All or nothing?
Family-friendly working practices cannot resolve the tensions between work and motherhood, says Ann Furedi
High-flying career woman Shirley Conran, a government adviser on women and work, believes that professional women trying to 'juggle' a family and a career should stop whinging and learn to organise their lives better. And it strikes a chord. Little is more tedious than journalists parading stories of their family lives across the broadsheets; and following January's Panorama programme on the conflicts of domestic and work life, various media pundits have debated this issue to death. Panorama laid a minefield through which it seemed every woman columnist felt obliged to stagger, using autobiography as a map.
At issue was a study showing that, after the birth of a first child, 19 percent of working women had quit their jobs altogether and a further 17 percent had switched to a part-time position. Why? According to Susan Harkness of the University of Sussex, author of the research: '[t]here was no accommodation within their jobs to account for the fact they now had responsibilities for a very young child.' One interviewee, a marketing director for a publishing company, explained that she hadn't been hounded out of her job but had her working day 'made so guilt-ridden [she] couldn't bear to carry on'. A lawyer had won compensation from her employers because they would not consider her demand for flexitime, so that she could come in late. Another complainant was a team manager who wanted to work part time but would not accept a lower grade.
Conran is exasperated. 'How can you be a part-time team manager if your team is working full time?', she complained. 'If there are problems, a team manager solves them as they come up. He or she needs to be there.' (Sunday Times, 30 January) She argues that the time conflicts involved in combining career and work can be resolved by better time organisation at home. Instead of looking to change work practices to accommodate our needs we should change family life to accommodate our work, by involving fathers more and applying the same planning skills to home as we do to our jobs. 'Neither the government nor I can help if you insist on washing your hair and reading stories to your children at the beginning of your working day', she advises. 'That's truly appalling time management.'
What is, in essence, a demand for working women to get their act together is somewhat harsh. To those who believe that current employment practices fail to meet the needs of women, and see further state intervention to promote genuine equal opportunities as the answer, it would seem downright offensive. But the traditional feminist view, that the integration of women at work would be resolved through changed attitudes and equal opportunities policies, seems less convincing now. Despite the fact that substantial gains have been made in equal opportunities at work, we still seem to be facing a reality clash between externally determined standards of professionalism and the unpredictable demands of family life.
It is an uncomfortable but undeniable truth that the requirements and professional responsibilities of many jobs cannot be adapted to accommodate a person's changed circumstances - how ever liberal a boss may be. Deadlines are deadlines, and as broadcaster Jenni Murray wrote in her Express column, 'We have to accept that in some jobs a work/life balance is achievable and in others it's not'. The problem faced by most professional new mothers who wish to continue their careers is whether their work is susceptible to a new balance or not - and unfortunately time management is not the crucial issue. As Conran points out, time management is relatively easy and it is hard to see why she sees hair washing and an early morning story as such intractable problems. The solution is to simply get up a bit earlier.
The real difficulty faced by working mums is not time per se but the required shift in priorities. Whereas once a woman might have placed her job at the centre of her life, and organised herself around it, that place is now occupied by a child and this necessarily demands that the job becomes less of a priority. The tension that this creates is difficult to resolve through organisation because the nature of children's demands is that they are unpredictable and often cannot be resisted, and disrupt the most carefully prepared schedules. Children get sick (and so do childminders and nannies). They get frightened in the night and need comforting (regardless of whether you have allocated the time to work on the project proposal you have to present the next day). With a child at home it is difficult - no, impossible - to be as flexible or responsive as you were before. You can no longer stay on at the office for as long as it takes to get the job done and when an evening meeting drags on longer than expected, it does so without you. Mother must clock-watch. Mother must work a hundred times harder than non-mother to remain 'reliable'.
Nor is the incursion of a child into your life the cause of merely practical inconveniences. They colonise a lot of mental space that may previously have been devoted to 'the company'. You used to spend time in the bath mulling over that new deal - now you spend it planning how to amuse Zoë at the weekend. And you enjoy doing it, because it would be wrong to present children as an unwilling distraction. If you have a child because you want a child, you will want to enjoy the child. Many of the working mothers whose comments have filled the broadsheets are expressing guilt, not just because they are unable to make that 6pm meeting, but because they want to get home to little Simon or Alexandra.
'What about the father?' you ask, and of course fathers experience some of these tensions too. Most modern fathers make some attempt to share the load, but an equitable distribution of responsibility is almost impossible. It is a strange fact of life that no matter how near to a child's nursery the father works, and no matter how distant the mother, when a child develops a temperature of 102 mum gets the call. And while it is possible to insist that father pulls his weight with an equal share of responsibility, this simply means the professional lives of both parents become compromised rather than just the mother's. To return to Jenni Murray: 'As Tony Blair will undoubtedly demonstrate when the latest addition to his family comes along, a part-time prime minister is never going to be an option.'
The 'tensions of parenthood' may be deemed resolvable by trainers in equal opportunities who believe that the issues could be resolved by more family-friendly employment policies, but it is glaringly obvious to employers that this is not the case. Encouraging mothers back into the workplace has become a key plank of government policy, and there have been suggestions that legislation to impose a legal right for new mothers to demand their old job back on a part-time basis is crucial to this. It will come as no surprise that such legislation is being fiercely opposed by employers' organisations. A survey of the Institute of Directors in January showed that already, 45 percent of their members admit that they would think twice about taking on women of childbearing age because of maternity legislation. Cue sharp intake of breath and mutterings of 'sexist bastards'. Then consider this unscientific, anecdotal support. A school-gate discussion with some mums of kids under five elicited the admission that, after having a child themselves, they would be less disposed to employ somebody in a similar position - or who they thought would be likely to have a child in the near future. So much for sisterhood.
The implications of the continued tension between work and family affect all women in their late twenties and thirties. Even if you decide to absolve yourself of motherhood and devote yourself to your career, you will still be perceived as potential-mother and possibly discriminated against as a consequence. The great compromise that is motherhood affects us all regardless of our individual reproductive intentions. And it is a strange dichotomy that, in these feminised times with so much rhetoric about the inclusion of women, there is still a fundamental barrier to women's equal participation in the workforce - at least among professionals. But it is difficult to see how these tensions can be resolved without a fundamental shift in society's attitudes to work and parenthood.
Conran exhorts that 'having children is a huge burden. These days women have a choice whether to have a child or not.... You shouldn't have a child unless you are prepared to make all the sacrifices it involves'. Many young couples are taking the childfree choice precisely because they feel unable to incorporate the additional responsibility. But do we really want to see a society polarised between parents and non-parents? How attractive is a world where children are raised by women who are either bitter with their exclusion from the world of work, or with no desire to participate in it? Do we not think that the experience of parenthood can, in small ways, foster skills that can benefit the boardroom?
Childcare is a crucial issue. While not alleviating all the stresses of motherhood, the provision of affordable, adaptable childcare would soothe many of them. But standard nine-to-five childcare (or worse, 8.30am to 3.30pm school) is a joke. In Germany, there are currently experiments involving round-the-clock nurseries where children can be booked in for evenings or even sleepovers. Concerns that these would be 'abused' by couples abandoning their kids for the week have been shown ill-founded. The convenience is tempered by parents' desire to spend time with their children. Yet even the notion of such an arrangement rests on an assumption that it is normal for mothers to have legitimate non-family related demands on their time: a view that rarely comes into any discussions about crèche facilities or nursery care in Britain.
Enforcing a compromise on the professional standards expected of mothers is not the answer. We do not want to pretend we are able to do a job well. We do not want to do a job well - in a 'motherish' sort of manner. We want to be able to use our creative and professional skills to their full potential. Our ambition does not die when we conceive. Must it really be so hard to live one life while raising another?
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000