Category Archives: working life

The closet crisis complex

Raging Bull

The Raging Bull has a special dress sense

My fashionable friend tells me it’s a ‘universal truth’. But I’m more inclined to say it’s a feminine one. No matter how many new clothes I buy, I still can’t seem to find something to wear in my closet. I don’t walk out of the house feeling like I’ve stepped out of the pages of Vogue. Usually I feel like I’m one wardrobe choice away from landing a modelling contract with Angling Times.

It has been like this for as long as I can remember. I rarely pick out my clothes the night before a day at work, so I spend a frantic ten minutes – precious time I usually don’t have – staring at the cavernous space inside (it’s not really cavernous but I like the word) and wondering why I can’t find something that doesn’t leave me either bored or vaguely dissatisfied.

Usually this leads me to wonder why I’m so bad at putting together clothes and if I need to seek help. In a frail moment – usually at night when I’m looking at my favourite clothing websites after half a bottle of wine – it will be used as an argument for why I need something else, which usually produces a crisis related to money. This in turn leads to a crisis with the English Husband.

I’ve now discovered that I might have passed on the ‘clothing indecisiveness’ gene to my two children. Every morning I hear the same thing from the seven-year-old Chatterbox, who whines loudly: ‘But I don’t know what to wear.’ I’ll peek into the bedroom and see her staring at the clothes in her drawer, eyes as blank as a dead fish sitting behind the glass of a supermarket counter.

Meanwhile, her little sister Raging Bull is developing the kind of attitude to clothes that would send me reaching for the liquor if only it wasn’t 7.30 in the morning. She doesn’t like jeans; she hates seams because they itch; she’s not overly enamoured of dark colors; and she mostly wants to wear tights every single day with some kind of dress with frills. Even better if it resembles a tutu.

This would be bad enough if I only had to get her dressed in the morning, but I’m often negotiating with this obstinate child while I’m barely half dressed myself.

Eventually time forces the issue. I start to lose my patience, the Raging Bull or the Chatterbox end up wailing that ‘Mommy screamed at me’, I storm off to my room and look at the closet some more and then I’m about 10 minutes late for the bus, which means I end up waiting half an hour for the damn thing.

Being late to work inevitably sparks another crisis related to ‘why am I doing this?’ and then it all kind of starts over again.

I can only assume that men and their child counterparts, boys, don’t suffer from the same closet crisis that afflicts most women on a regular basis. Correct me if I’m wrong.

I’d like to think the girls will grow out of their clothing indecisiveness in time for their teenage years, but I fear they will be learning their future habits from the master architect of the closet crisis complex. Which will make for very happy mornings when they are 14 years old.

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Working women – still not level playing field

USA today article on working mothers

The simple fact of being a working mother makes headlines

As a working mother I get a little discouraged sometimes about how far women have supposedly come. Okay, we have a much better selection of clothes than our male counterparts, but women still appear to struggle in having equal opportunities in the workplace.

Here’s one surprising statistic, quoted in a London newspaper recently: London women are less likely to have a job in the capital than anywhere else in the UK. In the rest of the country, 66% of women are in work; the figure drops to 62.6% in London. You would think that London, the economic powerhouse of the UK, would be more progressive than that.

This eyebrow-raising percentage comes from an Office of National Statistics press release about female employment over the last 40 years. According to a mysterious government source, the smaller percentage of women working in London could be explained by the high-sky cost of childcare and also the fact that there are many single-parent families and ethnic minorities here.

The same release said that there are more women in work now than in the 1970s, which should come as little surprise. According to the ONS, 67% of women (16 to 64 years old) were in work; it was 53% in 1971.

Yet female graduates were still more likely to work in lower-skilled occupations than men and for less money. This is true of the UK and it’s certainly true of the United States.

If you thought America was making great strides in creating an equal workforce for men and women, think again. According to the US Census Bureau, the median earning for women still lags well below a man’s. It’s commonly referred to as the gender pay gap.

For 2010, the American governmental department published figures stating that the median income for full-time, year-round workers was $42,800 for men and $34,700 for women. I had to take this statistic from Wikipedia because I can’t access the US Census Bureau website, where the information appears in full. Blame the US government shutdown.

I can’t vouch for everyone else, but I do feel like as a woman and mother I’ve had to make some hard choices where my career is concerned. When I had my children I took all the time off and lost out on promotions and job opportunities. If my children get sick, I generally stay home. I’m the one who always leaves work early to pick them up. I’m the one who went part-time.

My career has suffered, no doubt about it. I don’t apply for challenging jobs because they might expect me to work long and anti-social hours. I fear taking a job that would leave me utterly depleted in the evenings. This is not because I don’t think I’m capable of doing something challenging, but because I’ve made a choice to prioritize my family. Financially, I need to work; having a nanny round the clock would negate that.

Now that I am 40, I also fear that I’ve spent too long working the same ‘easy’ job because it fitted around my life, and that people will wonder why I haven’t got further or pushed myself harder.

I can already hear the English Husband saying, ‘What about me? I juggle my life and my career, too, so that we share the burden.’ And he certainly does; he helps me a lot. But women in most households, even those who work, still disproportionately do most of the childcare and suffer the knock-on effects on their careers.

According to the World Health Organization, 16 million teenagers give birth every year. Every year! Imagine all those young women who perhaps never fully realize their potential.

What I would like is more equality for women (easier said than done, I realize); I want my female children to have better role models of their own sex. If I tell them that they can grow up to be anything they want, I’d like to believe it. I don’t always.

Gender discrimination plays out in many ways, some of them very unexpected. I think even my own children believe that my husband’s work is somehow more valuable than mine. Why? It’s small things. They will ask him about his day at work occasionally. But do I get asked? No. Do they even wonder? Never. Perhaps it’s because I don’t wear a suit and don’t exude the same sense of authority.

Maybe it’s even partly my fault because I have a very female habit of downplaying my achievements.

This is not a UK problem, but a worldwide one. If someone with my education and background still struggles to find well-paid, meaningful work that fits around their life and children, what hope is there for those who weren’t given the many opportunities I was?

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An accidental life

Accidental Tourist

A book about negotiating your way through life. It’s not so much about a man than it is about humanity.

When you first become a mother, it’s pretty easy to forget about yourself. This baby comes into the world and suddenly the focus is no longer on you.

I can no longer remember what used to preoccupy my thoughts in my twenties. Once you have children, it’s almost impossible to recall the life you used to lead. All I know is that I must have had a lot more time on my hands and better clothes.

By September, both my children will be at school, and I can feel the pendulum swinging a bit more towards me again. And suddenly I find myself thinking a lot about my career, that crucial money-making thing which has pretty much stalled since having my first child.

I’ve come out of the baby years feeling like I have given up a huge part of myself. I knew having kids would entail a lot of sacrifice. I’ve even heard it said that it kills your ambition. But until you experience it yourself, it’s very hard to know what kind of impact it will have on your life.

It’s no exaggeration to say that it feels like my career has pretty much ossified. I’ve put a lot of my energy somewhere else and it has taken a toll on whatever ambitions I had for my professional life.

Before I had the Chatterbox I was already thinking of moving on from my job and doing something new; I was relatively young and anything still seemed possible. Seven years later I am still doing the same job. It has also gone from being a full-time contract to something I only do on a freelance basis. Technically, I am making less money than I was seven years ago and I have no benefits or stability.

If I’m looking for an excuse for my failure to find something else, plenty abound. I made less money than my husband, so I was the one to go part time. The job gave me flexibility, which I knew I wouldn’t find somewhere else.

I hear it from other mothers too. They were working, but gave up and now can’t find any part-time work to fit around their children. They were in high-powered positions, but could no longer do the hours. They were no longer interested in their jobs and couldn’t justify the time away from their child. The childcare costs were prohibitive and didn’t seem worth the sacrifice.

But then you have people like Sheryl Sandberg, who just published Lean In. The COO Facebook has not only managed to combine motherhood with a high-flying, lucrative career, but she has also miraculously found the time to write a book about women and leadership. I’ve no idea how she does it.

Maybe if I read the book I’d have a clue about what it takes to live like Sheryl and emulate her success. But I suspect I’d never have the motivation to be like Sheryl. She probably gets up at 4am and checks her emails before she goes to sleep; she undoubtedly can afford the very best childcare, with nannies who make meals, pick up the kids from school and bathe them.

I’d rather take my inspiration from The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. While this might sound like a weird choice, it’s not. I completely related to the protagonist, Macon Leary, who robotically coasted through life, making the minimal amount of effort and refusing to adapt his curious, but deeply engrained, habits.

But then his life slowly starts to unravel and he is forced to re-evaluate the path he has chosen. At the end of the novel he begins to wonder if it’s too late to start again: ‘He reflected that he had not taken steps very often in his life, come to think of it. Really never. His marriage, his two jobs … all seemed to have simply befallen him. He couldn’t think of a major act he had managed of his accord. Was it too late now to begin? Was there any way he could learn to do things differently?’

So that’s what I have to ask myself – Is it too late to start again, to make the effort to forge my own path and not let things just happen, to feel accidental? Because I’ve often felt that I didn’t so much make my own destiny but let it just happen to me. I became complacent, a bystander in my own life.

Motherhood is an excuse for a stalled career, but for how long? Maybe I should spend less time making excuses for myself and more time seeking solutions. I hold myself back, more than anyone else holds me back.

I’d highly recommend The Accidental Tourist if you haven’t read it already. I know it was written many years ago, but there’s something of Macon in all of us.

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Working from home: the backlash

Raging Bull with Chatterbox

Two reasons why I might want to work from home occasionally

What is it with women? New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sent a memo to her employees telling them that she is going to ban working from home. By the way, she has a small child. Predictably, this has kicked off a storm of negative reactions, with many people saying that it’s a step backwards for the high-tech company.

Now, British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman has weighed into the debate. She doesn’t like working from home either. She has one son, now nearly grown up. Shulman’s mother supposedly went back to her writing job within two weeks of giving birth.

Shulman’s argument is that she likes her team to be around. In a UK national newspaper over the weekend, she also says this: ‘Some of the best stories in any publication I have worked on have come out of a glancing remark somebody has made about their night before, or a piece of gossip, or a joke.

‘The daily download of chatter within the office feeds into what we produce in an incalculable way.’

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, there is some truth in this. But it’s hardly a reason to demand that your employees sit every day in the office, just so that they can contribute to a piece of gossip or have an occasional bright idea overheard by others.

As a working mother, I really could list a number of reasons why working from home would help me a great deal. I don’t work from home, so you know, mostly because I’ve been told that I can’t have certain software applications outside of the office for security reasons. I honestly do believe there is a way around this, but I’ve not wanted to push it.

I can tell you this, however: if my employer gave me the right to work from home, even occasionally, I would work that much harder to keep the job. I would be loyal and I’d be happier, which I believe would ultimately make me more productive.

I used to work from home two days a week – and I got quite a bit done. I also never used it as an excuse to do nothing. I’d argue that I was as productive as someone in the office, maybe even more so.

This ‘gossip’ that Alexandra Shulman talks about can also be detrimental to productivity. Just because you’re in the office, sitting in front of your computer, doesn’t mean you are participating in work conversations or even doing actual work. You could be chatting to friends on Facebook or checking your Twitter feed for pleasure. You could be incessantly talking to the person next to you about your weekend or the night before, keeping both of you from doing anything at all.

We need to get away from the idea that being in the office somehow means that we are doing more work than someone who is sitting on their couch or at their dining table.

London mayor Boris Johnson said last summer that people might use the Olympics as an excuse to work from home and ‘open the fridge and hack off that bit of cheese’.

Hilarious, isn’t it? As if home workers do nothing more than sit around and snack on food. The reality is far more complex. Sure, you may take breaks at home but so do people in the office. I can’t tell you how many distraction techniques I can come up with.

And if you are going to be the type of person who likes to take advantage of people’s trust in you, the fact is that this won’t change whether you are in the office or not. You will always find a way to work the system to your advantage.

The best is to find a balance. Like drinking wine or eating cakes, it’s all about not doing too much of one or the other. I find that some working from home is complemented by time in the office – but this is my personal conclusion.

What I find most depressing about this debate is the fact that it’s being propagated, in part, by very successful women. You know what, let’s cut each other a break. Isn’t it enough that there are so very few women in high-level politics or holding down jobs as CEOs? There are two female chief executives in the FTSE 100 working today.

Couldn’t we be a bit more forgiving? Couldn’t women, who give birth and get lumbered with the child-rearing, recognise that working from home is not some evil offshoot of better technology but a fact of modern life?

Even if you’re a successful woman, who opts to go back to work two weeks after giving birth, leaving your child to your nanny, couldn’t you see that not everyone would want the same or even have the option of top-level care?

My dad, who is an engineer, once told me that he didn’t very much like working with the few women who made it in his profession, because they were often tougher and less forgiving than men. I kind of see his point now.

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The working mother, week 1

I’ll tell you what astonishes me – how much quicker I can get out of the house without two children who slow me down with their inconsistent demands and illogical thinking. I have spent what I fear are hours trying to get the Raging Bull to understand that tights don’t function in the same way as leggings. She insists, though, on walking out of the house half naked. Normally this daily routine – she cries, I lose it – slows me down by about 2o minutes.

But, with the English Husband in charge of the kids in the morning, I walk out of the house to work on Day 2 feeling remarkably unencumbered. I am not holding three coats, a change of clothes, two bottles of water, a huge bag, an empty stroller, two umbrellas and someone’s toy monkey. I’m only holding my handbag. A miracle.

My feeling of lightness lasts about one minute. It dissipates the moment I see the bus pulling away from the stop. I spend the next 7 minutes staring at my watch and cursing the rain. Bad commuting memories come rushing back.

My life is full of these little contradictions. I am loving looking in the closet and wearing clothes I would normally reserve for a special night out. Some of these clothes have been worn so rarely I’ve almost forgotten why I bought them. I no longer have to fear that someone is going to come along with sticky fingers and smear my top with hummus (my default lunch staple for the kids).

Yet I feel a little sad that I’m never there in the morning when they eat breakfast. Or that I no longer hear the Raging Bull chant her refrain – ‘I want cheese’ – for the thousandth time before 11am. She could give Tibetan monks a run for their money, I tell you.

I love the novelty of adult conversation. I have discovered that people in the office listen to me and laugh at what I say. I don’t have to repeat myself ten times, wondering whether I have suddenly become invisible or mute. The kids have a remarkable ability to tune me out.

But around 3 o’clock – the hour when I would pick up the Chatterbox from school – I start pining for a bit of time with the mini terrors. I even start to get nostalgic about doing an art project with them. What has possessed me? A three-year-old with sharp scissors and a stick of glue can do more damage to a house than most hurricanes, and yet here I am, almost wishing for it.

This kind of reverie doesn’t last long. Within minutes of picking the kids up, it comes flooding back – exactly why I was desperate to get out of the house in the first place.

The worst thing about my new, responsible working life is that the minute I get home the REAL WORK starts. You know those days when you used to get home from the office and flop on the couch, fix yourself a bit of salad and finish it off with a big glass of wine. That’s OVER.

I get home now and it’s like the day ramps up a notch. The kids need their dinner. There’s nothing waiting in the fridge, naturally, because I never know more than five minutes ahead of time what these kids are going to eat. Then it’s the usual dinnertime disaster, with the kids getting up from the table several times to wander around the house mid-spoonful. Despite my six+ years experience in motherhood, I still don’t know how to get them to sit. I suppose there are always chains, but it does feel a bit cruel…

Then it’s the misery of bathtime and getting pajamas on before bed. Before I had children, I naively assumed that you told a child to put on his pajamas and, lo and behold, the child would do it. Ah, what an innocent I was back then. I laugh at the child I was. Everything takes three times longer than you think it should and normally there are a few threats and tears before the kids are ready for their storytime. I’ve blinked and it’s 8pm.

Then it’s our own dinner, our own dishes and several other chores before I can actually sit down and rest. By this time I’m literally ready to drop into bed and start the whole thing over again.

Some nights I don’t even have the energy for an evening drink – so I know that something is seriously askew with my body clock. I never say no to a drink. Ask the English Husband. But this week I’ve had less than my normal take-the-edge-off-my-day dose.

Today is Friday, though, and I feel like rewarding myself with two vodkas, some wine and good food. I have already indulged my shopping habit and bought myself a new sweater. And I have arranged a night out with a friend. And I have the money to pay for it! How will I manage with so much excitement? Yes, the perks of working life. I hope my eyelids don’t droop by 9pm. That’ll just spoil the fun.

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