THE PARENTHOOD DILEMMA

Having just recently had my second child, I was very much saddened and drawn to Judy Golding’s article in The Week[1]. I regret that it has taken me such time to write about this but the demands and emotional needs of a four year old and now sixteen week old have somewhat consumed my time. Having children is without doubt a hard task, and I often wonder how my grandmother gave birth to seven and brought up five (two passed away as children). There have certainly been times in the last few weeks where my selfish gene has reared its head and I have wondered “Why in God’s name have I done this and fettered my life forever”. And then I receive the unconditional cuddles and kisses and smiles that have no boundaries and I again realise it is all worth the years of tussles and tears.

Judy Golding’s article about intense love that her parents shared and their quasi resentment towards their children made me consider my love for my own children. Certainly I love my husband, but not to the point where my children are out of focus. Unfortunately, they are probably too much in focus.

Certainly, at times, couples can become intertwined in their children’s lives, to the extent that they can lose sight of each other and the other’s needs. However Judy Golding talks about her parents’ love which was so exclusive that there seemed to be very little time and love for their children. Emotionally the children must have constantly wanted and vied for their parents’ attention, and as adults they may have constantly craved that love. The following extract of her article is poignant and very telling.

“It was as if our parents were the stars, and we were the supporting actors in their life together… The real thing for me, at any rate, was a sense of their comparative indifference, my mother showed it, and occasionally my father too. Even at the age of five I was ashamed of how little she seemed to care about me. I hid myself from the possibility that he did not care quite enough either.”

The article is incredibly moving, especially for the mother of a toddler and a new baby. I can understand how parents can give too much to their children or perhaps are not able or don’t wish to give enough, or they feel that they have made sacrifices (especially women) when having children. I am certainly feeling the tussle of the emotional demands of two children and self-flagellate when I believe that I am not completely giving enough to both whilst I am objective enough to know that my children will one day be wholly independent of me. It is also hard for women who have nurtured jobs and careers and then decide to have children. Caitlin Moran makes a brilliant observation in her book How to be a Woman[2], which is my current favourite and recommended book of the year. She writes about this point very succinctly which poignantly reflects my own view.

“But when women are asked when they’re going to have children, there is, in actuality, another, darker, more pertinent question lying underneath it……

It’s this: ‘When are you going to fuck it all up by having kids?’ When are you going to blow a four-year chunk, minimum, out of your career – at an age when most people’s attractiveness, creativity and ambition is peaking – by having a baby. When are you going to – as is the decent, right and beautiful thing – put all your creativity and power on hold, in order to tend to the helpless, minute-by-minute needs of your newly born? …..

When people ask working women, ‘when are you going to have a baby?’ what they’re really asking is, ‘when are you going to leave?’

There seems to be a need for society to enforce conformity and such conformity generally entails having a family and when women choose not to have children, they are constantly reminded of their “failure” and how they will regret it.  

I myself felt the immense pressure “at a certain age” to conform and have children. I had constant endless debates about the effect that it would have on my husband and me, my career and progression. At the time, people around me made me feel that it would not be enough to have a life of selfish career progression and fun, just being myself and my husband. To make myself “whole”, I would surely need and want to procreate and I would then find nirvana.

Sadly society does stigmatise people who choose not to have children, either because of life choices or because they do not wish to have the responsibility. In choosing not to do so, it is deemed to be an act of selfishness.

I now cannot imagine a time without my children but I can certainly remember the time before they were born and, yes, it was an existence where I thought mainly about myself and my needs and the needs of my husband. Would I have regrets had I not had children – perhaps, but I am now not in a place where I can answer that question. What I do know is that one still needs to have a thick skin if one chooses not to have children, especially women. 

I applaud Judy Golding’s frank article as she highlighted the feelings that parents can have about their children but would rarely admit. Mothers especially are loathe to admit that having children can be hard and that career choices can be scuppered, but for myself, I am grateful that I am able to have it all (so to speak) and also take heart from the article below.

Flexible Working: A Woman’s Perspective

WOMEN IN LAW| Tuesday, July 5th, 2011 |

By a Woman in a Magic Circle Law Firm

How it all started

It was at my appraisal meeting when I announced to the head of my department (HOD) that I was pregnant. This announcement came only minutes after he had informed me I’d just been promoted to managing associate.

If he was in any way disappointed with my news, he certainly didn’t show it. He seemed genuinely excited and pleased for me. His reaction encouraged me to let him know the three things were already very clear in my mind: 1) I wanted to come back to work after my maternity leave, 2) I wanted to come back to fee-earning work and 3) I wanted to come back on a part time basis. [3]HOD, having two small children of his own, and an ex-lawyer wife, told me that whilst my preferences were noted, he thought it was far too early for me to make any decisions, and suggested we talk about it again a few months after I had the baby.

During that summer I worked particularly hard, mainly on a large fund-linked deal for a key investment bank client. The buzz I got from that transaction served to confirm that I definitely enjoyed my work and would hate to have to leave, but equally as I sat there working into the night, night after night, I knew that this lifestyle was not going to be sustainable once I had a baby.

Friends I discussed it with were generally cut and dry in their views. It was either “you just can’t have it all, you’ll have to choose”, or “you can’t hope to continue to do transaction work on a part-time basis”. But I didn’t want to choose. I’ve worked all my life, and wasn’t ready to give up just as I’d been promoted. Equally, I knew that it would not be easy leaving my baby at home and returning to work, if I wasn’t doing something I really enjoyed, and that has always been transaction work. So I started looking at the people around me who were juggling families and work, and noticed that a) there weren’t many of them, or at least there weren’t many of them who were open about it, and b) no one seemed to have found a solution that they were particularly happy with.

The arrangement

That was when I came up with my “5 short days” plan. What I ideally wanted to do was to spend time in the office every day and to spend time with my son every day. Spending part of each day at work would ensure continuity for my colleagues and clients. I had seen people try to work 4 days a week, killing themselves on the days they worked and sometimes finding that someone needed to step into their place on the days they weren’t there because a client couldn’t wait for something.

Whilst still on maternity leave, I met up with HOD and let him know what I was thinking. He was open to the idea, and agreed that I would come back on a 9am to 2pm Monday to Friday basis and that we would review it after three months. As it happened I worked on that basis for more than a year, by which time I was pregnant with number two. I was more confident coming back after my second maternity leave, knowing that the part-time thing could work, but already thinking that I wanted to tweak things a little. Not long after I came back for the second time, I was getting bored with the smaller transactions I’d been working on, and took on a big deal, partly to test the waters. I loved it. It was great to be back in the driving seat, though also very stressful as I had to constantly make sure that I was giving enough to everything. At that point I increased my hours a bit, and have stayed at that level since.

I currently work around 30 hours a week on a fairly flexible basis. I tend to work a full day on Mondays, which takes a bit of the pressure off and lines me up for the rest of the week. The other days I try to get home in time to pick the kids up from school at 3.30pm. I spend the afternoon with them and then log on again from home after they’re asleep in the evening. Some days it will be just a quick email check, others it will be hours of work late into the night, depending on how busy I am. Overall, however, I feel I have a very good balance. I know my kids’ teachers, who their classmates are, I can chat to the mums in the playground, even if I’m not part of the coffee morning group, and most importantly for me, I am there to put them to bed most nights.

 

Easy to manage?

On a practical note, working flexibly has become easier for me over the years. When I first started doing it, it was pretty rare in the city, and although clients have always been fairly supportive, they were a little surprised at first. Now people are much more involved in the work/life balance debate, and I find my arrangement is of great interest to my clients who are generally quite impressed that my city firm offer this option, and that it appears to work for me in practice. I have also become better at making the arrangement work. I am now better able to assess what to take on and what not to, how to delegate effectively without leaving my team in the lurch, how to make myself available to clients without compromising my family time and how not to feel guilty when I leave the office “early” – all things that took some time to get right and feel comfortable with.

So, why don’t more people do it?

Why isn’t everyone clamoring for flexible working arrangements? I guess the short answer is that as with any solution like this there are always trade offs. Firstly, it can be very stressful indeed. On the days when I am scheduled to be in the office all day I find myself much more relaxed as I know my only deadlines are those of my clients. On the other days, I also worry about getting to the school gates on time. When I make it I feel a huge sense of achievement. I find that those 5 or 6 hours in the office are usually spent incredibly efficiently as I really focus on what needs to be done and prioritise accordingly but I am constantly up against an additional deadline. The second rather obvious reason, is that you get paid a proportion of your full time salary. It sounds obvious, but many people seem to forget that if they only work some of the hours, they only get paid for some of the hours. And last but not least, of course, is that you simply can’t expect to progress at the same rate as someone who is working full time. In theory, people on a flexible working arrangement are eligible for promotion (be that to managing/senior associate, counsel, partner etc) in the same way as anyone else, but in practice it is very difficult. It’s not just that you progress at a slower rate because you are not there all the time, it is that it is harder to get exposure to those big transactions that make you a name. And it’s harder to juggle more than one of them at a time. You are constantly having to ask yourself where your priorities lie – not just in the long term, but day to day. Again, all of these things are the trade offs that you have to have in mind when thinking about working flexibly.

Many people think that asking for a flexible working arrangement is tantamount to admitting that you are giving up on your career prospects and are no longer fully committed. This is something that I have come up against many times over the years. Thankfully, I think that my perseverance and commitment to the firm has shown otherwise, but I do hear many associates say that they would be very interested in exploring flexible working options, but are scared to even mention the words to anyone in their department in case they are automatically “written off”. I hope that through articles like this, and more examples of flexible working actually working in city firms, that people who are thinking of leaving will feel encouraged to at least explore the options open to them where they are first. I sometimes wonder what I would have done if this option hadn’t been open to me – chances are I wouldn’t have come back from my first maternity leave all those years ago.



[1] The Week, 4 June 2011, The Last Word

[2] “How to be a Woman”, Caitlin Moran 2011

[3] http://womeninlaw.com/WIL/?p=785

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