“To work was the only thing, it was the one thing that always made you feel good, and in the meantime it was my own damned life and I would lead it where and how I pleased,” Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa*
When I was 13 I got my first job in a hairdressing salon washing customer’s hair every Saturday. I loved that job. I would spend the entire day washing old ladies’ hair as they nattered on about their grandkids and families or their beauty routines. When not massaging scalps, I would sit in the tiny back staff room and listen and learn about the trials and tribulations of the young female hairdressers’ lives, all of whom I became really good friends with and who I am eternally indebted to for looking after me on endless nights out. I worked there for over 5 years and started on a mere £11 a day plus tips and with my nominal wage I bought endless crap I didn’t need. As time passed I got several pay rises and other part-time jobs and would use my money to buy far too many half ciders in any pub willing to serve me, girl’s holidays and other little things I wanted.
It was the start of a long, enduring love affair I’ve had and continue to have with the world of work.
Since then I’ve tended endless bars, ironed businessmen’s’ shirts, served Sunday carvery eaters at a private golf club so hung over I’m surprised I could juggle the plates, worked endless receptions, and much more, until I eventually settled on my current career, which I absolutely adore.
I have always loved the characters, money, fulfillment and, ultimately, the independence that comes with hard craft. For me, there is little that compares with the satisfaction of a job well done and spending money I worked hard to earn.
This is why, perhaps, I was horror-struck when I fell pregnant and as I announced it to friends and family, some, indeed many, suggested or even assumed I would give up work.
The mere suggestion sent shivers of panic through my core. I had never even considered not working, but now people – mothers themselves – were suggesting and implying (some really didn’t mince their words) that I should prioritise my impending child. Some women told me it wasn’t fair to work full time and have children. Others said I couldn’t put a six-month-old in childcare. Others seemed confused that I would want to leave my child.
This made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Then I remembered everything I had ever read or listened to at conferences about the gender pay gap, women being side-lined by employers because they took maternity leave or asked for flexible working and friends who had decided childcare costs made it economically unfeasible to do jobs (most jobs) that required them to pay for childcare. I’d just got settled in my career, which I have worked tirelessly and determinedly to foster and grow, and suddenly it felt like it was about to be all over.
This caused me deep anxiety and sadness. It just seemed so unfair. I consider myself to be relatively privileged in many ways, and I thought if I can’t make this work, how can many other women?
It seems dramatic, but for a little while, I felt I had to choose between having a child and working, mostly because I didn’t want to do either badly. I know I am not alone in feeling this.
Eventually, I sat down and did my sums and spoke to my husband who, up until this point, had never had to consider for one bloody second that his work life might be in jeopardy (I can’t tell you how angry this makes me – not at him but at society.)
Both of us working, with some grandparent childcare, would make it possible to pay for nursery and still have some money left over. In fact, it was necessary to make ends meet.
We also decided that my husband would do the majority of parental leave because he prefered to do it and it worked out better economically.
But there was another moment here when I felt panicked (I believe I actually burst into tears) when this plan all hinged on whether his employer enhanced Shared Parental Leave the same as Maternity Leave. I had stupidly assumed that Shared Parental Leave would give men the same pay and rights as women taking maternity leave: it doesn’t, in fact, it’s actually quite shit (around £150-a week) unless an employer decides to enhance it voluntarily. Self-employed men don’t have any Shared Parental Leave rights.
My husband’s employer – Lambeth Council – fortunately does enhance Shared Parental Leave so our plans could go ahead. Otherwise, we’d have had to take a huge financial hit and I would have definitely felt overwhelmed, abandoned even, at home alone with a baby.
I am a hardworking, tax-paying person, I shouldn’t have to experience such stress in order to stay that way when I chose to start a family. I also shouldn’t be shoved into old fashioned stereotypes that dictate child rearing is primarily my responsibility and not my husbands.
Working class culture
Now, maybe some of you are thinking, has she never met any career-minded working mums who have a good paying job and also a family? And the answer is; not many outside of conference panels and TV.
I have come to the unscientific conclusion that perhaps this is because I and most of the people I know are from working-class backgrounds. My immediate experiences of motherhood, to varying degrees, is that the men are the main breadwinners and the woman do the majority of the childrearing. The women make the career sacrifices and the men earn more money than them. They work but chose jobs that fit around looking after their children. Most have made that sacrifice willingly. But as a consequence, sometimes, it hasn’t worked out as planned – they’ve separated or divorced – and have been forced to rely on reluctant fathers and stingy governments to put food on the table and pay the bills. It’s very tough.
And because this is their experience, it’s perhaps unsurprising they assumed my experience would be similar. But I think few had stopped to think about what I actually wanted or that I had a choice in what my experience of motherhood will be like.
A first, I found this attitude exhausting to navigate and it’s quite disappointing that some women are the first to criticise other women for choosing to approach parenthood differently to them. I had a disagreement, of sorts, with a woman on Twitter who declared on a thread about shared parental leave that ‘Women didn’t want men around and men can’t wait to get back to work’. A quick look at her profile revealed she was an older woman with four kids. This is definitely a generational issue but, in my experience, not exclusively.
I don’t want to diminish or judge other women’s choices about child rearing and family life. And equally, I don’t want to be judged for my own decisions.
Offline, I’ve had some fairly tense conversations about this and it impacted me a lot more than I could have imagined.
In fact, the first two-four months of being pregnant were some of the scariest and most isolating I had experienced and this threat of having my independence and everything I had worked so hard for snatched away added to that tremendously. I wonder how many women have felt the same and how many suffer mental anguish at a time when they want to be happy and excited? I can’t be alone.
It’s toughened me and strengthened my resolve to do things in a way that suits my husband and I. But, bottom line: we need to support families to share childcare duties with their partners, to keep women who want to be – and have to be – in work. It doesn’t surprise me birth rates are falling for women in the UK, I questioned whether I wanted to have children if it was going to leave me poor, home alone holding the baby, and unable to pay for myself. We need to adopt a more Scandinavian style system that properly subsidises childcare. Flexible working should be the norm. There is so much more we can do but I think we need to acknowledge this and change our attitude first.
Similarly, we need to support single mothers to get back to work. I was told by one single-mother friend about how she was sanctioned £1,000 for failing to fill out some generic online commitments that are supposed to encourage her to get back to work. If the government want her or any other single mum to get back to work they need to provide free or heavily subsidised child care and support women to get into work or education, not some bullshit online tick box exercise that is clearly designed to catch someone out and fine them. Everyone needs support, especially at this extremely challenging time in life. I wouldn’t be anywhere without the support of my family and my husbands’ family and esepcially my husband.
We need to stop punishing women for being child bearers and forget this emotional bullshit that mothers want or at least should want to all be the same – the primary caregivers. I am a woman and I want choice and equality in all matters – especially in parenthood. I want my own money and I want my own professional fulfillment.
*I read this book by Ernest Hemmingway (hands down my favourite writer) while four months pregnant and this line struck a chord.
± I wrote this blog when I was still pregnant. My son is now one-years old. I wanted to wait until after he was born to publish it, if at all, to see if I felt differently after the fact. I don’t and didnt change anything.
+ While I am at it, I really despise the term ‘working mother’ like we are some sort of novelty. It’s patronising; no one ever says ‘working father.’
RELATED INFORMATION AND RESOURCES FOR THOSE INTERESTED
Pregnant Then Screwed – free legal advice line, a mentor scheme for women taking legal action against an employer and a flexible working helpline.
Parental Pay Equality – a campaign for shared parental leave for the self-employed. There is a petition here.
Flexible Working for People Like Me – group to create a community of like-minded people to share experiences and challenges, offer support and advice, build their network and to create a platform for job opportunities that offer flexibility (all levels and sectors).