Thursday, October 05, 2006

That Pesky Glass Ceiling

I'm not usually given to polemic on this blog, the purpose of which is entirely selfish. It allows me to let off steam about the madness of my everyday life and gives my writerly ego a boost when someone strays across it and kindly writes me an email. Every writer is at heart a huge egotist. We want people to read the pearls of our wisdom, otherwise there is No Point...

Anyway, as usual I digress.

I have been engaging in a friendly discussion with a good friend recently about the way parenthood affects the lives of women, and what happens to their careers when it does. We started off in the personal, but some of the things he said to me started to make me think of the problem in its wider context. And this week several things I have read in the paper made me think even harder.

The first was an article Mary Kenny wrote in The Daily Telegraph about the survey that Women's Hour did which seemed to suggest that the majority of twenty somethings were keen to settle down and have children, and women were turning their backs on highflying careers. Her response to this was that it proves that women are incapable of being leaders and cannot go against nature. The reason not enough of us have broken through the glass ceiling is because our nature prevents us. In effect - we just aren't up to it.

What????? Did I just miss something or did feminism never happen? I can think of a whole host of women who have succeeded in making it to the top: Anita Roddick, Cherie Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Helena Kennedy, to name but a few. I also take huge issue with her assertion that women are only interested in local politics/politics of the family. I'm sorry, Mary, but that just ain't true. Or certainly not for me anyway. If anything I've become more politicised since I've been at home with the sprogs. For a start I'm listening to the radio all day/or online so am always up to date with the news. And while I cheerfully admit my early morning listening eschews Today (too bloody miserable for words) in favour of El Tel (he cheers me up in the morning, ok?), courtesy of Messrs Mayo and Vine I usually get some good pithy analysis of what's going on in the world, so I have developed some healthy bolshy opinions as a result.

Apart from this inducing a coffee cup moment, there were aspects of her argument I agreed with. I have learnt the hard way you can't have it all, and certainly it is my experience that many many talented and brilliant women walk away from their careers to nurture their children. I am in the middle of a fascinating book by Professor Tim Spector who runs the Twins Unit at St Thomas' entitled, Your Genes Unzipped. I am clearly no expert on genetics, but from what I've read Mary Kenny is probably right, nature does come into it somewhere. Women are programmed to be nurturers and men are programmed to be hunter gatherers - society has changed, but our basic natures haven't. However, in the same book, Professor Spector also points out that it is a relatively new phenomenon for women to stay at home and raise their young, and there are plenty of societies where women did both and were treated as equal partners.

The second article I read (sorry also in the Torygraph. If I wasn't so lazy I would read more then one paper, but lack of time means I just read what Spouse brings home) - seemed to be saying something different. It claimed that scores of middle class professionals are delaying parenthood till they are financially settled, and that when they do get there, they spend a fortune on expensive techie equipment to keep tabs on their nannies at home. I did think the woman who had a webcam through which she could communicate with her nanny whenever she wanted had a point - it keeps her in touch and aware of problems at home without her having to dash back at the slightest crisis. She gets to see her children (if only via a technological link), the kids get to hear from Mummy in the day and the nanny has a back up if things go wrong.

However, if people are employing the technology to spy on their nannies then that is bonkers. If you can't bear to entrust your child to someone else then you shouldn't be at work. I have been enormously lucky with my childcare. My first childminder was someone I knew well, who happened to have a baby at the same time as I am. I went back to work comfortable in the knowledge that no1 was not only well cared for, she had a friend to play with too. In fact ten years later they are still best friends. I then had a wonderful nanny, who only left me last year when no 4 went to nursery. I am lucky enough to work from home, but even had I not, I would have trusted her implicitly. If I hadn't trusted either of them, I simply wouldn't have let them look after my children. Admittedly we can all get it wrong, but the majority of childminders and nannies are not child abusers - and I think instincts are a powerful thing. If you aren't sure, don't employ them would be my motto...

The third report I read this week is the quite staggering notion that teenage girls who are pregnant are smoking to keep their babies small, and ensure they have easy labours.

What???? Again another coffee cup moment. Actually, it turns out (well according to all the midwives who rang in the Jeremy Vine programme the other day) this one is as old as the hills. Teenage girls have apparently always done this. But surely we are talking about the Vicky Pollards of this world, here. Not all of them can be that stupid can they?

So there you have it the media stories of the week focussing on parenthood, all of which are ever so slightly contradictory.

1) Everyone is opting to settle down and have babies in their mid twenties, and women are forgoing a high flying career
2) Everyone is opting to have babies later and waiting till they are financially secure and women are carrying on with their high flying careers.
3) Everyone is actually saying sod that for a game of soldiers, I am having my babies when I'm young and smoking myself to death to retain my figure....


All of that makes for a great story in the press, but I wonder really what the truth is.

Twenty years ago I was in the middle of my university degree, reading English at Liverpool University. Through a wonderful tutor I had embarked on a discovery of hitherto unknown women writers, and my sensibilities were being awoken to feminism. The further discovery that my grandmother had had a place at Liverpool also to read English, but been unable to take it up because her father didn't believe in education for women, set light a burning ambition in me, to make the most of what I had been given.

At 21 of course I wasn't thinking about any of this. Did I but know it I had already met my future husband and the father of my babies. But it was the last thing on our minds. I think we'd have both run a mile if anyone had shown us a crystal ball of the future. As it says in the song, we were much to young to consider that kind of thing and were concentrating on having fun instead.

Once real life hit and we were fending for ourselves in the big bad world, we were too busy paying off a mortgage and getting established in our careers to consider parenthood as something we were prepared to get into just yet.

My friend reckons parenthood was anathema to us, but the truth was more complicated then that.

We both always wanted children, but having watched a couple we knew as students get bogged down with babies far too young, we weren't at all inclined to follow them. Plus when we did get married (in our mid twenties - much younger then nearly all our university contemporaries) we indulged in a DIY project to end all DIY projects. Bringing a baby into the equation at that point, would have been quite frankly disastrous, both financially and physically. The house was full of dust for about three years. (So OK, not too dissimilar from our life in our current abode, which has been an ongoing DIY project for ten years, but at least we have more rooms to escape too).

I will admit to having a fear of domesticity (which thanks to my feminist readings were not totally unfounded) . I perceived (and I don't think I was too far off the mark in this) it as a trap. Women get to stay at home and have the babies, and men are still out there in the world doing the interesting stuff. (My friend here, I know will disagree - he thinks motherhood is where the power is at, and that all men do is strut around and puff about. ) I was also terrified of the prospect of labour. I blame a rather gruesome video I watched when I was at school in which I can remember the poor mother screaming her head off. I found the sight of the bloody crumpled baby appalling - anything less miraculous and beautiful I couldn't imagine - and I wasn't at all sure I ever wanted that to happen to me...

So when friends of ours started to have babies, I admit I did panic. I saw them enter a new phase in their lives and was desperately paddling against a current which seemed to be sweeping me over the edge of a precipice into a world where I was not yet prepared to go.

At the same time I was forging ahead with a career I loved. I was editing manuscripts by the time I was 26, which at the time was quite young to be an editor. I was having fun in a busy work environment, and wasn't yet ready to give up the freedoms it offered me.

I don't know how long I would have kept this up. Nature, as Mary Kenny rightly points out, will out. And I come from a large family, very much orientated towards children. My siblings were starting to have babies, as were my friends. My fears about childbirth, the responsibility of having children, my subsequent loss of freedom notwithstanding, eventually I was going to start thinking about it too.

In the end I was catapulted into my decision. Work stopped being fun and my father died rather suddenly just before my 30th birthday. All my reasons for not wanting children suddenly seemed superfluous. Within three months of my father's death I was pregnant. Looking back I can see this was not the most rational decision I have ever made, and I probably wasn't ready to be a mother. But then who is? And now I'm glad I didn't wait till my late thirties. I've been lucky enough to have four healthy babies - I don't know how different it might have been had I started out later. And without that catastrophic event pushing me over the precipice, whose to say I wouldn't have teetered on the edge until it was too late?

We might all be anxious about entering the state of parenthood, but I doubt one of us ever regrets it.

At this stage it never ever occurred to me (in fact it wasn't an issue at all as far as I was concerned), that I wouldn't go back to work. I had worked hard in publishing for ten years. Why should I give all that up to have a baby? Plus we had just taken on a new mortgage. We couldn't actually afford for me not to be at work.

Some months ago I posted about the joy of the day no 1 was born. Everything I wrote about it is true. But what I didn't write about was my subsequent feelings of failure and despondency in the months following her birth.

We all have huge expectations when we become parents. We wonder what our babies will look like. We assume we will love them. For women, we hope the labour will be short and easy. The truth of course is that, until it happens to us, we don't know how we will feel.

As I mentioned previously, my labour with no1 was long, protracted and extremely painful. (I thought I was being a wimp, until I had no 4, also induced, and discovered that one lot of prostin ups the anti - and with no 1 I had three). I was induced, had an episiotomy, forceps and stitches. It was a far cry from the lovely natural experience I had hoped for after my ante-natal NCT classes. When she came out (memories of that ghastly video resurfacing no doubt) I didn't actually want to hold her till she was cleaned up. In fact I didn't get to hold her straightaway anyway, as thanks to the length of the labour a paediatrician was on hand to check her out (I was too drugged up to appreciate the significance of this at the time, it is only now I go cold at the thought of what might have happened).

When I was eventually left alone in a room with her, I didn't know what to do. My baby started to cry and I couldn't reach her, the effects of the epidural having not worn off meant I couldn't walk. I had sent Spouse home as he needed to sleep, and the midwives had got busy and presumably forgotten that I needed to go back to the maternity ward. I was hungry and tired and when no 1 was eventually brought to me, she latched on hungrily, noisily and painfully to my breast. It was a thoroughly miserable experience.

I am no earth mother, and for me, breastfeeding was a nightmare. My nipples were sore and cracked, I leaked all over the place. I felt like a milk cow. It was ghastly. My sisters all relished the experience, but I couldn't wait to get my body back and it was with great relief that at six weeks no 1 happily took to a bottle and I could look forward to getting back to normal.

I was hopelessly naive of course. Normal had gone. My life as it had been was over, and a new one was just beginning. But I didn't realise that at the time.

I spent most of my maternity leave, longing to return to work. Although I semi enjoyed the baby, I was frustrated by the lack of responses I got from her - newborn babies are pretty boring frankly, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying (in fact I think there is a huge culture of lying that goes on when women becomes mothers. No one, but no one wants to admit it isn't a perfect experience). I couldn't understand how my days were so unfocussed, and would pass in a daze of changing nappies and feeding. I longed to get back to my desk and have some kind of control.

And I was also harbouring a guilty secret. I didn't actually love my baby. Or at least not in the sense I imagined I would. Other people I knew spoke of a rush of mother love when they held their babies for the first time. It never happened to me. I was euphoric, but my main feeling was thank God that's over. I didn't even mind when they took her away from me. I had strong feelings of tenderness towards her, and felt a ferocious protectiveness, but love? I can honestly say I didn't love her. How can you love a blob?

What kind of a mother was I? Surely everyone loves their babies? I felt a failure. So I wanted to be back somewhere where I had been a success.

For me going back to work was therefore a huge relief. Spouse was the one who had a pang the first day he took no 1 to the childminder. Me? I was just pleased to get my life back.

Clearly, looking back I was suffering some kind of postnatal depression, but I think more then that, I was experiencing a disappointment that many first time mums feel. I grew in time to love my baby, but I also had to get to know her. I don't think there is anything wrong or unnatural in that. I can even pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with her. She was nine months old and had just learnt to play peekaboo with a blanket. Spouse and I (who were in the middle of a totally nightmarish family crisis at the time) stood and looked at her for hours as she hid behind a blanket grinning and giggling, a little oasis of joy in the middle of much misery.

From that moment on, my feelings towards parenthood changed. I still resented the loss of my freedom (and ten years on I chafe at the fact that I can never just get up and go somewhere without reference to other people), but the truth was, my work life was not getting any better and having no1 at home to escape to was a blessed relief.

So when I fell pregnant with no 2 and work was becoming stressful beyond belief, I took the decision to bow out of the race I had been in so long. I hadn't even bumped the surface of the glass ceiling, and it took a long long time to get over a feeling that I hadn't achieved my full potential, but I also didn't want to miss out on my children growing up. We only get one shot at it, and I didn't want their memories to be of Mummy never being around. I can still remember the secure feeling I used to get when I walked through the door after a school day and my mother would be calmly sewing in a corner. I wanted to give that to my own offspring. (Not sure they get much calmness, but they do have me...)

Of course, as everything in life, this comes with a price. In order to be at home, I have had to say farewell to my glittering career. I have looked on enviously as others, younger, brighter, more ambitious then I have taken my place, then overshot me. I have chafed at doing tedious often poor paying freelance work (though of late fortunately that has improved), and been bored rigid by the drudgery of domesticity.

But for all that I have been blessed with the opportunity of watching my children grow, and much as I might bitch about it, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. And though I have been hanging onto my career by my fingernails, I have just about held on and now I can start looking outward again and think about facing the world once more. I've lost ten years it's true, but what I have gained has been incomparable.

So going back to Mary Kenny, maybe she is right. Maybe I didn't ever have what it takes to get to the top. But I think the truth is perhaps not so black and white. I was certainly ambitious enough and capable enough of getting much higher. But I have a feeling, even had I got there and forgone children, I would now be looking around and saying So What? I know plenty of men my age who think similarly. I also think, certainly in my industry, which is very female orientated, there is a huge brain drain that goes on once women start to have babies. Of the ten or so talented women I worked closely with a decade ago, only a couple still work full time in the industry, and they don't have children. That can't be a good thing, surely. The men get to the top in publishing by default, not because they are better then us. On the other hand, I do know career women who work crazy hours, hardly see their children, are knackered and stressed beyond belief in order to break through the elusive glass ceiling. And so many men I know complain about not seeing enough of their children. That is just plain bonkers.

Maybe the next generation have got it right and are focussing on the right things. We are genetically programmed to mate and procreate. Everything else is mere chaff. But then I look at all those teenagers and despair - do they not have any ambition or hope for doing something other then produce a child they can't afford to care for? After all any idiot can have a baby... That can't be right either.

The truth is out there, somewhere. But I suspect it is slightly more complicated then Ms Kenny would have us believe. My generation has been one of the first to have the choice about when we have our babies and how we deal with our careers when we do. We have in lots of ways got it very badly wrong, and maybe the younger generation is quite rightly stomping into tell us so. Maybe they will learn from our mistakes and get it right. Maybe.

Or maybe they'll just make mistakes all their own.


Lesley Cookman said...

That's an essay that should appear in response to the Mary Kenny piece. I tried to find something witty and controversial to say in reply, but all I can say is I agree with all of it.

I have recently become a grandmother for the first time - I'm obviously much too young to be a grandmama, but we won't go into that! - and despite the assurances of my friends and relatives who told me I would become as besotted as they had, I didn't. At 3 months, he is now smiling and responding, and I feel slightly different, but I, too, am nervous of losing a tiny bit of my hard won freedom. Like our Maniacmum, I have four children, one of whom is still at home, although grown up and earning his living. But for years I lived my life at the behest of others and now, without the responsibility, although not without the worry, and widowed, I no longer have to think about the repercussions if I do whatever I want.

My daughter, the new mum, has put her career as a professional singer on hold, but when she returns, because her partner is also a professional musician, I foresee babysitting will become part of my life. Like Maniacmum, I've always been lucky enough to work at home, but this will make me even more accessible, I fear.

But - lack of ambition? Purrlease! I can testify to the achievement of at least one ambition even as I enter the doddery stage of life. It goes on - and upwards. As do you, Jane.

Jane Henry said...

Aw, Lesley, nice of you to drop by and say so. You are seriously frightening me about the prospect of being a granny too young. Have already told mine NO BABIES BEFORE 30!!! Actually if they do, I shall take a lead from my parents and run away from my children just as long as they are old enough.

Can well understand ambivalent feelings towards grandson - maybe having four kicks out that maternity/baby loving gene or something. Have to confess that held my new nephew when he was a fortnight old and was just panicking I'd drop him... I was panicking more then the first time I held my niece, which was BEFORE I had kids...

However can report feelings do improve as saw my great niece recently and at 6months she is getting quite cute. Have no desire to start babysitting though... (Will probably not get a choice about it though as girls will be clamouring for her to come and play.)

love jx

Mandora said...

I bought the Telegraph (and by the way you should be proud you read this truly wonderful journal) that morning and as a besieged 40 something male, I felt a smug glow come all over me.

That said I am now feeling a tad frightened for I sense the lid slowly being unscrewed from the dusty Pandora's Box in my head and there's nothing I can do about it. So I'm thinking, shall I, shan't I? Do I dare say what I have reluctantly come to believe over the last few years. Oh what the hell - in for a penny in for a pound (hee hee).

Now before you read any further, I want you to sit down .....

.... right you see it's like this, like a lot of philosophies in history from Christianity through to Communism through to the Welfare State, the putting into practice often dissapoints. Feminism unfortunately is no different. Blair forced the issue by by-passing merit and creating all those ghastly Blair babes and surprise, surprise they were all totally shit. Let's be honest, the only women with any ability in the Labour hierarchy were Mowlam and Beckett.

Similarly in my business apart from one or two notable exceptions any women that have broken through the 'glass ceiling' have been to put it bluntly thoroughly useless. You lift the rock of any cock up in advertising and you will find a wriggling over promoted woman.

I once worked in a company where all the middle management were women. Total unmitigated chaos to say nothing of the monthly hell as a result of syncronised menstruation.

These modern feminists harp on about multi tasking when the truth is that most women are obviously totally unable to focus on the job in hand. Oh sure they can do more than one job at a time but then simply leave a trail of cock ups behind them.

Now don't get me wrong (though you probably haven't been able to read this far due to the fact that you're chewing the carpet) I have worked with loads of highly professional women, it's just in the pitiful rush to be P.C, inept women all over the country are being promoted well above their ability. Fawning male management have built a lift that effortlessly hurtles these muppets into top jobs and then lets them wreak havoc until they declare their pregnant and strutt off home on a full salary leaving everyone else to pick up the bill and the pieces.

It's the women with the biggest attitude that get all the top jobs leaving the truly talented men and women gazing up at the glass ceiling whilst the shards come plumetting down towards their confused faces.

Now I've really gone and done it - except I do feel alot better for that.

Jane Henry said...

OK Mandora, trust you to be bolshie... love the tag by the way.

You know I don't completely disagree with you.

Actually the point probably should be, that the way the world is run now is pretty crap for anyone with a family.

But I am still not going to be encouraging my offspring to go and have babies early. See above. I've done my time and more...

Plus I think girls (and boys) should be encouraged to realise their ambitions, whatever they are.

love jx

Nic said...

Have just stumbled over this via Carwyn Fowler's link (I too am a TOG in mourning)

What a powerful piece. I am at the teetering stage - all but one of our friends have embarked on this journey that i have continually put off, close family memberswho had always allied themselves with us as being "not grown-up enough" are doing it, and two close work colleagues also. Unfortunately, 12 years of marriage and spending the money on whatever we please has made my husband less fond of the idea - and I love my work. I always thought I'd just have a job, but now I have a career and I know that I cannot continue it and have a baby - I keep on top of it at present but I give it my all. Suddenly, "having it all" looks like a big fat lie to me - it might work in an office environment, but I can't see me pulling it off in teeaching - contrary to popular belief, my working day extends well beyond 3pm.

Ho hum. Thanks for the food for thought, anyway.... ;-)

Jane Henry said...

Thanks Nic,

I would say stop teetering and jump - but be aware that things will change forever. Like I said, no one I know has ever regretted doing it, but I know plenty who've regretted not...

But it's a personal decision only one you and your husband can take...

Teaching does at least have the advantage of giving you the holidays, but I know how difficult it is (my dad was teacher, which is why I chose publishing as a career!)

love Jane