Parenthood versus Career

It doesn’t seem possible to me to have a high-flying career and a good enough relationship with your children, regardless of whether you’re male or female. Luckily for me this is an easy choice because I don’t have a particularly exciting career. My job doesn’t demand overtime and I work from home. I certainly wouldn’t want to give it up but I don’t foresee it taking me away from my kids. Time will tell.

But I do feel a sadness for the aborted careers of other women in my circle. Four years ago I was in an all-female team of six lower level managers. We were all driven, focussed, successful, an asset to our company. I know that the others were career-oriented, thrusting, competitive. I was all those things too but the job didn’t make me happy. I stepped down, partly for myself and partly because I was scheming and planning.

Our management roles were based in the London office. Taking a demotion meant I was returning to the coal face, as it were, rather than managing the people at this metaphorical coal face. Crucially it also allowed me to work from home. Due to a combination of my intense stinginess and inheriting 20k, we were able to buy a one-bed flat in London during the property slump, where my partner and I lived and I worked out of the living room. It was an ex-council flat. One neighbour was mentally ill, another had drug dealers coming and going at all hours. On two occasions he chucked his unwanted furniture into the front forecourt, where other opportunists added their own crap in a giant pile.

Our belongings were one-out-one-in because space was at a premium. We only had a two-seater sofa because my work desk took up all the space. The table only allowed for two dining guests. Visits from relatives were infrequent because sleeping on our sofa bed was so unappealing.

My partner and I were happy despite the relative rubbishness of our flat because we were using this time in our lives for other projects – parties, drama, writing, generally doing the London thing. Spend some time in Hackney with someone wearing dickhead glasses if you want an idea of the lifestyle we were sampling. But the whole time I had my eyes on the prize: motherhood in my Yorkshire home town. And I planned to achieve this by owning property and working from home in a job paying the lower echelons of London wages.

Why couldn’t I just get a job in my home town? Well, because there aren’t any. Unless you’re a doctor or a teacher. Have a look at the Avenue Q song about a degree in English Lit if you don’t get me. OK, OK, I’m bright and driven. I could have retrained in something lucrative. In fact I have tried law. It didn’t make me happy. I also tried a career in management, remember. It didn’t make me happy. I was confident that my coal face role was the dream compromise between challenge, fulfilment and stress. The work-life balance, if you will. But not in London.

Why not in London? Because of property prices, pure and simple. If I was trading career for happiness at the coal face, then I could kiss goodbye to a second bedroom, or a garden, or neighbours who didn’t leave their furniture outside while smoking spliffs in the hallway. Even in a high-flying role, I would need to earn three times what I’m now on to begin to afford a family home.

So four years on, I think I’ve done the right thing for my in utero family. My awful flat has increased in value by more than 50%, partly because the drug dealer died and the council did up his place and chose a nice recluse to live there instead. We’ve sold it in exchange for a house in Yorkshire. Yep, a house. I am so excited about stairs and cupboards. We currently have enough furniture for two of the seven rooms. I might leave some empty just because I can. The schools in the area are great so we don’t have the public school moral dilemma Londoners face. I can carry on at the coal face and we can afford to give Junior what I consider to be a normal, frugal upbringing. The only downside is that my partner is going to have to commute to London three days a week if he wants to continue at his coal face. Why? Because there are no jobs in Yorkshire that strike the balance between challenge and stress in his field either.

But what about the other five members of my super team? Well, guess what, they are women and they also wanted children and predictably they all now have them. Three of them decided to prioritise having a staircase and spending time with their children over their management careers and London properties. They all moved to the home counties, took the demotion to the coal face, and wave goodbye to their husbands every morning on their 90 minute commute into London. One of them refused to jack in her career, achieved promotion while on maternity leave and is doing well in management. But not so well that she can afford suitable property. They live with their baby in a rented two-bed flat which is a snip at £1000 a month because it’s on a government low rent scheme.

And the fifth? Well, she has it cracked. She can continue in her managerial role while luxuriating in the three-bed London des res that she and her husband own. So how has she achieved the impossible? Her parents put down a 50% deposit for her when they bought it and don’t need the money back.

So my conclusion is this. You want your kids to have a career and a family home in 2014? Better hope they’re investment bankers because an earning potential of anything less is gonna mean a serious trip to the bank of mum and dad.

12 Long Weeks

I found the first 12 weeks of being pregnant very hard even though I was extremely lucky. I didn’t have any sickness and the very rare twinge of nausea that I did experience was always instantly banished with a biscuit. My pregnancy was planned and I have a stable job and lovely home. My husband was over the moon and wonderfully attentive to me. So what was the problem?

Well, I didn’t really know what the problem was. It was hard to explain. I felt joyless. I was aware that I was having disproportionate reactions to bad news or stressful situations but knowing that the reactions were extreme didn’t rein in the emotions at all. I couldn’t put into words what the problem was, and because we had told so few people that we’d conceived, there was nobody to help me because I was hiding it all.

Of course we went on the internet for pregnancy info. The attitude of most of the early-stages websites was upbeat, congratulatory, excited. This didn’t help at all. I wanted to be all those things and I knew logically I should be but instead I seemed to be robbing myself of the chance to enjoy the experience. There was usually a conciliatory paragraph acknowledging that pregnancy can be a bit scary and an emotional rollercoaster but the tone generally came across as sort of ditzy. “Feeling a bit low? Have some cake and look at pictures of booties! Pregnancy is a chaotic time!”

I found myself turning away from published advice and information. I certainly didn’t want to hear about foetal development and the tadpole-y photographs disturbed me. I got angry at my husband when he downloaded the One Born Every Minute app and tried to update me on our progress.
One of my midwife appointments was women-only. We called it the wife-beater scan before I went, and, yes, they do ask if your partner is abusive. My midwife also asked me about how I was getting on and I admitted I was feeling blue. She couldn’t have been more supportive. She explained that only in very serious cases of depression would they prescribe medication and told me about my counselling options. She booked me in for an extra midwife’s appointment so that I wouldn’t “slip through the net”. I told my husband and he wanted to know what more he could do to help me.

But I didn’t take up the counselling or the extra midwife appointment and I couldn’t come up with any suggestions for my husband. What could I say to any of these people? “I have a wonderful life and now that I’m pregnant I’ve got what I craved over several years. So that’s why I’m unhappy.”

I just didn’t feel pregnant. I knew I was emotional but I was also trying to keep myself together, so perversely any good days actually reinforced the idea that I wasn’t pregnant. The pregnancy symptom that I experienced most strongly was intense dreaming. The online references to this were also ditzy. “You might find you have some cur-razy dreams!” The dreams themselves weren’t usually nightmares but they were terrifying. It was the experience of living through the dreams that was so unpleasant. They were much more real than real life, much more vivid, much more meaningful, much more colourful. I was so glad when I woke up every morning that reality was simple and tame in comparison, but it would take about an hour to shake off the dream hangover and I could feel the dregs of tension all over my body.

I know that dreams are a reflection of your mental state. What I didn’t know was whether my dreams were just genetically enhanced by the pregnancy hormones or whether they were a fair reflection of what I was going through. I was certainly terrified of having a miscarriage and the fear was stifling.

The good news is that at the 12-week scan I saw my baby and heard the heartbeat. So I was definitely pregnant. I fervently hoped this was the beginning of an emotional turning-point. The websites all said that those pesky first trimester symptoms would vanish instantly and I’d thoroughly enjoy the second trimester and all the benefits of pregnancy before the physical discomfort of the third began. Of course that wasn’t my experience at all, but looking back on the ten weeks since that scan, I am happy to report that there has been a gradual easing of the depression and fear. I’ve started educating myself about labour and on many days I’m genuinely excited about the baby.

I admitted to some new-mother friends that I’d been unhappy and it felt like a massive confession. To my amazement and delight, they all told me they had gone through the same thing. They shared stories of breaking down on the midwives, begging for a scan to prove they were pregnant. They’d also been terrified of miscarriage and agreed how lonely it feels until you admit to the world that you’re pregnant. They had also shied away from the baby books, websites and creepy tadpole pictures.

Of course it was wonderful to hear that my experience wasn’t unique. It’s a shame I didn’t find that out sooner, but maybe I wouldn’t have been able to take away the positive while I was trapped in the black hole. Maybe it would have been fuel to my fire of negativity.

I wonder why pregnant women go through this unhappiness. At the time I thought it was purely chemical. A cocktail of hormones that had taken over my body like a puppet master, poisoning my soul. Then this week I heard Carly Simon talking about chemotherapy. She said, “Coping with the treatment is coping with the knowledge.” I could see a parallel. Maybe my emotional distress was the result of my body and mind reeling from the overwhelming reality of creating a new human being.

To any newly-pregnant women out there I say this: Your experience is probably not unique and hopefully knowing that makes it less frightening. If you can’t handle the baby books, don’t look at them yet. You might prefer to live in temporary denial. That’s fine. You’ve got ages to get your head round the reality. I don’t mean eat a massive brie or smoke ten B&H because I bet you anything you will feel even more frightened afterwards. I mean do what makes you happy without pushing yourself into anything you aren’t ready for. In my case, I was happiest when I was actively engaged in an activity that took up my whole attention and allowed me to forget that I had been taken over by a mutant tadpole.

“You look well!”

You know in Friends when Tom Selleck describes the divorce head tilt accompanied by the question, “Are you OK?” Well, it turns out there’s a pregnancy equivalent. Whenever I bump into someone I haven’t seen for a couple of weeks, I get the selfsame head tilt accompanied by, “You look well!”

Apparently a nice thing to say to someone, you might think. Mm. Try hearing it in a tone of surprise a few times a week. It turns out people are so astonished when a pregnant person looks well that they have to comment. What is the assumption behind the comment? It can only be that they expect me to look like shit. And I don’t know why.

Could it be that people are aware of the emotional toll pregnancy can take and therefore expect it to be written all over my face? I don’t think that’s it. Read back through my blogs and you’ll see that I could have done with some sympathy and understanding, but not very much has been forthcoming. Of course people can’t guess how I’m feeling, but even close friends haven’t suspected and gently invited me to offload, which might have been welcome. And when I have volunteered information about the bad stuff, it’s been met with horror. I don’t know if I just pick the wrong people to tell, but they never make me feel any better. They look shocked by my honesty and then embarrassed. They try to brush it under the carpet with comments like, “But you’re looking forward to it really, aren’t you?” Or, “It’ll all be worth it!” I even found myself on the point of arguing with one friend, trying to prove to her that I really have felt rubbish.

So why is there a general assumption that pregnant women look rank if it’s not the emotional turmoil? This is particularly paradoxical when paired with the concept of “blooming”, defined by Collins as “being in a healthy, glowing or flourishing condition”, which is yet another truth universally acknowledged about pregnancy that seems to me to be absolute bobbins. I have been told that my hair should be more luscious, my eyes more shiny and my cheeks more rosy. I promise you they aren’t. I look like I always do, except with a cushion stuck up my jumper.

When I push people to explain why they’ve told me I look well, they invariably say something about how my body looks like it always does – thin – just with a bump at the front. Well, why shouldn’t it? The baby is only in my uterus after all. But apparently pregnant women are meant to look fat. Another truism that I don’t think stands up to scrutiny. You can’t go off what pregnant women in films look like, because they’ve been done up to look fab or rough depending on the function the pregnancy has in the plot, so think back to real people you know who have been pregnant. Did any of them honestly look noticeably fatter in the face, arms, bum or legs? And I said fat-TER. If you can think of plump pregnant women who were plump anyway, then they obviously don’t count.

Any woman will tell you that comments about size are illegal. “Have you lost weight?” is social code for either “you used to be a hideous fatso” or “you look ill”. Most of my peer group knows this and wouldn’t dream of saying anything vaguely similar. But apparently there are different rules when it comes to pregnancy. My body and my looks are now available for public comment. Roll up, roll up, reveal your latent assumptions about me. The usual rules of social boundaries don’t apply. Hell, you can even put your hands on my belly without asking first. I’m pregnant and therefore public property.

Miscarriage and Fear

As far as I know, the vast majority of my friends who have had children have also had a miscarriage. I’ve heard on the grapevine that they’re very common, especially in the first 12 weeks. But they don’t get talked about. We rarely hear about miscarriage statistics in the news, for example, and the subject doesn’t seem to crop up much in books and films.

I think miscarriage is a taboo subject. Maybe that’s just been my limited experience. I certainly get the impression that if you have an early miscarriage then it’s very difficult to talk about. Of course the experience must be distressing, scary, heartbreaking, a cocktail of emotions that it would be difficult to express in any situation. And I suspect it’s all complicated by the fact that most people probably didn’t know you were pregnant in the first place. Admitting to a miscarriage is admitting you’re planning to have a baby, which is another potential minefield. I think there may also be an attitude among people of, “Oh, well, you haven’t really lost a baby because you never really had one.” And what are our legal rights? Can we have compassionate leave from work or sickness absence to give us time to cope?

I certainly spent the first 12 weeks of my pregnancy thinking a lot about miscarriage, terrified of having one. When I admitted that to people who didn’t have children the response was generally, “Why? Why would you worry about that?” And I would say, “Because it’s so common.” They were always amazed.

Close friends tried to help me see how damaging the fear of miscarriage was. Some would helpfully point out that I could be knocked over by a bus tomorrow but I never worry about that. I knew what they meant. Fearing miscarriage won’t stop it from happening but it will make me consumed by fear, which was spoiling any enjoyment I might have felt at being pregnant.

The whole experience got me thinking a lot about the nature of fear. There are gazillions of terrible things out there that could damage us and generally speaking we don’t think about them. Our minds kindly ignore them to keep us safe from fear. Well, until they don’t. I get tense on Hogarth Roundabout because four years ago some idiot drove into the back of my car there. I know it’s extremely unlikely to happen again in the exact same spot. Really I should worry about driving anywhere, given how dangerous driving is statistically, but lucky for me my mind doesn’t do that. People with anxiety disorders are not so fortunate. Their brains seem to have lost the protective coating that allows us to pretend we’re safe. It’s hard to reason with people experiencing this kind of anxiety because they are right; something terrible could happen at any moment.

So for 12 weeks I feared miscarriage and then worried about my fear of miscarriage. I longed for that particular protective coating to grow back over, for my mind to return to what they call blissful ignorance. It didn’t. I don’t think it’s possible to will such a thing to happen. I suspect the protective coating only exists if we aren’t aware of it, which creates a mental health catch 22. Then I had the 12 week scan and it was fine. Time ticked on, the statistical likelihood of a miscarriage dropped, I started to feel better. I stopped thinking about the nature of fear.

And then we had the 20 week scan. And there was a problem. The baby was fine. But there seemed to be something about the umbilical cord which could cause me to bleed excessively in labour and possibly need a blood transfusion. I was shocked. I had been worrying about the baby in the subconscious hope that doing so would protect the baby. I had completely forgotten to worry about my own health! Look what happens if you don’t remember to worry about everything!

And so the cycle starts again.

So Much Bigger

I was doing much better towards the end of my second trimester. I’d done some buggy research, watched lots of One Born Every Minute, read huge chunks of the pregnancy book. I was even feeling excited about the prospect of a real live baby coming into my life. But then the third trimester began and whomp. It was like being hit with a ton of bricks.

In a matter of days my belly got much bigger. It sticks out. People offer me a seat on the tube. There are curved hollows either side of it where my midriff used to be. My boobs have started getting in the way of my arm. I feel ugly. There’s a pain in the middle of my back that strikes when I nap on the sofa. And yet I know, I know I have been incredibly lucky in terms of physical symptoms so far. For the first time pregnancy-induced bad times feel like they’re in the post for my body and I’m scared of them.

And time is running out. I have to choose a birth plan, finish the baby book, pick a buggy, cot, car seat, toys, highchair, breast pump, blankets… I wish this was a Communist country and the Government would just deliver a standard-issue baby pack. I am so sick of the sight of the Mothercare website and I still haven’t bought a single thing. And as for reading up on a baby’s development and how to actually be a mother? I definitely don’t have time for that in between the pilates, pelvic floor exercises and perineum massages.

In case you haven’t noticed, my emotional state has flipped back to my pre-12 week scan mindset. I’m depressed and loopy but this time it seems like there might be good reason to be panicking. At last I can tell I’m growing another human inside me. What was I thinking?

That’s a pretty good question. I decided to conceive because I wanted a baby. But why did I want one? Well, because the thought of having one made me happy and the thought of not having one made me unhappy. So an entirely selfish decision, basically. But this isn’t like thinking you want to learn to ice-skate, doing so and then reaping the endorphin rewards once you can do it, or wanting an iPad, saving up and enjoying the Facebook app. This thing has taken on a life of its own. Literally.

Six months ago I quite fancied having my own human but I now see that what I’ve done is outside my control. This is so much bigger than me and I can feel that I’m losing myself to it. No wonder the author of Frankenstein was a woman. I’ve created a powerful monster who has decimated my emotional self and is wrecking my physical self. Will there be anything left of the old me in 18 years’ time?

Apparently the joy of having a child makes it all worthwhile. But what if Junior is a horror? My children could be stupid, ugly, selfish, murderers, rapists, UKIP voters… It certainly looks like they’ll be warped by the burden of my resentment. I can imagine myself screaming that I want my tits back, and the ability to hold urine, and legs free from varicose veins. I might beg for my sanity and my emotional wellbeing. And no doubt my offspring will laugh in my face and say, “Sorry, Mum, but you chose to have me. In fact, I wish I’d never been born.”

“What are you going to call the baby?”

This is apparently the most pressing question people have for me nowadays, judging by the number of times I get asked it.

I could pretend I don’t understand why people are asking…but I do. I always wanted to know what my friends were going to name their offspring too. It’s weirdly intriguing. Maybe it’s because I’ve considered my kids’ names since primary school. Maybe it’s because of the intense power of a name. Maybe it’s because I enjoy judging people. Either way, I’ve discovered that this is yet one more thing that’s a totally different experience once you’re knocked up.

I’ve found that if I do tell my friends the names we’re choosing between, they make comments. They say that they used to know a Melchior who was horrible. Or that Pomegranate is an ugly name. Or, worst of all, they’re also planning to name their bundle of joy Aurora Borealis. Of course these are comments that I considered perfectly reasonable this time last year. I wasn’t trying to be rude. I was just chatting, sharing opinions, reflecting on the issues.

But take it from me, once you’re pregnant, you can’t handle it. You treasure your chosen name so dearly that any comment whatsoever is like a red rag to a bull. Hypersensitive should be my new name. I warned you I’ve gone proper loopy these days.

I think people sense this though, because asking a baby-to-be’s name carries with it a frisson of daring. No doubt that’s part of the appeal. You can tell people are gearing themselves up to ask, and it feels like an assault on your battlements. They’re eager to see if they can breach your defences and capture the Holy Grail of baby information.

What makes this a particularly nasty attack for the parents is that even if they have a dozen monogrammed babygrows hidden in a drawer, it’s simply not done to refer to the developing foetus by name. I have heard of the odd case of foreigners using the foetus’s name and getting vilified, laughed at, lampooned. Some kind-hearted souls even recommend that you don’t name the baby in case you get too attached and something goes horribly wrong. Cheers, mate.

So for the sake of pregnant people everywhere, let’s draw the line and make it illegal to ask the baby’s name. I mean, we might have to address the situation in the Middle East first, but as soon as that’s dealt with I expect David Cameron to get straight on this.

I hope Victoria Coren Mitchell is reading this.

It’s quite annoying when a woman selling wedding rings takes down your fiancé’s details and then laughs in your face. The joke? I was going to have to take his surname and it’s such an awful name.

First of all, the love of my life hasn’t actually got a particularly rubbish name. It’s a bit awkward because he always has to spell it out but it’s not Cockburn, Bumstead or Shufflebottom.

But of course, that’s not my point. I was horrified that she thought that in 2014 I have to take my fella’s surname. We didn’t buy rings from her, in case you hadn’t guessed. Once we were married, a new acquaintance heard I hadn’t changed my name and said, “Really? So is he your bitch then?”

I can’t tell you how opposed I am to women taking their husband’s surname. Oh, wait, yes, I can. Why the hell should I lose my identity just because I’ve got married? Anyone who’s ever known me or ever Facebook-stalked me now no longer has my name. I’ve become someone else apparently, just because we’ve simplified the legal aspects of our joint life together. Oh, he’s still the same guy. I’m the one who’s become somebody else. Why would I sign up to that?

And even worse, changing your name is a total ball ache. Every piece of ID has to be altered. Every bill. Every email address. Every personalised fountain pen. Surely if the moral grounds don’t convince you, the administrative ones do?

So why do women do it? Tradition is apparently a biggie. But it’s traditional to hang out your blood-stained sheets the morning after your wedding and we don’t do that anymore. Well, I didn’t. And we don’t exactly have a strong tradition of women’s rights in Britain. It’s traditional to ban women from voting or owning property too.

One friend told me she wanted to take her husband’s name to express her love for him. I wonder how he erased his identity in order to express his. She also pointed out that the great benefit of women’s lib is the right to choose, including whether to take your man’s name or not. I’m afraid I don’t accept that either. People choose to take heroin but it’s still a really bad thing for society. Some women say they choose to wear burkas. Anyone who’s ever watched Derren Brown will know that we don’t actually make choices based on our own freewill. We’re coerced by forces that we don’t understand and it requires huge awareness to break these forces.

Perhaps the clincher for many women is the prospect of everyone in their family unit having the same surname. Granted, I can see that might be convenient if you want to appear as the Mycock Family on Family Fortunes one day. But I say other people should just get your names right. How hard is it? Millions of families don’t share the same names, as a result of divorce, death, choice, lack of marriage, remarriage, and also tradition. In Iceland, Svarvar Magnusson’s child’s surname would be Svarvarson. Just ask my friend Svarvar Svarvarson. In Spain, women don’t change their surnames, so María Sanchez Grande and Jesús Navarro Gonzalez’s children’s surnames are Navarro Sanchez and everyone just deals with it. You should see their personalised post boxes!

It may not surprise you to hear that I’m not OK with using your husband’s name ‘at home’ and your maiden name ‘at work’, which is the oh-so-helpful advice of the author of the baby book I’m pretending to read. As an obstetrics professor and a published author I think she has more reason than most to celebrate her identity. But apparently her dual identity “has never given rise to any uncertainty for [her] children.” Phew! Because that’s the issue here – whether a five-year-old is confused.

And then even worse than having two separate personas must be adding your husband’s surname to your own. Jessica Ennis-Hill, I’m looking at you. Surely this is the worst of both worlds? You haven’t respected tradition and you can’t go on Family Fortunes. You’ve still suffered all the admin and you’ve still compromised your identity. And if you then get divorced, you have to announce it to the world through your name. Radek Stepanek’s trophies all bear the same name regardless of misfortunes in his personal life. Justine Henin isn’t so lucky.

Now that I’m up the duff people are asking which name we’re going to give our children. Well, guess what? I wasn’t OK with giving up my name and I’m not OK with my kids having just my husband’s name. So we’re going to double barrel the sprogs.

“Ah,” people say, “but what will they do when they come to have children? Treble barrel? Quadruple barrel?” And you know what? They can figure that one out for themselves. They can exercise their right to choose. I can’t think of everything!