Tag Archives: SAHM

Skiing backwards

Years and years ago, I read about a term applied to (or chosen by?) wealthy retired North Americans who ploughed their cash into giant mobile homes in order to overwinter in milder climes. There was  even a bumper sticker for them and their deluxe Winnebagos: “We’re SKIing”, they’d announce. “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance”.

I have no idea whether this is still A Thing, but it was a phrase that kept occurring to me during the years I was a stay at home mother. I felt, a lot of the time, like I was somehow frittering away something due to my children in the future. Saving was way down the list. Investing for their education, likewise. Hell, I was even depriving them of the example of an industrious working mother, with all the benefits I kept hearing came with that.

It was an insistent little niggle, not particularly assuaged by the knowledge that it was a luxurious niggle to have. I knew – I know  – that working far too often confers no such opportunity to build a buttress, however small, against fortune. In our case, though, provided I found a job which paid sufficiently to cover childcare, working would bring financial advantage…or, that whispering little voice kept suggesting, just put the children on a more level footing with their immediate peers.

I’ve written plentifully on here about the fact that having a parent at home full stop is perceived to be of little value. The papers seem to be full of the advantages of maternal employment on children, and study after study proving that they come to no harm through being cared for in a setting other than home. I have no doubt that either is true, provided that material circumstances are such to ensure quality of provision and a levelling of other factors domestically. I just wonder if, perhaps, in the perpetual race to demonstrate no ill-effects, there is a lost nuance of a benefit less tangible, yet no less real? There doesn’t after all, have to be one right answer.

When, half pushed, half jumping, I stepped into what I now know was a career break, it was as if blindfold, with no particular plan and little hope that I could go back to the profession I’d studied and trained for. Almost a year after returning to work, I still can’t believe my luck that it is, for now, working out. It is still faintly incredible that someone took a chance on me, and that I’ve ended up doing something interesting and rewarding, with the luxury and luck of supportive colleagues and near-perfect childcare. Along with the ever-present prompting from my resident Imposter Syndrome, who likes to remind me daily that I’m bound to cock it up soon, is a sense that is all too good to be true.

So far, so me. But what about the reasons for that career break in the first place? Are they thriving, now that I’m gainfully employed? Have I realised that I was, after all, squandering their dues by spending time at home with them? If I am being brutally honest, I think that this was one of my biggest fears when I went back. Fear that they would struggle with the transition, obviously; guilt that I was changing their lives so dramatically. Alongside that, though, a nasty little fear that I might have to admit that I had been wrong.

They are, of course, fine. There has been no sudden dramatic decline in their schoolwork; no outbreak of delinquency (or no more than they displayed previously). We don’t seem to have forgotten each others’ names, and they tolerate or seek out my company in roughly the same proportions as they always did. They are, in some ways, undoubtedly better off: I am better tempered, and marginally (though gratifyingly) more solvent.

Perhaps it’s a bad case of self-delusion, however, but I can’t honestly say that they, or I, were nett losers during the six years I was out of the labour market (excluding the birth of Number 3). There’s a relief, actually, in feeling largely the same. I still have the knee-jerk “It’s a job, love, not a fucking halo” reaction when I hear a particularly egregious example of Busy Working Mum-hood.

Yet how to quantify, how to value, how even to class as “gain” what they now no longer have? There are tiny details of their day-to-day lives I don’t share anymore. There are unscheduled, unlabelled hugs that don’t happen; walks and chats and games  that are replaced now with a briskly efficient-, timed-to-the-millisecond drop off and pick up. There is, on balance, less time – and how do you account for that?

It’s hard to write about this stuff without self-editing. So here come the caveats: of course I don’t think that every mother wants, or should want to, or should take any time out of her career other than that which biology mandates. Of course I appreciate that this whole vexed question is the domain of a relatively tiny privileged minority. But still, I see so many women who, after children, end up in jobs for which they are woefully overqualified, or scrabbling around to make a pittance peddling someone else’s dreams. I hear others who are working because, not to, would close a door forever on something they hold dear. Sometimes it’s a choice. Sometimes, a compromise. Sometimes, it really was the only thing going.

As much as it may sound it, this isn’t an exercise in smuggery. It’s just that, according to every available calculator, I am less than half way through my working life, and those few years out, in the overall scheme of things, don’t seem so much. And I can’t help wonder if my case (thank you, Imposter Syndrome, for as long as it lasts) really shouldn’t be such an exception. This isn’t about the choices people make; it’s about the circumstances in which they make them – and what could make it easier for time out with young children not to be an irreparable blot on a woman’s CV.

We have such a linear view of life, still; such a binary either/or approach to progress and achievement and worth. We’re programmed to stockpile for the future; armour our offspring as much as we can against their own forays into the world. But, perhaps, there’s not one single best way of investing; as we live longer and work longer and move around more, maybe a portfolio approach to building an “inheritance” makes just as much sense as anything else. Much more sense, in a lot of ways, than deeming anything which deviates from school-work-family-retirement as somehow doing things in the wrong order.

It’s an awkward exercise, I imagine, to shuffle a pair of skis in reverse. It’s hard to see what’s coming, and it’s fraught with the risk of capsizing. But perhaps, when you think about it, balancing on planks on snow doesn’t come that naturally either.

 

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Working v Occupation

I’m not a violent person, but there are times I’d love to unleash my inner Ally McBeal. No, not the needy, neurotic lawyer (quiet at the back there), but the one who combined cartoon and karma to deliver instant comeuppance to anyone who crossed her.

Recently, I’ve been channelling Ally when faced with stupid comments about going back to work. Primarily those delivered with a chortle, and some allusion to the fact that I won’t know what has hit me when I’m faced with a real day’s work. It’s satisfying to imagine a cartoon boxing glove bopping them on the nose, even as I smile sweetly and roll my eyes so hard the minute my back is turned that I get a diagnostic image of my brain.

I am in the perfect position to deliver final judgement (did you see what I did there?) in the hoary old case of SAHM v Working Mother, and I’m pleased to confirm that, in fact, both are harder than the other.

Only kidding.

The answer of course, if you’re interested, is that neither is “harder”. Why? Because, in large part, neither SAHM or “working mother” actually means anything much. It’s like asking “Which has more colour? Blue or red?” (If there is a scientific answer to that one, I don’t want to know it).

That notwithstanding, the last couple of months have verified what I have long suspected: not necessarily that many people think being a parent who doesn’t work outside the home is easy, but that lots and lots and lots of people think it just has no value at all. It is perceived as a kind of vacuum, an occupation of time which is neutral at best, a lily-livered, latte-fuelled skive at worst.

Around the same time as I was starting work (I’d like to say it was as I was filling in the forms for childcare, but that would be a lie for artistic effect) an email job alert pinged into my inbox. Someone not far from me was looking for a nanny; someone to look after three children before and after school. It was good money, and there was a formidable list of qualifications and qualities that the right person would need. If I’d been unfortunate enough to be being hounded by a Job Centre to find work at the time, I could unquestionably have taken that one and moved instantly from scrounger to hard-working taxpayer simply by changing the identity of the children I cared for.

Why, I wonder, does the lack of familial connection turn the self-same activities from a cop-out into a worthwhile position of employment? Why is doing it as a job perfectly valid, while doing it for any other reasons (cost of childcare, lack of availability or quality, family circumstances, child’s needs…) generally accepted to be an extended holiday from real life?

No3 has only just started full time school, so I didn’t have full “child-free” days before I went back to work, but even if I had, they would have only amounted to five and a half hours, not every waking weekday moment. Don’t get me wrong, I weep at the thought of that time now…but the point is that stay at home parents, even the ones with school-age children, don’t have whole days at their disposal. That, and the fact that when the children are around, they are an occupation in themselves.

I could talk about all the things that occupied me when I wasn’t working outside the home and the children were at school, but the truth is, I still do most of it  now in the bits of time that are available to me around an extended 9-5 and the best part of two hours’ commute. 

Maybe I’m doing something wrong, though, because I am not noticeably more tired. Maybe I wasn’t idle after all when I didn’t have a job. Maybe, just maybe, being a parent is hard work full stop. And doing that parenting, however long or short you spend doing it, is not an absence of occupation.
I worked a compressed day from home today to accommodate my youngest’s first day of school, and althoughI was really lucky to be able to do it, it’s reminded me of the wearying aspects of my old life that from the outside apparently seemed like such a doddle.

Now that they are back at school, the children are in wraparound care for four hours each day before and after classes. That’s four hours when I miss their company, but it’s also four hours when I don’t have to be available to play with them, feed them, or listen to them; four hours when I  don’t need to nag them to pick up their toys and step in to break up their fights. It’s four hours that don’t require my involvement in the ludicrously ill-named “school-run” (“life sapping school-drag in the invariably pouring rain” not quite having the same ring to it).

It’s four hours when I don’t have to tacitly accept in social situations that I am less entitled to be tired, less entitled to be stressed, less entitled to be too busy to take things on than the person I’m talking to who happens to be paid a salary in exchange for a portion of their time and effort.

And the holidays? Being able to have spent so many long weeks with my children and few other demands on my time has been a total privilege, but it also, at times, brought me to my knees. Admitting that, though, never felt like it was an option: after all, I was lucky enough to be doing what I chose, and whingeing about it was the utmost bad faith when others had to use precious annual leave. 

It’s time for my closing arguments, but I don’t really have any. I don’t have a neat conclusion that ties up all my thoughts on this into a simple, snappy summary; don’t have the will to win a jury to one particular way of thinking. I don’t even have a Dancing Baby to entertain you.

Instead, I have a pile of ironing, three children to put to bed and some stuff to get ready for tomorrow. That will do for now.

Fatherism

“Men whose partners don’t work are increasingly facing a damaging but unspoken prejudice that assumes they have had children with women who are stupid, lazy and unattractive”, a leading child development expert has warned.

Meanwhile, Cherie Blair has called on men to stop facilitating their partners to stay at home full or part time to look after their children, and to encourage them to return to work to help “boost the economy”.

Yet many men struggle with combining a career and family life, in the face of research suggesting that children whose dads go out to work have worse life chances, and evidence indicating many people believe men without children work harder than fathers in the office.

All news stories from the last 6 weeks. None, of course, originally about men at all.

It struck me today, reading Zoe Williams’ response to this weekend’s Telegraph article on “motherism”, quite how strange our national debate about children is. For all the tedious homage to the “hard working family”, any onlooker could only conclude that they are, in fact, exclusively a woman’s issue. Working mothers are to blame for the ills of society. Stay at home mothers are hampering economic recovery. Working mothers don’t pull their weight in the office. Stay at home mothers are lazy and failing to fulfil their potential.

I wish I could share the conviction of the members of Mothers At Home Matter, a campaign group whose cause is clear enough. But I have no ideological standpoint on whether young children ought to be with their mums, or dads, or in (decent) childcare. Rightly or wrongly, I think that given security and love and cuddles and attention, children are primed to thrive wherever they find themselves, and that families tend to make the best, albeit often difficult, decisions for themselves and their children, based on the circumstances of their lives.

This isn’t a post about whether mothers should work or not. It’s more a query as to why mention of fathers is largely absent from the debate. Aside, even, from the fact that a man who has children is still, for the purposes of the workplace, just a man, not suddenly a “working father”, why do all discussions seem to start from the presumption that women unilaterally decide how their families will function?

Women’s choices are fair game for commentators and politicians alike, it seems. Yet couples make entirely rational, pragmatic decisions about how to balance their financial and other requirements, and they generally make them together. It’s as offensive to men as it is to women to go along with a narrative that they have no input and no influence on such fundamentals are where and how their children are cared for.

I can’t imagine a situation where a man would be openly criticised or patronised for having a partner who was a stay at home mother; yet women who don’t work outside the home must of necessity be supported by someone. Does that make him a poor deluded fool, who toils long hours to support his wife’s latte habit? An alpha male, who likes the idea of a trophy mate to complement the car? A control freak, who doesn’t want his woman to have any form of independence? Or just, as all the men in that position I know, a bloke who’s reached the conclusion with his other half that that’s what works for them?

I know that I’m arguing from an idealistic view of relationships, and that it doesn’t work like that for everyone. The thing is, though, that most of the negative comments about mothers’ decision to work or not do exactly the same thing. I know, too, that for all the talk of scrimping and making sacrifices (and I’m not thinking of missed foreign holidays or foregone music lessons), being able to afford to survive on a single wage is a luxury beyond many, even though so many women expressly say how much they wish they could spend at least the early years of their children’s lives at home.

I just wonder where the debate would go if it included men. If, in exchange for some of the guilt and opprobrium heaped on mothers, we could have an acknowledgement that families’ decisions around childcare are generally rational…and that addressing the problems which take away any real choice from so many (cost of living, house prices, childcare, employment insecurity) is not, after all, a woman’s issue at all.

There’s a special place in hell…

…which by 10.30 on Saturday evening, I was rather hoping was reserved for railway engineers who decree that intercity trains should limp along between Peterborough and Doncaster and turn the journey home from London into an insufferable eternity of irate (and increasingly refreshed) day-trippers.

The next infernal circle, though, is – according to Heather McGregor – the preserve of women who don’t help other women. I know this, because (10 hours before sitting in coach B and losing the will to live) I was in the glamourous surroundings of the Bafta headquarters in Piccadilly, listening to a succession of inspirational women brought together by Mumsnet for their first ever Workfest.

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I was lucky enough to win a ticket having written this post , all about my wobbles (real and virutual) about shedding my mummy-skin and returning to work. When I first read the day’s outline, it sounded perfect for me, although I must be honest and admit that I couldn’t have afforded to pay to go (I understand that there are plans for future events outside of London).

The day started with a slightly rushed arrival into the main auditorium (note to self: read streetplan before arriving into central London ) just as the panel discussion got going. On the theme of “How Do You Do It All?” six inspiring women with pretty stellar careers took questions from the audience and discussed the realities of combining family life with full-on (even if not full-time) work. The overwhelming answer seemed to be “Don’t” – take whatever help is available; share parenting duties with partners; be proactive in presenting solutions to work and taking ownership of your career; recognise that some things have to give.

The day then split up into break-out sessions, my first of which was “The Importance of a Great CV” with Heather McGregor (FT’s Mrs Moneypenny and presenter of Channel 4’s Super Scrimpers). The copies of my CV which I had dutifully printed off and brought with me curled up inside their plastic wallet in shame as it became increasingly apparent that they and greatness were somewhat far removed. Too long (one page!); too boring (no list of single present participle interests: reading, travelling, swimming); too gappy (account for all your time, no matter what). My leaner, meaner CV will showcase the three key facts about me which are apparently all that anyone will take from an initial read; and make much more of my “social capital” – an idea which anyone planning a career break for whatever reason should heed. This includes everything you do which is unpaid; drawing attention to all the skills and experience you’ve gained elsewhere. I am not sure how to spin the talent of distracting a child from a tantrum for refusing to allow him to pick the moles off my skin, but Mrs McGregor has inspired me to try.

My next session was “Boosting Your Confidence”. Maybe it’s a woman thing; maybe it’s just me, but confidence is a tricky, elusive quality. Actually, I don’t think it is just me, given that the same session was the only one to be repeated three times over the course of the day, each one fully booked. Whatever the reasons, working life for many women I think constitutes a kind of tight-rope walk of holding your nerve. Once you look down, once you stop, the balance is gone and it’s a fiendishly difficult thing to retrieve. The theme of confidence came up time and time again throughout the day: women ask for less, take on more, have lower expectations and yet, very often, out-perform their male counterparts both in terms of quality and quantity of work. Was my confidence boosted by the session? Perhaps not as such, but it was – as always – good to remember that the majority of the people are quaking inside a lot of the time.

Lunchtime: delicious food and the chance of a ten minute career coaching clinic, mine with Zoe Finton of CareerLovingMum. Again, no answers, but it felt incredibly helpful and rather indulgent to be 100% selfish and self-focussed even for that short period of time.

Lunchtime also gave me a chance to look around the sponsors’ lounge, where Barclays, Honda and Asda were on hand to give advice ranging from business finance to choosing a new wardrobe (though sadly not, I discovered, for those of us long of leg).

For me, the highlight of the day was the first afternoon session, “Returning to Work”. There was a fantastic range of talented, enthusiastic, passionate women, with a vast range of experiences to share, and the discussion could have gone on for hours. This, I think, was the strongest point of WorkFest for women like me, who are neither contemplating an initial return from maternity leave nor looking to start their own business. Being able to be frank and open with women with whom I had so much in common; hearing other people’s stories and aspirations, and with expert input from career insiders, helped me to formulate some of the ideas and emotions I have about returning to work and to put it into a context other than the purely personal.

The final session I chose was Interview Skills, an excellent, thorough, practical guide to – as the name suggests – preparing for an interview. My notes from this one are legion; bullet points, reminders, pointers, suggestions – they will be typed up and filed away as a “how-to” instruction manual alongside my made-over CV and newly-confident interview poise.

The day wrapped up with two keynote speeches from Thomasina Miers, who won Masterchef in 2005 before going on to start her own chain of Mexican restaurants and Apprentice 2009 winner Yasmina Siadatan, who now works for James Caan of Dragon’s Den. A small, Northern, un-entrepreneurial part of me was prepared (unjustly) to be slightly resistant to these speakers on the basis that they didn’t obviously match up with my own dreams and aspirations, but I found both to be passionate, charming and inspirational. Hearing that people who are now so obviously successful went through periods of not knowing what on earth they were doing with their lives; that they even now, loving where they are, they walk into a situation and quake with fear – women, as Tommi said, are great at getting everyone else’s shit together, but they can be equally great at reassuring and encouraging and inspiring.

All of which leads me back to my opening quote. I struggled how to write this post, actually; not because I was asked to review it in return for my ticket (which I wasn’t), but because it was hard to split out a birds-eye view of the day to give others an idea of what it involved from what it meant to me personally at this stage of my journey back to work. It was, actually, a kind of heaven to be around other women facing the same decisions and challenges, and to hear other people’s ideas, success, suggestions and overview of the market.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about work, and whenever I do I feel the Privilege Fairy sitting on my shoulder muttering that middle-class mothers’ career problems are deserving of the world’s smallest violins (if that). She is doubtless right. They are problems nonetheless, though, and I think Mumsnet have identified a great way of starting to help us address them. If only they could do the same with the trains.

****Fellow blogger @The40yearold also won a ticket to Mumsnet; you can read her blog (complete with fantastic notes!) here****