When Belinda (whose own company is opening its doors today, of all days) sent us this post I found myself nodding along and agreeing, despite having written a post just two weeks earlier with a completely different point of view. She writes so eloquently, and gives such powerful reasons for her choices, that I can’t help but start to feel that she’s probably right, and has most definitely made the right choices for herself and her family. Which is ultimately, what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it?
Before I start, let me first say that I realise that I speak only for myself and cannot and do not profess to be able to speak for anyone else. I have strong opinions about why I think it is so important for mothers to work, but those opinions have been formed as a result of my own life experiences. I have been extremely fortunate to grow up in a comfortable middle class family with all the opportunities and advantages that financial stability, domestic stability and a good education bring. However, I appreciate that my views may well be very different if my life had been different. Do feel free to challenge me!
So to it – my life as a working mother and why I think it is extremely important to be one. First a bit of history:
I was born in 1968 in Cape Town, South Africa. My mother was 22 and my father 28. They met in Leeds where my father was studying. He was a Cape Townian with German Jewish and Welsh Jewish parents and she a kosher butcher’s daughter from Leeds. He took her back to Cape Town after they married (which she hated as she was vehemently anti-apartheid) and he went to Cape Town University to study medicine. However, within months of my birth my father was diagnosed with cancer and was dead by the time I was 16 months old. My mother, a widow of 23, returned to Leeds, obviously taking me with her.
At first we lived with my grandparents – both of whom worked. My mother, out of necessity, also had to work and so she got a job as a secretary at Leeds University. Therefore from a very young age I went to nursery, at first a small day nursery and then, from the age of 3 to a different nursery school which was part of a larger primary school. I travelled in a council paid for taxi on my own! Although my grandma was normally home when I got back from nursery, on the one occasion she wasn’t there, I knew to go next door to her neighbor, Mrs Green’s house and wait there. I was an extremely independent child. I was also extremely precious to those around me and I knew that. I never once felt abandoned or unloved.
Just before I turned 4 my mum re-married and my new Dad formally adopted me. He was a young solicitor who had been brought up by working class parents who had both worked hard and had both sacrificed a great deal to give him the opportunity for an education. He never tired of telling me his stories of poverty as I was growing up and he took me to see the back to back terraced house where he had lived as a child before it was demolished. However, despite his poverty as a child and both his parents having worked, he grew up loved and cherished and he thrived and became a great success both professionally and personally.
After she married my mum stopped working. My sister was born in 1975 and at that point she felt that she really needed to do something to exercise her brain. She had been brilliant at school but like for the majority of girls at school in the 50s and 60s, her parents’ ambition for her extended only to marriage and children and she complied. However, in around 1976 she decided to take a university degree through the Open University. It took her years but she ended up getting the equivalent of a first (as it was not an honours degree she didn’t actually get a classification). She then went on to do a law conversion course and then law society finals. She qualified as a solicitor when I was doing my A levels. I was inordinately proud of her. Not once did I feel she had not been a good mother to me, even though she wasn’t the paragon of saintly motherhood that the media tells women they need to be these days. For much of the time she was squirrelled away in the spare bedroom studying.
And so with that bit of background, let me tell you about me now. I have two young children (8 and 6) who are both wonderful and challenging. I took maternity leave with both of them, a time which was very special and precious. However, by the time they were both around 9 months old I was pretty desperate to get back to work. I was extremely fortunate that I didn’t have to put either child into nursery at such a young age but was able to employ a nanny. I accept that I may not have been so comfortable about going back to work so soon had nursery been the only option, but it wasn’t so, as I say, I am lucky. I knew that I didn’t want to go back to work in the City at the law firm where I had been when I became pregnant with my first child as I wanted flexibility to spend time with my daughter and so I decided to set up my own law consultancy business, offering my services to small law firms who wanted to offer their clients employment law advice and representation without taking on an employment lawyer full time. One of the firms I approached said that they didn’t want me to be a consultant, they wanted me to work for them. I was in a position, therefore, to negotiate my own terms. These were: (1) I want to work full time but 50% of the time from home – i.e. in the office from 9-3 each day and from home for the rest of the day and from home all day on Fridays (2) I want to be a partner within 12 months. They said yes to both. I know that I would have been unlikely to achieve such flexibility had they not been the ones approaching me.
A few years later and after the birth of my second child I was approached by another firm and, again, I was effectively able to negotiate my terms. First piece of advice to women: if you want to be able to negotiate the best terms of employment, move jobs! When a company wants you, they’re more likely to agree to your requests for flexible working. It is also the best way to get promoted.
I was a partner at that firm for the next four years and it was fantastic. The firm was a 15 minute drive from home, the work was great and I really liked my colleagues. I again worked full time but ensured I was able to leave work in time to collect my daughter from the school bus stop. I have a home office so was able to work in the late afternoons/evenings if needed.
In February of this year I decided that the time was right to set up on my own. The legal services industry has changed and I wanted to be able to offer a quality service at a transparent and affordable price without reference to the hated hourly rate. The seed of Lionshead Law was sown and on 2 September this year (today!) it will come into being.
During all of this I have continued to be a full-time mother. All mothers are full-time. You don’t stop being a mother just because you work. On top of that I believe that I have given my son and particularly my daughter the right sort of role model. My daughter is at an academic girls’ school yet I am constantly amazed by the number of highly intelligent and educated women who have given up their careers to become dedicated saintly mothers – and yet I don’t think their daughters respect them more for it. They are at a school which teaches girls to achieve and yet so many of them see their mothers narrowing their world to that of the home, the school and their children’s extra-curricular and social activities. One mother told me that her teenage daughter refused to tidy her room or empty the dishwasher, telling her mother “That’s your job, if I do it, that makes you redundant; what would be the point of you otherwise?” How truly awful. No mother should be spoken to like that but it just goes to show that making sacrifices for your children doesn’t always get you any gratitude or respect.
I also think it’s just as important for the mothers of sons to show their boys that women aren’t just there to fetch and carry for them but have a place in the world outside the domestic arena. My son already knows how to run and give himself a bath, to dress himself, to clear the table after he’s eaten and makes a very good attempt at bed making. A capable boy not yet 6. Hopefully he’ll grow into the kind of man who won’t leave childrearing and domestics to his wife and hopefully my daughter (if she chooses to marry) will be lucky enough to marry a man who has been brought up the same way.
I am a far from perfect mother, but I don’t think my failings are anything to do with the fact that I work. Being a parent is about doing the best you can for your kids and enabling them to grow into independent, capable and productive adults. You don’t need to be a stay at home mother to achieve that.