which I have had to go on making existential choices, again and again, to keep renewing my personal freedom. This has at times felt relentless, unfair, frightening — but I have never stopped, and I am much happier than I was a decade ago. The idea that an employer should ever tell a woman that she should not have a baby, or threaten her employment prospects if she dares to do so, is such a disgusting one, that I want to take to the streets.
We think this kind of stuff is in the past, that Western women now exercise free choice as they make their way through education and into employment, give or take a bit of salary disparity. But behind closed doors, in meeting rooms, in asides and emails, women are still being bullied about their choices. As if only women have children. As if men don't. What are men? The angel Gabriel?
My answers have been to refuse to compromise myself into giving up what I love and what makes my life finally have meaning, even if it makes no economic sense, and even if I have no status in the eyes of society at large. Why the hell should I? I'd lay down my life for our children, but I'm not going to kill myself for a job. If society wants to capitalise on the education I was given, and the skills my experience has brought me, it's going to have to step up. Not the other way round.