Yesterday at work I was on the road visiting clients. The colleague with whom I usually travel was off, so I’d been asked to take along a younger member of staff, to help her gain experience. When I say ‘younger’, I mean quite a bit younger. The colleague was fresh from university and in her first job. She still lived at home with her parents (as should anyone fuckwitted enough to have been born later than 1987). As we drove along, she asked me lots of questions about my life, work and experiences. I started to feel like we were in a film. A terrible road movie looking at female relationships across the generations, a movie in which lessons are learnt and bridges are built. As the questions mounted, I started whether the M5 was in fact a bluescreen.
At one point she said the following:
It must be really hard, working full-time and having children. How do you manage?
I have been asked this question before, by work experience students and interns. Always female. Anne-Marie Slaughter would be relived; not one of them takes “having it all” for granted. I don’t know where they’ve heard about the hardship of being a mummy in full-time employment, but messages about it are all around us. Still, these young women never experienced it first-hand and since I have, presumably it’s my duty to let them know The Truth.
Nevertheless, on this particular occasion, it did cross my mind that I could just make up any old rubbish. After all, I’m the one living the career mummy nightmare; how could my colleague possibly contradict me? It’s easy to use irrefutable lived experience as a justification to talk bollocks. I used to do this all the time when I was teaching English in Germany, back in the mid-1990s. Desperate to improve their cultural awareness, students would ask me questions about the Royal family, or the Northern Ireland Peace Process. I hadn’t a sodding clue how to respond so I’d just say the first thing that popped into my head: “Yeah, we all swear allegiance to the Queen every morning. Not to do so would be breaking the Brownie Guide Law”; “The origins of the Troubles? I think you’ll find that the lyrics to Zombie by The Cranberries offer all the information you’ll ever need”.*
Thus, in response to the career / motherhood question, I could have said the following:
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I feel guilty all the time. No one ever tells you that having it all means doing it all. The look on my children’s faces when I drop them off at nursery.. [meaningful pause] Don’t do it, young person! Don’t believe the feminist lies and make the same mistakes as me! Promise me this! Promise me!
But that would probably have led to a long, embarrassed silence. And according to the sat nav, we were still along way off from Warwick. Thus I decided against it. So then instead I could have said this:
Oh, no, it’s totally fine. As long as you’ve got a supportive partner and are fully committed to everything, ever, it can all work brilliantly. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t have it all. I mean, look at me. Do I look tired? Do I look stressed? Am I not at the pinnacle of my career and still coming home to a lovely family? It’s brill!
The trouble with this is a) I do look tired and stressed, and b) mega career supermummies do not use words like “brill”. So however much experience I have behind me, this may still have looked like a lie.
I would love to say that what I actually came out with was nuanced, witty and to the point. Something which summed up what I really think, which is that it’s impossible to play off the relative hardness of being a SAHM, working part-time or being a full-on career mummy. There are far too many variables: how demanding your paid employment is, how demanding your children are, how much effort you put into parenting, how much effort you put into your job, whether you have a partner who supports you, whether you actually enjoy building LEGO masterpieces that no one will ever appreciate etc. etc. etc. Comparing the two is ridiculous. Having children is hard and tiring but it can also be wonderful, whatever decisions you make. So I tried to come up with a way of getting this across, all the while ensuring I didn’t miss our junction:
Nah, it’s alright, really.
Can we all now agree that this is the final word on it?
* You may be wondering why I never proposed listening to Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2. This is because, in keeping with my usual habit of mishearing lyrics and dismissing them as utterly inane, I used to think Bono was singing Someday, Buddy, Someday. I still knew the song related to the Troubles, but I considered it a particularly evasive and unhelpful response.