Saturday, 22 August 2009

Sole income earner mother pressure

It was my mother-in-law's birthday today. Three of her sons, with wives and children, gathered at her house for a surprise party organised by her husband. With six children and eight adults in a small courtyard, it felt small but convivial. It was a lovely party and we all had fun. The children ran and played hide and seek, the parents drank warm sparkling wine and talked. What could be better.

Both my sister-in-laws are currently sole income earners in their homes. One hopes this is a temporary situation, the other is resigned to the fact that the role have permanently switched in her home, and that she will need to sustain the household moving forwards whilst her husband cares for the home full time.

I say resigned, though I saw absolutely no evidence of resignation in her behaviour today, not in that of her family. On the contrary, she was exuberant.

Today, she was just back from a 12 day trip in Sweden and Holland, filming an advertisement for a Turkish company. She was tired but ebullient. She had missed her children, and literally couldn't keeep her hands off either of them, nor indeed her husband, who she inspected "like a gorilla", according to my brother in law. She was clearly delighted to be home. But she also admitted to having a great time on her trip, staying up till 1 am after spending the evening with clients and agency colleagues, then coming back to the hotel for late night preparation and e-mails. In her own words, it had been fun.

At the same time, her husband was on good form too, as were her smiley, happy children, who couldn't get enough of their mother but didn't seem at all affected by her absence.

It struck me how liberating it can be when the roles are completely reversed, and as a working mother, you effectively have a "wife" - as function not as gender - ensuring everything is running efficiently and with the love of a parent.

It worries me sometimes that the two working parent model of today is not sustainable. Is it really possible to buy in the support that is required at home when both parents work, or does the nanny/housekeeper solution always end up as a compromise? Do the both or one of the parents inevitably have to pick up a significant extra workload once the day is finished to keep everything at home in order, and everyone happy?

I've often thought that having a "wife" - again, function, not gender - who runs the home as well as a husband who works like I do and dips in and out of home life would actually be the ideal.

It's not the first time that I've wondered how manageable it is having both parents working, and the unknown damage we may be causing on the way, not least to ourselves.

But then I firmly believe this will be the model for the future, and that it's important for me to be role model to my daughters and to some extent, join with other working mothers as pioneers, figuring out how to best make the balance work in the interests of all.


Monday, 17 August 2009

More women graduates finding jobs than men

Last week the story was that most women don't like a female boss. Today, the Higher Education Statistics Agency published research saying that female graduates are more likely to get jobs than their male counterparts (

In principle, I don't suppose it would be unreasonable to imagine that if there are more female graduates going into employment, there are also more likely to be more female managers and directors (aka the boss - the unpopular, female kind) within the next one or two decades.

I'm not entirely convinced that reality will bear out this apparent logical solution, not least as the research doesn't identify the type of employment so many more women than men have managed to find. It is very possible that whilst there are more women in the workplace, the bulk of the most senior and best remunerated roles - especially at board level - will still be dominated by men.

But it does raise a question about the long term future of women and of course mothers in the workplace, once women begin to outnumber men across all echelons, especially in management roles.

We may not be popular as managers - but if there are more of us, than either the concept of being a boss will need to evolve - which I believe is likely in any case, and is indeed already happening - or women are going to need to adopt new behaviours, which I think is less likely.


Saturday, 15 August 2009

Women prefer a man at the helm

New research from ( found that two thirds of women employees prefer a man to be the boss claiming they had more authority, were straighter-talking and better at making decisions than women equivalents.

I find this research depressing on one level but not surprising and actually, very interesting. Through my working life I have come to the conclusion that the attributes of a "boss" within a "business" typically play to male strengths and behaviour preferences. In playing this role I think women often have to change behaviour and adopt attitudes, characteristics even dress codes that are more male than female. They become "men in drag", playing a male role, and not surprisingly, not doing it as well.

Add into this equation the factor of being a working mother, and it's hardly any surprise that so many career and senior working mothers appear to default out of the conventional, "boss-oriented" culture into entrepreneurial, consultant and sole trader pursuits, often in partnership with other women.

This leads me to the conclusion that for women to flourish in the workplace, to realise their potential and achieve their career goals, the perceived roles and the behaviours of "bosses" may need to change. In fact, the very concept of a boss may need to be revised - and thus, of how businesses are structured and managed.


Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Join The Fawcett Society

The Fawcett Society fights against discrimination and equality of pay. It's been recommended to me and I'm going to join it. Clearly much broader than an issue for working mothers but we're part of the same battle.


The nanny has a vandal boyfriend

Calls before 7.00 am are never good news.

This morning it was the nanny, gasping for breath, barely able to get the words out, tears choking her throat.

She had spent the night being harrassed by unknown bullies who had rung her doorbell repeatedly, used verbal abuse and shouted in the street. Remember she is pregnant. She panicked but acted wisely. Called her mother, called the police.

And in the morning when she went downstairs she found her car had been keyed all over the bonnet, roof and sides, with more terrible language. The police say the car is probably a write off.

No question of her coming in to work today, as she spent the day with forensics teams and statement takers - and doctors.

She's been signed off for seven days, her blood pressure raised by undue stress.

The worse thing of the whole dreadful situation? She suspects her boyfriend was the vandal and aggressor.

What happens when the carer needs caring for? That is a terrible question and one that our current society does not know how to reply to very well.

I am torn between feeling huge compassion for someone who I like and wish to protect, and also thinking in horror and selfishness at my own situation. Seven days without childcare, the prospect of unknown emergency nannies trooping through my home and taking charge of my children - and long term what? How can I believe that I can or even should put pressure on this poor girl, on her own in a small flat in a not very good area, with a vandal for a boyfriend, and 16 weeks pregnant? What right do I have to rely on someone who needs protection and help?

So what do I do? I'm a working mother. My children need protecting too. They have a right to consistent care. My life is a knife edge of organisation and planning. It is a house of cards. Today it feels like a large supporting bracket has crumbled and the roof is hanging by a few rotten timbers. The whole thing may collapse in minutes. How am I supposed to cope? And what am I supposed to do?

Anyone - help!


Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The nanny is pregnant

Those followers who are friends will know that 2009 has been a bad year for nannies in my family.

I had the overpaid mad Polish nanny who had worked for the celebrity parents, who didn't stop talking, couldn't listen, shopped for doorknobs and bags when she was supposed to be looking after my children, and left me in the lurch for a week through the unusual late Winter/early Spring snow that we enjoyed this year because she misbooked her plane tickets to Poland.

After a painful and expensive dismissal process (I paid her off so she could find another job) I recruited the lovely English nanny from Devon who said she was an experienced sole charge nanny. Turned out that she had helped out a mother in North London for a few months and that she had very little experience of either the scope of work of a full charge nanny or the confidence that is required in decision-making when you are a full charge nanny.

She doesn't seem to grasp that as well as picking up my kids from school, feeding them and giving them a bath, the little things like making beds that don't look like they've been put in a blender first, brushing my eldest daughter's mane every evening and cutting toe nails before they turn into claws is her job too. And how does she managed to leave in the evening saying everything is FINE even when my youngest was raging with a 41 degree temperature? Why am I the only one who seems to notice when my children are ill, when their skin is flaring with eczema, when they need new toothbrushes, haircuts - all the paraphernalia of looking after a child?

I once came home and the previous trained, experienced nanny said that my two year old had a tummy ache and a cough.

She left in a rush. I listened to my daughter and got the impression that she was having trouble breathing.

I asked her what was wrong.

She said she had a tummy ache.

I asked her to point to where it hurt.

She pointed to her chest.

The emergency doctor immediately put her on antibiotics and an inhaler, and told me to take her to A&E if her breathing didn't settle.

What if I hadn't come home that night? The trained, experienced, expert nanny thought she had a tummy ache when she couldn't breathe.

This is a rant, I know everyone makes mistakes. I know I sound bitter and I want to apologise for this.

But I've had some bad experiences and I would love to know how to avoid this in future.

I've come to the conclusion that the main issue in recruiting nannies, especially for middle income career mothers like me (that means, not the £1m per year corporate lawyers and bankers) is that for A type, OCD, detail attentive obsessives who are very capable at the domestics, delegating the daily management of our children and their affairs to nice girls who become nannies because they like hanging out with kids is an explosive cocktail.

I find nannies are generally undomesticated, and know little about domestic duties. They generally have little experience of what it means to act professionally and the expectations which professional parents have of people who sell themselves as trained, experienced and expert in their field. I see little evidence of any real ambition or drive to move on in their field, and thus, any real desire to learn, to impress, to excel.

For the top nannies, career prospects are impressive.

But most nannies seem to be just filling time before finding a husband and having their own kids, or moving on and travelling.

And of course, the combination of a hyper obsessive detail focused mother like me and an amiable unfocused nanny who cannot comprehend who I am and how I feel is - the ultimate frustration.

So this week my nanny announces that she is pregnant. I am really pleased for her. She doesn't really get the job but she's a lovely girl and I can't help but feel maternal towards her.

Actually - she doesn't announce that she is pregnant.

Her boyfriend calls on Saturday and tells us on her behalf. He has been telling her that she needs to tell us - and she is too frightened to do so. He gets irritated and frustrated, takes our number and takes the initiative himself - but without telling her.

Now I must admit that one side of me thinks thank you for taking the initiative. The other thinks this behavious is moderately high handed. But then - she is carrying his child and he is right, we need to know that she will need to take it easy, that she may need time off to see doctors and have check ups, that we need to make accommodations.

Overall I came to the conclusion that I thought that he was high handed and that she was a child. Or choosing to behave like a child, at least.

Instead of someone that helps, supports and takes the burden from me - I have ended up with a third child. Who is now having a child and is planning to move back home to be close to her mother, so that she can have help when she herself is a mother. Which is a very wise move because actually, she doesn't really know what being a mother entails.

I am pleased for her and I feel sympathy for her. I think that she will be a great mother. But now I have to recruit again, disrupt my children's relationship again and help them to re-establish a new bond.

It is hard and makes me feel extra guilt.

Anyone with any ideas on how to recruit, brief and manage the perfect nanny?

Please help!


Thursday, 6 August 2009

TUC to debate if high heels should be banned

Now this is the thing - I am not a tall person. It so happens that I am also a reasonably fashion savvy person who prefers how she looks in high heels than in flat shoes for many outfits. But being not a tall person and also not an altogether thin person, combined with some fashion sense, I have always erred towards preferring high heels.

So I am a little taken aback by today's report from the TUC which has been extensively and ambiguously covered in today's media. It is being reported that the TUC's Working Feet and Footwear report - - is advising companies not to have policies which oblige women to wear high heels. But apparently, the TUC is also planning to debate whether there should be a national policy that women should only wear one inch heels to work. Now this is cause for concern indeed.

What a remarkale amount of media this report has garnered! Good for the TUC though. Those companies - ranging from City banks to fashion stores to airlines - who tell women what to wear on their feet should reconsider. In fact, isn't there too much obsession with dress codes all round? Surely we live in more liberal times.

As for me - even when I walk my children to school I am still loathe to put aside my high heels. What would traditional feminists say of me? I'm not sure I care. I like high heels and I shall wear them.

I read the piece on my way home from work - and suddenly for no apparent reason I thought about the proposed closure of schools in the Autumn which will be considered as part of emergency measures to control the spread of swine flu. The current policy is that women will be permitted time off work to make provision for childcare should schools be closed. That's useful, for sure, though the options for many women will be very limited and may not be the most savoury nor beneficial for the children.

And what about the unexpected cost of additional childcare? Has the government made provision for that?

The economics of being a working mother are generally very tight, except for the highest earning executives, bankers, lawyers and so forth. I would be interested to know the average salary of a working mother, but I doubt there is much scope for too much emergency childcare. I think that I should write a letter to someone - and encourage friends to pen similar letters to the same or similar people - protesting and requesting that some sort of funding be provided to families where both parents work.

From imposed high heels to imposed school closures, there are many policies which either directly or indirectly complicate and limit the life of a working woman. As for the impact on the life of a working mother, it can be hard to imagine. Challenging and campaigning against all these restrictions and limitations is time consuming and onerous on an individual basis. My perception is that most working mothers learn to pick their battles very, very carefully, and generally allow many unfair impositions to persist because there is not enough energy let alone hours in the day, to fight them all.

The letter that I should write to someone about the funds and the childcare and the swine flu and the emergency school closure will most likely go unwritten.

So thank you, TUC, for picking up a fight on my behalf. Many will say that given all the inequities that working women generally face - and that working mothers in particular face - fighting for the right to choose footwear seems paltry. But at least you're fighting for me.

I will be sad to lose my high heels if companies do one day ban them in the workplace on the grounds of health and safety. But thank you for caring about the little details of my welfare.


Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Harriet Harman plays while big cheese Gordon away

I admire Harriet Harman for using her interim role as leader over the summer recess to push through important aspects of her personal agenda.

What is sad is that she needs to do this in the first place. The idea that the only way that policy can be directed to favour women is when the men are away is depressing and anachronistic.

The fact that her agenda items are marginalised by an all-male cabinet is shocking.

We're almost at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. A hundred years ago women were chaining themselves to railings to get the vote. 100 years on a woman is deputy prime minister and making headlines by dealing with issues which matter to women - but should matter to everyone.

We have come a long way but is it far enough and how will we move further?

A debate on Times Online today is discussing whether feminism has lost its way or merely disappeared under a push-up bra reinterpretation of women's freedoms. Are young women today fully capitalising on the freedoms which the suffragettes and then the women's liberation movement created for them? And do they even realise that there is more work to be done and that there can be no let up? Especially for those women who intend to have children and don't want to be marginalised to a shadowy and sometimes debilitatingly difficult existence as a working mother trying to forge ahead with a senior corporate career?

Alan Sugar thinks it's ok to ask women if they plan to have children in an interview because of the disruption of maternity leave. But what is going to happen to tomorrow's workforce if today's high performing young women, who consistently outclass young men in academic endeavour as well as in the pursuit of work experience and external projects - what if these women are excluded or their role downgraded in the workplace because nature has denoted that they have children?

The battles for today's feminists are much harder. Yesterday's feminists - suffragettes, women's liberationists - were primariy single issue campaigners with one overwhelming goal to change the law, politics or society to remove barriers to women.

The barriers today are much more subtle. Many would say they are invisible, and often because they are about perception and opportunity rather than fundamental right to access. We can vote, get jobs, study, control our sexuality - what are we fighting for now?

As the campaign has become nuanced so it has become diffuse - hard to articulate and thus hard to martial support for.

It is ironic that the symbol of the women's liberation movement was the burning of underwear. In a Times article today Janice Turner argues that "feminism has never had it so bad. Britain is riven with porn culture and a generation is in thrall to a sexist agenda".

She makes many good points but the article collapses in how the argument is threaded together to my mind. As with the burning of the bra, women's clothing and appearance has always been a feminist issue. Today it is being interpreted to mean that we can choose to be overt or covert about our sexuality. Our right to sit in a board room and wear high heels and fishnets whilst being respected for our views. Arguing that women can only be taken seriously as feminists and support the feminist cause if they are drab or plain - to quote "[Natasha Walter's] main handicap as a feminist is her excessive prettiness" - is not to get away from the fact that appearance should be irrelevant and should not be a weighing factor in opening or closing opportunities or access to women, politically, socially or economically.

I should be able to care about handbags and direct foreign policy or run a multi-national. The same way that many men care about golf and rugby and somehow manage to run the country too.