WHAT happens to ambition, when you have children? I've spent the weekend pondering this one, preparing to debate it on the radio with the formidable FT columnist Heather McGregor, author of a new book of advice for ambitious women. And it's forced me to think more deeply about whether I am still ambitious, and if so, for what.
I've always been competitive and driven (among other things women aren't really supposed to be), and definitely career-orientated, which is why the decision to give up my Proper Job after having my son surprised me more than anyone. I still want, very badly, to be good at what I do - but freelancing has been for me a way of focussing on the part I love (finding out stuff and writing about it) and ditching the stuff I don't (office politics, managing people, tiresome greasy pole-climbing).
So it frustrates me when people automatically assume that leaving full-time work signifies the end of ambition, and a slow agreeable decline to mush: because having spent the last year talking to men and women who made the same leap, I'm more convinced than ever that it's nonsense.
Those interviews were done for the book I've been sweating blood over for more than a year, which is finally out (and whose last minute labour pains have been the reason I've been so shamefully lax about blogging lately).
*look away now if you don't want to see the obligatory plug*
*Ok, you can look again now*
I don't buy that deciding not to scrabble to the top, if to do so means sacrificing everything else that matters, indicates the end of ambition. If anything, I think it's about the multiplying of ambitions - the old desire to excel professionally, fighting against a new one to be a particular kind of hands-on parent, spouse, friend, or child to your own ageing parents. The headhunter Deborah Loudon, who spent years in HR, once told me that it's never the people you expect who quit after having a baby: it's the ferociously committed ones, the lifelong straight-A students who can't stand the idea of not being 100% on top of their game both at home and at work.
The trouble is, of course, that many employers neither recognise nor reward this more plural, diffuse ambition - or even the conventional kind when it comes surging back late in life, after the children are grown. And that's one of the reasons I wrote the book.
I know I'm lucky to have a profession that's very flexible, and to have earned enough that I could afford to take a salary hit. As the saying goes, it's all right for some. But it's not enough for it to be all right for some. It should be all right for many more men and women to do interesting work and still see the children, and with a little imagination from employers, families and government, it could be. The real failure of ambition would be to think that nothing can change.