There is no best way of combining motherhood and jobs
ON WORK: LAST WEEKEND I went to a party given by a friend who has just had a baby. Half the other guests had just had babies too, and infants were everywhere: screaming, sleeping and feeding in slings, car seats, arms and on breasts.
I sat between two women who were earnestly locked in discussion about their return to work. One was self-employed and had taken no maternity leave while the other was halfway through a year off and planning to return part-time.
As I listened to them, I remembered that particular mixture of camaraderie, competitiveness, anxiety and exhaustion, and thought how little had changed in the 20 years since I had my first child. These questions of how to divide time between a baby and a job are being asked with just the same urgency and confusion as they were then. Despite the fact that we have two extra decades of data, we aren’t any closer to an answer.
When a heavily pregnant Marissa Mayer recently landed the job as chief executive of Yahoo, the only sensible response was to shrug. After all, she’s not the world’s first successful pregnant woman. But no one shrugged: instead more than 4,000 newspaper articles were written, variously judging her to be a heroine, a bad mother, a great role model and no role model at all.
In a way, it is boring and pointless to be having these discussions all over again. Yet I understand why we haven’t found satisfactory answers: it’s because there aren’t any. There is no best length of maternity leave. There is no best way of combining motherhood and jobs. Above all, there is no balance. Instead, it’s a continuous, fluid game of survival, the rules of which are unclear, shifting and different for everyone.
To realise this should mean that we can stop talking about it. But the reason we can’t do that is that it feels too important. My decision to spend a third of my life writing articles such as this one, rather than telling the children to get off Facebook, feels like the most difficult one I’ve ever made. Yet unlike most other big decisions – where you can usually work out at least with hindsight if you got it right – with this you never know. There is no control test.
In fact there is no such thing as right: there are just lots of varieties of wrong. Just the other day one of my children phoned me at work to say he was going to a pop festival and when I got home he’d gone to some unknown destination with almost no money, no food and no sunscreen. That felt vaguely wrong.