Saturday, 5 July 2014

What made you want to have a baby?

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.


myrin said...

I ended up being the wife (and having the 3 girls you know pretty well) of a man who contributes to that kind of mentality. I've seen him go through resumes. I've heard conversations with HR colleagues. And eventually I got to hear exactly what he thought about me and my choices: a nice socially accepted excuse for not having the guts to "go all the way" work wise because it's much better to live the life out there while someone else does all the hard work. All the choices I made in my personal life were lead by the heart and not by reason or convenience. Big mistake - apparently. Yet I know that no one will ever be able to change that part of me...

Kirkegaard said...

Well I think you made the right choice and will be happier in the long run. There are no guarantees, but it seems to me that intuition - hormonal or otherwise constructed - is powerful for a very good reason, which is precisely to temper reason. If we acted only on reason, that human species would have died out long ago. The brain is simply an efficiency tool generating possible answers to problems.

EmmaT said...

You're so right that this still happens. And businesses just get more clever to give other reasons why you would be let go to cover themselves, even though it's obviously that you might be the only one doing shorter hours, having less flexibility than others because you've a child. I think a parent (mother or father) can do any job they did before, as long as they've got a supportive OH who can help with the flexibility. Mine's not particularly helpful, although I'm lucky that his family are also nearby to fall back on if necessary, but it does make life harder.

I guess a lot of mums views and ambitions change as they move into the child stage of life, but it does mean that businesses lose out on crucial skills, training and knowledge by losing these people

Perdita said...

Yes, but you also have the flipside, when this sexist attitude is confused for "this is the way it is" feminism. I work somewhere where quite a few of the managers are mums. It's well set up for it: there are mums who have 'gone all the way'. I am very lucky I know to be working in this environment.

But I get the "you're just trying to be like a man and have it all" chat from other women when I mention this. As if because my situation is lucky, I ought not to take advantage of it SO THAT IT MAKES THE POINT or so that I am a counter-culture-rebel sticking it to 'the man' by opting out of the rat race.
It's bizarre. The way I see it, if the women at my workplace can make it work, it adds credence and power to women everywhere who can say "no, it isn't impossible: look, they do it there". Rather than be written off as 'tokens' by fellow women in workplaces which have dreadful practices.

Anonymous said...

Reading this i was thinking about it and wondered about a few points of view of how women having children would make these jobs look sideways at them.

I wondered that apart from the time the women might spend with pregnancy etc, is this not also some sort of unconscious sexual thing ?

Has in a woman with a baby is less available has a possible sexual partner inside these big work arenas, how much does this weight in on this stigmata ? It particularly stuck out upon reading the "get rid of the boyfriend and you'll go far" bit.

Just a weird thought i had. Interesting read.

Kirkegaard said...

Gosh, Perdita, it just beggars belief that you get stick from other women because you are lucky enough to work in a more enlightened situation. It seems like a very twisted logic to me. You absolutely should take advantage of the situation you find yourself in, and advertise the good practice so that it spreads.

I suppose I have come to see myself as a 'rebel' because the high expectations I had were crushed (by a woman), and so I have made the decision never to be done over again, which has led to self-employment, and greater happiness.

But had I had children in a supportive employment environment, I would have stayed and worked as hard as I could. My point of view was rather forced upon me by circumstance, and by the desire not to become bitter.

Where I might take a little issue is with those who would say, "suck it up, this is the way things are, this is what employers need to do to run their businesses", without knowing the exact employment scenario a woman is trying to say is unfairly stacked against her. That is very murky water....

Thanks for your great comment!

Nic said...

It's such closed mindedness and not even old fashioned really, because there are cultures in history where childcare was much more shared between the sexes and equality made more sense. I don't want to work in a world like this. And as you say, the way forward could be working in an unconventional (but more intelligent!) way such as working for yourself. I'm into the Art of Non Conformity blog at the moment and the book The Wonderbox which both made me realise that working 50 hours a week for someone else and handing over all your time to them is something that we just don't have to do. I haven't found all the answers yet but having my daughter has definitely made me reevaluate my working life and work out what is actually going to make a difference to me on my deathbed. Ooh deep!
Great post and I thoroughly agree.
Another person worth reading about if you haven't is Sandra Bem and her family. (can you tell I've been a bit into this lately?!) x

Kirkegaard said...

Thanks for this Nic! I will look into the blogs and books you mention!