Tag Archives: work

The invisible children

Luckily, I’m past the stage of needing to use the Parent & Child parking spaces at the supermarket. I still play the game of “spot the invisible child”, though: eyes peeled for that strange phenomenon afflicting people who nab a convenient place presumably on the basis of owning a parent, or having once been a child.

There are ripe pickings for “spot the invisible child” in politics, too. On a more serious level which I’m not qualified to discuss, there are severely disadvantaged youngsters, whether through poverty, neglect or unmet special needs, whose plight too often goes unmentioned. On a level that affects me personally, though, along with millions and millions of others, are the children in the current hot topic of “childcare”.

To listen to politicians and most media coverage, you’d be justified in thinking that it’s an issue which applies only to tots. There are endless reams of thinkpieces on the harm or otherwise of paid care for babies and toddlers; endless (and fiendishly complex) policy wrangles around entitlement to free childcare (or is it early years education?) for the 3s-and-unders.

And then, once those same tots hit school age, any suggestion that their wheareabouts outside lesson time might be problematic becomes harder to spot than a babyseat in the back of a souped-up Fiesta  (whose driver couldn’t possibly be expected to walk across the car park to the cashpoint).

Childcare, it seems, is only really something which the powers that be (and the powers that want to be) can conceive as being of concern to parents until their offspring toddle into Reception.

There are occasional salvoes about Breakfast Clubs! and After School! and Holiday Sessions! all with costings and logistical underpinnings which make Labour’s current manifesto woes come across like an excerpt from A Beautiful Mind and which combine to convey the impression that it’s not really that big a problem; that such things are nice-to-haves, rather than vitally necessary for the majority of us needing or wanting to combine work with parenthood.

It goes without saying that childcare costs are prohibitive for many families with very young children, and that this is a significant barrier to many women returning to work after maternity leave. Solving, or at least easing, this, however, is of limited value if the same woman then feels compelled to leave work a few years later when someone needs to be at the school gate at 8.55 and 3.20 each day, or the only holiday clubs are between 9 and 3 and she works 8.30-5, an hour away.

Subsidising her preschooler’s childcare is great, but it’s of little help when she’s then faced with 6 weeks of summer holidays and an eleven year old (thinking of no-one in particular) who can’t be relied upon to find a matching pair of socks, let alone be home by himself for ten hours a day.

Living away from family, I’ve experienced first hand the difference that affordable on-site wraparound care can make. In my case, it has literally been the difference between being able to return to work or not. Being fortunate enough to have an employer who takes the question of work-life balance and family commitments seriously, I’ve likewise learned how flexibility during holidays and illness can make combining work and care responsibilities possible. Even with these advantages, reaching the end of primary school with my eldest feels a bit like falling off a cliff; talking to other parents, I know I’m not alone in this, and yet it never even seems to warrant a mention.

I’ve yet to hear a single politician outline seriously how they’d strive to ensure the advantages of childcare and flexibility I’ve been able to access thus far would be made available to all parents, not just a lucky few.

As for any acknowledgement we’d care at all how things will work at eleven and over? It’s empty space, as far as I can see.

The fact that so many families muddle through due to grandparents on hand, or mothers (and it is almost always mothers) being forced out of work and/or into low paid or local roles shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a system that’s working. Achieving equality in the workplace and assessing the needs of those who need to balance earning and caring responsibilities needs to go well beyond the nappy years.

I remain passionately in favour of families choosing how best to structure their finances and employment to meet their own changing needs, but restricting employment options can’t be a good thing when so many of us will work for 30 or 40 years after our children start school, both on a personal level and in terms of maximising tax and NI intake.

There are not as many opportunities for cute photo ops with winsome toddlers, sure. But there’s definitely a bigger picture to see here.

 

 

 

 

 

Slight Return

When I was contemplating returning to full-time work after a six year career break, I cast around on Twitter and among friends for clues and tips and reassurance that I wasn’t Completely Mad for even considering it. There was lots on how to get organised, but very little that told me what it would actually be like. Almost two years in, what would I say to someone asking me the same question?

  • Be brave

I expected the tiredness and the logistical challenge of combining work and a hectic family life after the luxury of a few years where I only had to consider the latter. What I didn’t realise was how exhausting dredging up the courage to go in, day after day, till I found my feet again would be.

I was terrified on a daily basis, for a long time, in a way that I didn’t recognise from pre-career-break work, and in a way which I no longer experience now. I had a mantra of “don’t look down”: visualising myself on a tight rope, I willed myself to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to contemplate the horrors lurking should I slip.

Little things I once and now again take for granted: composing an email, approaching someone senior, giving an opinion or advice which I know could come back to bite me should I be wrong, were draining in a way I simply hadn’t expected.

Battling imposter syndrome is nothing special, I know, but it took every ounce of energy I had to fight it down when it was armed with the ammunition of that time away from the office.

  • Be selfish

Wankerish as this sounds, I was brought up to believe in service to others, and having been acutely conscious of the additional time I had available while not working, like a lot of people I tried to volunteer where possible and fit in lots of social commitments with friends and family.

Volunteering and working are not mutually exclusive, of course, but it took me almost a year of becoming increasingly unhappy and ill to realise that a break while I reacclimatised to work would have been best all round. It wasn’t the lack of time which was the issue, so much as the need to prioritise family and my own mental well-being with space wherever possible not to be “in demand” from external sources while we all got used to our new normal.

Again, two years in, I now have the energy and headspace to start to be able to fit things in to the spare time I have available, but in retrospect it would have been helpful to have felt I had permission to take a step back. As with the friends point below, it’s natural to feel it important to prove a point – look, I can work and still do everything too! – but those who really care about you won’t be bothered either way.

  • Losing friends and inconveniencing people

Very much related to the above. Maybe this was just me, but it was hard to realise that to some people I considered friends, I had only every really just been valuable by my presence. A stay at home mum is a useful social acquaintance: able to step in at short notice, lend a hand in groups and  generally help move things along by the simple virtue of proximity to home during the hours when others are in the office or on the road.

Not everyone, of course; going back strengthened some lovely friendships by making me realise who was a friend because of who I am rather than what I could do for them, but it wasn’t an easy thing to process in the midst of readjusting back to work when I could have done with a bit of support, and it’s something I wish I’d been prepared for.

  • Be happy

I used to scoff at the idea that having a happy mother was a tangible benefit to children, perhaps because I just didn’t realise that I was bored and rather miserable by the end of my time at home, but it’s been true in our case. I’ve been incredibly lucky in a supportive employer and access to great, affordable childcare, without both of which it possibly would have been a very different story.

Terror notwithstanding, I felt even in my first day that way you do when it’s only on starting to eat that you realise you were famished. Tiredness notwithstanding, I am simply happier with the boost to my confidence and self-esteem which returning to work has given me.

It has been, and continues to be, hard. I miss my children, they miss me (and the luxury of not being in wraparound childcare) and I simply don’t have the degree of involvement in their daily lives that we once took for granted. But they are happy, and they continue to thrive, and we’re all more than managing.

If you’re reading this and wondering whether going back to work (or stepping back in to a more demanding job after a period of doing something to fit in around family commitments) is for you, I can’t give you an answer. All I can say is that it was the unquestionably the right thing for me.

Oh, and good luck.

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.

 

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.

Hired? Fired? Or just plain tired?

So, last week I wrote up my notes from Workfest, which included the excellent advice to maximise your social capital: everything you’ve done for which you’re not paid (although presumably there are limits, unless your marriage has taken the barter system to a whole new level) when applying for jobs after a career break. It got me thinking. What have seven years of parenthood taught me that I could turn to good use in an interview situation? Here are my *ahem* transferable skills:

1. Understanding customer’s requirements

At some stage between their first and second birthdays, children will start to use recognisable words from their mother tongue. Unfortunately, their use of these words may not always be reliable, and requires careful decoding in order to defuse tantrums.

“Muuummmy, I’m hungry”

“Would you like a banana?”

“Nooooooooo! I want something to eat!”

2. Remaining calm under pressure

Nothing confers zen-like calm in the face of adversity more than the repeated discovery that a child needs, or indeed has had, a poo when there are mere seconds left before leaving the house. Shit happens. Parents are world-class at dealing with it*, both literally and metaphorically.

*may depend on sleep levels the night before

3. Negotiating skills

Anyone who’s ever had a toddler knows that confrontation will, at best, win a hollow victory. The most contentious, hard-nosed, workplace discussions hold no fear for a woman who has faced down a two-year old determined to wear a swimming costume for the school run. When it’s snowing.

4. Self-motivation

It’s a happy day when the eldest child starts school. Not (just) because s/he is out of the house for several hours a day, but because an 8.55 start helps tremendously in crow-barring the family out of its respective pyjamas before lunchtime. Days at home without structure can be very long. Parents develop excellent planning skills to navigate their offspring through the hours between breakfast and bed. Which leads perfectly into:

5. Flexibility

You rise, smug in the knowledge that you have a day’s activities sketched out ahead of you. Then the forecast sunshine turns to rain, your playdate friend rings to say they’ve got a sick bug, and the morning’s painting session runs out of steam by 9.20. The ability to think on your feet and quickly adapt to a fast changing environment*? Second nature to a parent

*may include CBeebies

6. Time Management

There is nothing faster and more efficient on earth than a woman who knows the baby may start crying Any Minute Now. Or that there are 7.5 minutes left of this episode of Thomas.

(Disclaimer: the fact that she may choose not to demonstrate these skills but instead have a refreshing dip into Twitter in no way negates this)

7. Team working

The success of any workplace depends on how effectively its leadership is in getting people do stuff they don’t want to do. Cajoling, coaxing (and, frankly, bribing) are the bread and butter (or chocolate buttons) of any household. Watch that department fly.

8. Communication skills

“Able to communicate effectively with a wide range of service users”

Translation: can move seamlessly from bellow to hiss to Joyce Grenfell (when there’s someone here for tea)

9. Budgeting and financial management

Just Say No. Or pretend you left your purse at home.

10. Multitasking

Yes, it’s a cliche. Doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Changing a nappy while on the phone to the bank. Making tea while helping with homework. Cleaning the bathroom while on Twitter. It may, however, be an idea to leave out of the discussion the times you shouted at the poor Barclays lady to GET DOWN FROM THERE, YOU’VE GOT A DIRTY BOTTOM or put the reading book away in the fridge with the cheese.

 

I probably ought not to mention either that I’ve been perfectly happy to date to be paid in cuddles.