Gaby Hinsliff writes about her decision to resign as political editor of the Observer in order to spend more time with her two-year-old son. It’s a long, soul searching article about the inner conflicts experienced by her and other mothers as they try to juggle full-time work with parenting and family life:
For two crazed but fantastic years, I did – in that loaded cliche – have it all: terrific job, plus small child. Thanks largely to a brilliant nanny and a hands-on partner, I don’t honestly believe either suffered from the other. But what got lost in the rush was a life, if a life means having time for the people you love, engaging with the world around you, making a home rather than just running a household.
What makes the article so poignant (and painful) is that she’s not a strident campaigner for stay-at-home motherhood. The realisation that something needed to change came very slowly:
Surrender steals up on the working mother like hypothermia takes a stranded climber: the chill deepens day by day, disorientation sets in, and before you know it you are gone. In the sleepless blur of the last three years, I can barely even remember now how it started.
But perhaps it was back this spring, when I took my son to be measured for new shoes: the woman asked what size he took, and to my embarrassment I couldn’t remember. I felt like an imposter. Or perhaps it was the summer morning when our nanny had to peel my howling son off me: he had a fever and wanted his mother, but I had a cabinet minister to interview. I shot out of the door, hot with shame.
What surprised her, and surprises me, was the evidence (both anecdotal and statistical) of how many working mothers feel the same:
But I never expected the emotional outpouring that followed. “Wish I had the guts to do the same,” texted a junior minister, when I announced my resignation. A seemingly unflappable PR confessed secretly agonising over “not being the kind of mother my son deserves”: a colleague whose slick work-life balance I had always envied admitted she was “at the end of my tether”, dying to quit.
Confessions tumbled compulsively from people I barely knew: tales of stricken marriages, miscarriages, only children who were meant to have siblings but then a career got in the way. “Too many of us once had relationships that we haven’t got now because of this job,” said a veteran male reporter, now divorced.
“I can’t afford regrets,” mused a cabinet minister, “because I’ve had this fantastic career, but…” Politics had, he said, dominated his children’s lives.
Not everyone sympathised. “Fine if your husband can afford to keep you,” sniffed a Tory frontbencher. But the shock was how widespread the fantasy of leaving work, even among parents in gripping careers, seemed to be.
Survey after survey suggests a deep-seated, buried misery over the eternal battle between work and family. Half of working mothers with children under 15 would stay at home full-time in an ideal world, according to a 2001 survey for the then Department for Education. Eight years on, this month’s She magazine reports nearly three-quarters of its readers want to cut their hours: the journalist Cristina Odone’s recent think-tank pamphlet, What Women Want, claimed if money were no object only 12% of mothers would work full-time.
I don’t know what conclusions to draw. Perhaps, simply, that as a society we should do all we can to help those mothers who do hope to spend more time with their children to fulfil that hope. This would not, then, be a reactionary campaign to force mothers back into the kitchen; it would be a libertarian call to help individuals achieve their goals in whatever way seemed best to them – including, if this were the case, to have more time for their children.