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.