Is Kids and Career Possible?


This week we don't so much answer a specific problem answered as address a pervasive and far reaching one. This week, think of our blog as a public service announcement on Motherhood and Career. We live in a society that still sees women as the largest minority group. HELLO! 50.43% as of 2018. And yet, according to The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission women spend almost twice as much time doing unpaid caring and domestic chores as men.

Breathe. Just breathe. So, the prevailing question has to be, is it possible to have children, have a career and stay sane(ish). And this is exactly what Christine Armstrong addresses in her conveniently titled book - The Mother of All Jobs, How to Have Children, Have a Career and Stay Sane(ish). This is not some ivory tower musing of a super fit, soigne, swan like woman who bats off any question of how she does it with a wave of a perfectly manicured hand. Sorry Christine. We're talking snots and tears and meltdowns and failings. In truth what Christine does is a survival guide for the modern career woman, the nitty gritty of every new booby trap that presents itself both in the workplace and the school yard. What is more, Christine finally exposes the wizard. It's not easy and none of us should pretend it is. Christine and her publishers at Bloomsbury have very kindly allowed us to publish an extract from the book which is available here and in all good (and some bad) bookshops.


There is a fascinating contradiction at the heart of many a career mum – especially the competitive type – and the education of our kids. On the one hand we tend to be driven to ensure our kids do well. Not just ‘ well ’ of course. Average isn’t the thing. By ‘well’ we mean ‘ better than the others ’ : to succeed convincingly at one thing at least. But on the other hand we ’ re also quite busy doing whatever we do at work and are focused on getting that right.

In The Economist’s lifestyle and culture magazine 1843 , Ryan Avent writes about high-pressure parenting, noting that in the last 20 years the time parents spend on child rearing has jumped. ‘ In America in the 1980s, for example, young mothers spent about 12 hours per week actively engaged in childcare while fathers spent about four hours per week ... Mothers without university degrees now spend about 16 hours per week on childcare, while those with degrees spend nearly 22 hours per week. For fathers the figures are seven and ten, respectively. This pattern is repeated across the rich world. ’ He notes that what is strange

about this trend is that these better-educated, better-paid parents are not spending less time at work: they are spending more. Which means that what they are giving up on are their social lives, hobbies and sleep. Avent explores why and comes to the conclusion that increasing income inequality means parents feel they must do more to help their children get ahead. But these two traits of putting our time and effort into helping our kids and working harder and longer don’t sit well together and can cause a lot of angst


How involved should you get in the school-gate psychodrama? Whichever school they end up at, the gates of primary school then often form the battle lines between the parents who, at the extremes, either gave up their careers to focus on their kids and those who continued at work full-time. In the middle are those straddling both worlds, who work locally or from home during school hours and in the evenings and often at weekends, but also do the school run and ferry their kids to and from after-school clubs.

Those who keep working full-time often feel disregarded by the ‘ post- career mums ’, who they see as the super-competitive tiger brigade. The ones cracking through Kumon maths, ballet and music exams, and three languages, two of which they don ’ t even speak at home. These are the same mothers who are likely to throw their considerable talents into the school. Running the PTA. Becoming a governor. Volunteering for trips and outings.

What is interesting is that, however much effort it takes to get in, as soon as their kids are through the door, many parents express disappointment at their chosen school ’ s lack of perfection. The highly engaged parents often seem to then start campaigning to change the

school they have so fiercely fought for – or start to eye up the next ‘ perfect ’ place for their child. The first of these options means getting involved and investing their own time and effort fixing it. For them, the upside of this decision is enormous access to the teachers and the kids plus a highly complex network of other women (it generally is other women), with a similar amount of time to invest who also share information. Many a working parent has been stunned to realise that a specific group of mothers is carefully tracking what reading level their child is on, their swimming stage and the relative sophistication of their social skills.

One full-time working mother told me her daughter was invited on a play date. She was a bit surprised as she ’ d heard little about the other child and wasn’t aware they were friends, but she agreed. Before the play date, the at-home mother asked her to pack her swimsuit. Which she was fine with – her daughter is a keen swimmer – until she was briefed by another mother that the inviting couple see their own daughter as the best swimmer in the year and actually wanted to see how her daughter did against her. The point, it was implied, was that they wanted to show their ‘ competitive swimmer ’ how hard she would have to work to keep up her number-one position. The working mother was utterly exasperated by this as she has no inclination to worry about such things.

Now most of that story is hearsay. We don’t actually know what the at-home mum wanted to achieve – she may very well have been inviting the girls to have fun, knowing that they both enjoyed the water. She may have just noticed that they got on and was keen to include someone new into her daughter ’ s friendship group. But stories like this fuel a sense of unease between the various groups of parents that can be very unhelpful. Particularly when it comes with the inference that there is a two-tier parenting structure, and that full-time, absent-from-the-gate working mums are at the bottom of it: as Sara Bennison, then a director at Barclays UK retail bank, said in her interview with me for Management Today ,

‘Most women are really nice but there are some that are tricky. The worst was when my eldest daughter got into a particular school and another mother called to ask how. She was astounded because, as she put it, “you work”. The implication was that, as Sara had a big

job, she was too busy to take the time to get the kids into the right schools. This inference about being ‘ second tier ’ is where, I think, the many complaints about the yummies, the mum-mafia and so on come from.


There is also often a link between these feelings and a flashback to our own school years; Sarah Clarke explains this is called ‘rubber banding’, when an experience snaps us back into the feelings we had long ago when we experienced something similar. Some cannot bear

the return to that vulnerable place where we felt rejected. They park around the corner and send their kids through the gates without them. One woman at a private school even sends her nanny with the child while she waits in the car with the engine running, ideally on a speaker call so that no one is tempted to tap on the window: anything to avoid other parents. But some cannot resist returning to the centre of the fray, either to recreate an environment in which they thrived or perhaps to slay the ghosts of their own socially awkward childhoods. Deborah has both of these reactions to the school crowd: she is

repelled in some ways, but attracted by a desire to help her daughter do well. Initially she held back, keeping herself on the fringes. Later, she found it hard to join in. Like a mother who travels for work who says: ‘Some of the other mums are wary and don’t come near me. People who have known me from the start know I am wearing odd socks and pretending to make cakes that I’ve obviously bought. With people who don’t know you, there is always a risk of answering a question honestly and saying you’re going to Tokyo and it killing the conversation dead.

It is tricky because you feel in some ways that you want to be a part of it but you can’t break in. Some then choose to own their lack of school engagement. Career mums often tell me versions of: ‘ I don ’ t have the time to listen to what Heidi said to Ayesha in the playground that caused Yaz to be so upset that she told Ollie and she got sent home for the day. They have to learn to sort these things out. ’ The social lives of children can be complex and, when told like this in long form when you have no idea who the various characters involved are, it’s mind-numbing.

But the author Catherine Wallace PhD advises us to tread carefully: ‘ Listen earnestly

to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.’ Whether we agree with that or not, many find later that their lack of engagement has cost them: especially if they are the kind of people who like to know what is going on. A mum of two boys in secondary builds on this: ‘There’s something also about the fact that when they get to secondary school and inevitably start pulling away from you and developing an understandable desire for some normal privacy, it becomes harder and harder to find out what’s going on in their lives and how they are doing at school. Secondary school staff expect to communicate mainly with the kids, not the parents. So, things can happen that parents know nothing about or only find out too late, for example that the majorly important maths test is tomorrow. BUT if you have a fairly good radar for how your kids have been at school early on, who their friends are, who the troublemakers are etc then you can have a better feel for how it is in the teenage years.’

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for the extract of The Mother of All Jobs, buy the book here.

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