Tuesday, 29 December 2009

January blues (and it's still only December)

Well, I suppose I've been waiting for this: the first lousy day, the first time I've had doubts about the new life I've chosen.
Not sure exactly what started it, except that I do hate this time of year, the limbo between Christmas and New Year's Eve. The excitement is over, the tree's drooping, everyone feels fat and hungover: the old year is finished, the new not yet begun.
A 24 hour vomiting bug hasn't really helped the mood, and ironically I think having had a brilliant Christmas this time (all sledging down snowy hills and rampaging children and good food and conversation)makes the comedown worse.
Normally I'd be in the office through this period, and to be honest it's the best place for me to be. The high point of today, however was trudging through the rain to the supermarket with a howling, thrashing toddler in tow (seems I'm not alone in the January blues).
Suddenly the fact that I'm living in a half-unpacked rented house, in a town where I know nobody, in a life turned upside down is getting to me. The only surprise is it took two months.
I do, admittedly, deserve a good slap for moaning. I had two calls today about interesting work (a radio programme, and a literary festival gig): the boy and I had a nice, soothing afternoon making cakes. I have nothing really to complain about.
But today's definitely been a reminder of the bleeding obvious: that there will inevitably be days when I miss my old life (or at least, am fed up with the new one).
So what to do about it? So far I'm planning to write this week off like a bad debt: spend it blitzing all the boring trivia (the annoying niggles I never get round to tackling, from the printer that doesn't work to the buttons I haven't sewn back on my favourite coat), and at least hit January with a clear deck. Which may just leave me clear to concentrate on the small matter of what I do with the rest of my life...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

What does Mrs Christmas do?

I have no idea where this Mrs Christmas thing came from - when I was a child, Father Christmas was definitely a confirmed bachelor, all alone but for the elves.
But somebody has told my son there is a Mrs Christmas, and now he wants to know (roughly every ten minutes) what she does. So far, I don't have a satisfactory answer.
Given the stage of Christmas preparations I've now reached (Def Con 2 and counting) am sorely tempted to hiss through gritted teeth: "Everything! She does everything! Right up until ten to midnight on Christmas Eve, when Father Christmas casually wanders past and says 'so have we done the stockings for the entire world this year, then, or what?'"
But that's not in keeping with the spirit of the season. Nor will I promote the idea that she cooks and cleans for Father C, mucks out the reindeer, skivvies for the elves, etc. I'm worried enough about what kind of role model I've become by giving up full time work.
So in the end I said Mrs Christmas goes out to work so that Father Christmas can afford all the presents. This did not go down well: admittedly it's not very magical. I feel I have let Mrs Christmas down with the job description.
The boy is still asking, so if anyone has any better answers, please shout. Meanwhile since she has appeared on the scene, I'm wondering whether along with the mince pie and sherry for her husband (plus carrot for the reindeer, obviously) we should be leaving something out for poor exhausted Mrs Christmas on the 24th?
I'm only guessing. But if a large gin and tonic and a family size tin of Quality Street, say, were left by our fireplace then I bet it would be gone by morning. Magic, eh?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

so much for a frugal christmas

Time to confess: this Christmas isn't working out as (thriftily) planned.
Like many families, our festive spending had got a bit over the top: I threw money at it (panic-induced present shopping, getting stuff delivered) because I ran out of time.
So I assumed we could probably cut back quite painlessly this year. You can't move now for people touting a frugal, homemade, recessionary Christmas (led by Kirstie Allsopp and her icing polar bears) How hard could it be?
Well, after a fortnight roadtesting various tips, it turns out homemade can sometimes be a surprisingly false economy. It's a lovely way to spend a rainy afternoon with small children, but it can end up costing more money than buying the lot from a shop.
(Relatives who'd rather not know what they're getting for Christmas: look away...)
I thought about homemade christmas cards, but worked out I'd spend more on glitter and card than the usual big box from Oxfam - and the Oxfam ones include a donation to people rather needier than me. No contest.
Homemade presents, then? Ms Allsopp's chutney was out (I made loads in summer, but suspect none of my relatives will be terribly excited to get it for christmas).
So I made Lindsey Bareham's recipe for bottled preserved lemons instead. It's a joy to make - you warm the lemons in the oven to make them juicy, so the whole house smells of citrus, and it made me feel terribly virtuous - but using unwaxed fruit (I don't like using waxed ones if you're eating the peel) meant about £5 on lemons alone. If I hadn't already had seasalt and a glass jar, the whole thing could have cost nearly a tenner. Big jars of preserved lemons are about £4 in shops. Hmm.
It all reminds of the Great Potato Fiasco, when I grew potatoes on our London patio. After buying seed potatoes, special growbags, compost and the rest I could have shipped in Jersey Royals by private jet for less than my supposedly thrifty homegrown veg.
But in some cases the maths did add up. In no particular order:
1. Homemade decorations. Lots got broken last year by exuberant dog/toddler, but instead of buying more I did pine cones (scavenged from woods, stuffed in airing cupboard until they open up, rolled hamfistedly in glue and glitter by child) and dried orange slices (slice two oranges thinly, spread on baking sheet in oven on lowest heat until hard and crispy, arrange artistically on tree so light shines through them). Free child entertainment and orange-scented kitchen thrown in.
2. Cooking from scratch. We usually do this anyway but Christmas cake, pudding, chocolate truffles, bread sauce, brandy butter, etc are all satisfyingly cheaper homemade than bought.
3. Writing out cards in time to send them second class. Next year, will save on stamps by starting earlier and distributing by hand when I see people. In, like, July.
4. Using more imagination, and taking more time, buying presents. Remembering small children are so overwhelmed by big piles of stuff that they don't actually play with it.
5. Homemade wreath. Wreath ring about 60p from garden centre and the rest was free: moss to use as a base dug out of manky back lawn; fir and ivy from garden; berries, rosehips, holly, crab apples etc collected while walking dog. Wired together with garden twine: final cost about £19.40 less than last year's florist effort.

Not bothering with a wreath would, of course, obviously have saved another 60p. And I reckon I could've skipped the cards without offending anyone.
And that's the big lesson: it's too easy to get suckered into thinking you need lots of Christmas stuff that is utterly unnecessary. All those magazine articles hyping gourmet turkeys and iphones for the under-fives have an insidious effect, yet these are not the things that make the day memorable.
We're not quite down to a turkey sandwich, plus a hoop and a stick, in this house. But it has set me thinking. If you pared Christmas back to the absolute essentials, what would those be?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

what i miss about the office

The works Christmas party at Hinsliff Inc is going to be a quiet one this year. Just me and, um, me. (Due to recessionary costcutting, the dog's not invited). The drawback of freelance life as opposed to having a Proper Job is being forced to provide your own festive warm white wine.
But it's made me think about what I miss about office life. So, in no particular order:
1. The IT department. Oh god, I miss the IT department. Now when my computer breaks, I have to tell myself to switch it off and switch it on again. And then deal with (shudder) the O2 call centre. Never again will I infer that inhouse IT geeks are, well, geeks. They're GODS.
2. Sausage sandwiches from the canteen on press day. Just not the same at home.
3. PAYE. Money just drops into your bank account, by magic, every month! Someone else does your tax and NI! You never get told misleading and inaccurate information by the HMRC so-called 'helpline'! I get misty-eyed thinking about it.
4. Gossip. Not watercooler stuff about last night's telly, which I can get online. Proper juicy gossip about colleagues and rivals doing hopefully embarrassing things.

And before I get nostalgic, things I don't miss:
1. Meetings. I reckon I spent about three hours a week in internal office meetings. That's 150-ish hours a year: six days of my life i'll never get back. And at about two biscuits per meeting, god knows how many calories.
2. Commuting by tube, nose jammed in sweaty stranger's armpit on Circle line.
3. Office politics. The flipside of office gossip: endlessly watching your back, analysing what your competitors are up to. Makes real politics look easy.
4. The Ten to Six feeling. This is the panic that overtakes working mothers on realising that they have to leave the office in ten minutes' time to pick the kids up: and that they have a lot more than ten minutes' work to do.
See also Ten to Midnight feeling, the bleary-eyed realisation that it's nearly midnight, you are still in the office and you still have more than ten minutes work to do.

But what really tips the balance in favour of freelance life is that I just got an invite to my old employer's Christmas party (old colleagues taking pity on me). Phew. Now instead of just getting drunk as usual, I plan to spend the evening being exceptionally nice to IT people....

Sunday, 6 December 2009

What matters most

Torrential rain again, in our delightfully floodprone street. We've only lived here a few weeks but the neighbours, old hands at this, have told us that one more downpour and they expect a flood. So it's time to move the valuable stuff upstairs.
Which begs the question: what is valuable to this family, precious and/or irreplaceable, as opposed to merely expensive? All the obvious things - TV, stereo, all that - are covered by insurance. Which leaves us with the things no insurance company could replace.
So far in the queue to go upstairs we have: all the photographs (from Olden Times, pre-computer storage); the box of still unpacked and unhung pictures pictures; lots of books. Could in theory be replaced on insurance, but we'd never remember the exact mix we've acquired over three decades of reading, and even if we did they'd never have that lovely wellworn feel old paperbacks get, never fall open at the favourite page.
A file of dull paperwork: birth certificates, tax records, bank statements, bla. My journalist's contact book, obviously: phone numbers that took me 15 years to wheedle out of people.
Then it gets more eclectic.
About 20 assorted jars of jam and chutney (results of a bumper crop from the plum tree in the garden of our last house). Yes, I know jam is available at the corner shop. But this is different: it represents a stab at domesticity among the chaos this summer, and reminds me of the old house which I loved.
The Christmas decorations under the stairs. We can always buy more tinsel. But not another fairy like the one we've had for years (admittedly non-traditional: it's a bearded Action Man in a white frock, bought in Soho: long story). Not the lights my husband and I bought the first Christmas we spent together, which probably don't even work now, but anyway.
The blanket chest inherited from my greataunt, even though the dog chewed the corners as a puppy so it looks a bit scruffy. A fistful of children's paintings. Nil for artistic merit, but that's not the point.
As for what we're leaving downstairs, personally am willing to sacrifice my husband's Xbox to the flood, plus a copy of Babar and the Christmas House (the boy has insisted on reading this three times a day for a month now: am heartily sick of the elephant dictator).
Debate rages re the dog: leave him downstairs as usual at night, so he can bark at the first sign of water and rescue entire household, Lassie-style? Or not, given that he is both stupid and very fond of water, and more likely to paddle around happily while the laptop floats past him into the street?
But anyway. Nothing else on the 'rescue' list is worth more than a fiver, but it turns out these are the things we would least like to lose.
So what would you save in a flood/fire/act of God?

Friday, 4 December 2009

the point of blogging

I must be a glutton for punishment. After a rather bracing exchange of views here on marriage, I've just written for the Guardian's Comment is Free on Sally Bercow (wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons and wouldbe Labour MP who gave a rather eyewatering interview about her own past and her current views of David Cameron). The brief was what happens to relationships when two people of opposite political convictions fall in love.
So I was already thinking about how to have a civilised argument when I saw halfthestory's comment on the marriage post, saying that "I prefer to argue with people whose opinions I value even if I don't agree with them."
I thought that rather briliantly summed up what I hope this blog will be about: sometimes fierce but always civilised exchanges of views between people of general goodwill, who are open to learning from each other. No doubt we'll disagree from time to time, but it needn't always lead to divorce. Have a nice weekend (yes including you, man who thinks I look like Hitler's mistress...)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Why Delia is always right

We made mince pies yesterday. A bit early for Christmas: but I am greedy, and the boy likes the rolling out/cutting bits, and it was raining. The plan was to freeze them and take them to my parents' for the big family Christmas, but we seem to have accidentally eaten most of them.
The family rule is that whichever of my mother/my sister/me gets away with not hosting Christmas contributes something towards it: I used to do a ruinously expensive sprint round Borough Market. But three years ago I was pregnant, sugar-crazed, and nesting, so I made some mince pies.
I wouldn't normally attempt the voodoo that is pastry, but for once it worked: must've been either the hormones, or this Delia Smith recipe. On a high, I hosted the whole bloody Christmas the next year (I was on maternity leave: seemed like a good idea), and made everything by hand according to St Delia.
By last Christmas, I was so busy I didn't have time to breathe: I should just have bought sodding mince pies. But I didn't want to. Not in a I-Don't-Know-How-She-Does-It way (Allison Pearson's book opens with a working mother bashing shop-bought mince pies around to make them look homemade, so other parents don't judge her): my family are very laidback and couldn't have cared less.
It was just a stubborn refusal to accept that I didn't live a life that allowed for leisurely pastrymaking. I'm not very creative, but I like occasionally making things, and that's not a side I could indulge at work: it was important to me still to do stuff like this at home.
So I ended up making them at about 3am one night, using hastily defrosted shop pastry because I was too bloody tired to make my own, and they were genuinely vile. The dog backed away sneezing. My nephew made surprisingly realistic barfing noises. I ended up making a load more mince pies, properly, in my mum's kitchen.
This year, it's back to Delia. I did it just after finishing a column on David Cameron for tomorrow's New Statesman so it was a perfect antidote. By the end I felt I'd had a taste of my old political life, but also a bit of what was always missing from it.
One problem: there's a reason Delia is not assisted on TV by a floury small boy demanding to "squish it all up". Featherlight, they ain't.
So this is not just a tribute to Her Royal Delianess (whose new Christmas series starts tonight on the BBC). It's really about lowering my family's expectations this year. Shopbought ones would probably have been nicer.....

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

in which i rant about marriage

I like being married, really. Which maybe has something to do with my parents still being happily together after 40something years; something to do with me being boringly conventional; maybe even something to do with my husband. What I don't think it's about is money.
David Cameron has given a mildly panicky interview in today's Daily Mail insisting he still backs tax breaks for married couples, including those who don't have children.
Let's assume for now that he can fund a multi-billion pound perk out of thin air, in a recession, in ways so far mysteriously unclear.
Let's also assume that marriage specifically - not rock-solid, permanent relationships where both parents are around; not heroically hardworking single parents; but something unique to a ring and a frock and a biiig argument about the guestlist - is nirvana for childrearing. Let's assume everyone should get, and stay, married.
How do we make them do it? Not by looking at why couples get divorced, and why that so often follows the arrival of children (and onset of the frantic juggling years).
Not by unpicking cultural expectations of marriage, in a generation many of whose own parents divorced acrimoniously.
Not by removing welfare disincentives (single mothers risk losing benefits if a partner moves in). Not even by examining factors like high UK property prices, which - combined with a faintly mad belief (or was that just me?) that you must buy a house together before you get hitched - tends to delay marriage.
Nope. We're going to do it like a cheap supermarket deal. Buy a wife, get money off! Once you've paid the (average £10k) cost of a wedding, obviously.
We keep being told that childcare tax credit for higher rate taxpayers is an unaffordable luxury in a recession: it's likely to be withdrawn for those on over £50,000. Tax breaks for moral virtue, however, are just dandy: no word on them being restricted to low earners.
So there we have it: decent childcare is less important to children's welfare if their parents work than the fact you cut a cake and grimaced through the speeches together.
And if you're childless newlyweds, you're more deserving of taxpayers' cash than if you're a struggling cohabiting couple working three lowpaid jobs between you to support your kids. If that doesn't send a clear message about family life, what does, eh?
One thing to consider: according to reports last month, lesbians make the best parents of all. Don't hold your breath for gay-only tax breaks.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Balance shmalance

Not a bad day so far. I've taken on a new role that I hope will be interesting (of which maybe more later), sorted out a writing commission and a radio thingy, all before lunch.
But the difference now is I did it from my mobile, knee deep in mud, walking the dog across a sunny ridge high in the Peak District.
Three weeks after quitting my job, and about two weeks and six days after breaking my promise to myself not to start anything new until after Christmas, I'm settling into a rough pattern where, um, there ain't a pattern.
Once my day divided fairly clearly into time at home (never enough) and time in the office(never enough either), with the occasional bit of guilty crossover (taking work home, nipping out at lunchtime to buy a birthday present).
Now the lines have blurred: everything's jumbled up, all the bits interleaving, sometimes all at once in a big tangle.
I might spend mornings at playgroup (fielding the odd call in the middle), hit the laptop at lunchtime when the boy is asleep, see a friend in the afternoon (with a bit of surreptitious email checking) and then I'm working out a column in my head while I cook dinner. I work in shorter bursts, and am having to learn to snap in and out of work mode and mummy mode sometimes several times in an hour.
The advantages? I'm definitely fitting in a wider mix of things - work, being someone's mum, a social life, time with my husband, stuff around the house - than before, and so I feel I'm wringing more out of the day.
The disadvantage is I still haven't worked out how to get time for myself (it's so long since I had any, I can't remember what you do with it) and it's harder to switch off work, as there isn't an equivalent of leaving the office at night.
But I now see what people mean when they suggest forgetting about work-life balance (which makes the two things sound like competing opposites always pulling in different directions) and thinking instead of each day as a blend of different things. Apart from the fact that I've always hated the phrase, I'm not sure balance is that useful an idea.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

occupational hazards

This is baffling, given that working from home has given me an unrivalled opportunity to hoover up all the small boy's leftover fishingers. But my clothes are noticeably looser than they were before I quit.
So far I have two possible explanations:
1.It's official: stress makes you fat! (something to do with, um, hormones, and cortisol, and fat deposited around the waist - it must be true, it was in the Daily Mail)
2. It's official: eating KitKats from the office vending machine all the time makes you fat! Who knew, eh?
Other noticeable health effects so far: I've pretty much stopped getting migraines, which I used to get about once a week (not sure if that's getting more sleep, not staring at a computer screen all day, or possibly Kit Kat related again.)
On the minus side, my back is killing me from lugging a small child around. So far, the health jury is out....

Friday, 20 November 2009

too much information

Have just gone 36 hours without broadband - the rural equivalent of being stranded at sea in a rowing boat and forced to eat your fellow passengers.
No email; no blogging; no twitter feed; no online news; no online banking; no sneaky Christmas shopping.
My initial reaction was hyperventilation, shouting at call centres, and being firmly on Liz Truss's side in the Turnip Taliban vs Notting Hill Tories row (reliable rural broadband was her big idea for South West Norfollk, apparently)
But after a day of deprivation, I was noticeably calmer. Now I'm restored to the real world, it has made me think about what an information junkie I've become, and whether it's worth it.
As a fulltime political journalist, I woke up to the Today programme, read every national newspaper, ate lunch to The World at One, had my afternoon punctuated by the PM programme, read Hansard on the train home and usually rounded off with more evening news - with Sky on constantly in between.
I surfed the main political blogs and Twitter, and that's just the public sources of information: my job was winkling the unofficial stuff out of people too, so I was constantly reading, talking, analysing, putting together bits of political jigsaws, keeping up with books and ideas. My mind whirred: I couldn't sleep even when I was knackered.
But I was in the loop, at the heart of things, and I found it endlessly stimulating: I liked knowing stuff first, and knowing the stuff that didn't get printed too. The hardest thing about changing careers has been giving up that information addiction.
Basically, I like finding stuff out and I like spreading gossip. Of course, for my new working life I'll still need those two skills (well, not really skills: more bad habits). But not to the same degree. And I'll go mad if I try to keep track the way I used to.
It has to stop, but how? Giving up the Today programme would be like going without breakfast, and I do find PM a soothing backdrop to toddler teatime.
I can also justify Twitter because it helps me manage information as well as distracting me endlessly (if you're not on it, try it: you don't have to tweet if you don't want to, just follow people who are knowledgeable about stuff you like - they'll act as your filter on the world, posting about stuff that's likely to interest you. It's like bespoke news tailored to you, with random extras).
But I'm rationing myself to two newspapers a day max. And maybe an extra one on Sundays. If they've got a free DVD. And maybe the odd other one online.
And obviously I really want to read the ghastly Palin autobiography, and loads of other books, and I want the New Statesman and the Spectator and Private Eye and maybe the Economist and occasionally I like flicking the Washington Post, and and and...
Just as well the broadband's unreliable, really.

Monday, 16 November 2009

tightening the belt

I rang a close friend last night: disconcertingly, she answered with a distinctly suspicious voice.
It turns out she just didn't recognise the number as mine - it's so long since I've actually been at home enough to ring anyone from a landline rather than a mobile (usually while simultaneously doing something else). Landlines for me were some 1950s thing to which only my parents are still inexplicably attached.
Now I'm paying my own mobile bill, instead of having it provided by work: let's just say, I've quickly rediscovered the landline. The last cheque from my Proper Job is due next week, and so it's time to start with the economising.
We bit the biggest bullet before I resigned, and sold our much-loved family home in London: we're now buying a smaller, cheaper wreck in the country.
Next bullet: trading in the car for something older and duller. I can't tell the difference between a porsche and a tractor (NB: it wasn't a porsche) so am not much bothered but my husband is mourning.
My new thing is the supermarket bill. Value labels instead of brands all the way, faintly stalinist menu planning, and no more out of season blueberries: I've discovered www.eattheseasons.co.uk (there's also a US version eattheseasons.com), and am cooking a lot more from Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries (entirely seasonal cooking) and The Kitchen Revolution (big on leftovers).
Some things in the country are cheaper than the city: insurance (home and car), playgroups, bar prices, and temptation - I don't buy lattes on the way to work or cabs when running late, and I don't get sucked into Selfridges.
But more of my old habits now look hard to justify. If forced at gunpoint, I would admit:
1) I am not naturally blonde. I am expensively blonde.
2) I seem to have rather a lot of shoes
3) We have more books than we will ever have bookshelves
Something has to give.....

Saturday, 14 November 2009

the toxic sisterhood

I LOVE the primal feeling of relief after a big storm: that forgotten animal reflex, presumably dating from the days when howling winds threatened more than just the roof tiles.
So during a brief lull in the torrential rain we took the dog across the meadows to the swollen river, on the principle that there is nothing a toddler enjoys more than inspecting wreckage they haven't personally caused
After an hour of the boy rapturously dragging broken branches about I'm feeling unusually calm. Calm enough to tackle a tricky subject.
Last week, the Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman wrote a piece for the Daily Mail arguing that women are making themselves harder to hire with their pesky demands for time with their kids.
Yesterday, the Times columnist Janice Turner wrote a piece arguing mothers should stop whining, including a dig at "media mummies penning tear-stained farewells to careers that they can’t combine with caring for one small baby." Who knows who she had in mind?
I admire both as journalists: I agreed with large parts of Turner's column, which was actually about selfishness, and bits of Shulman's. But what both pieces shared was a whiff of "I had it hard, so should you."
Turner hurt because I (usually) love her column: Shulman I found disappointing because of her feistiness in challenging issues like fashion's fixation with thinness. But either piece, written by a man, would have neither surprised nor troubled me. So why does it matter that they were written by women?
Many women harbour expectations that female bosses will be "sisterly" - help other women up the ladder, empathise with family pressures - and feel far more betrayed by senior women who don't play this game than by their male counterparts.
Margaret Thatcher still gets attacked for not putting women in her cabinet, while the US politician Madeleine Albright suggests a "place in Hell reserved for women who don't support other women". Policies aimed at getting more women into senior roles are based on assumptions that doing so will change the culture.
And many female bosses do go out of their way to stand up for younger women: the Elle magazine editor Lorraine Candy wrote a brilliant column rebutting Shulman in the same paper, while Red magazine's Sam Baker argued on Twitter that flexiworking meant hiring great women for less money - what's not to like?
But while it's heartening when you see it, is it realistic always to expect sisterliness?
Given that managers often promote people who think like them, is it surprising if a woman reaching the top of a tough environment turns out to share the views of the (mostly) men around her?
Who knows what pressures she is under to keep that job? Does every female boss have to be defined by her sex? Who can judge how far her views are sharpened by any private defensiveness about her own choices?
Having just ignored an invite from a newspaper diary to get drawn into a silly catfight with (yet another) female columnist, I also suspect working women don't benefit from the divide and rule strategy of inviting us to scrap in public.
So I'm setting myself some rules on this blog. I'll take issue with anyone's public stance (their views on policy, or what they do as employers). But I'll never judge their private or personal choices around mothering and work.
I'll try not to apply higher standards to women than to men. And nothing I say about my own life should ever be interpreted as a criticism of anyone else's choices, from lifelong stay at home mother to full on fulltimer.
And if I break these rules I'll happily be called on it by anyone reading this blog. Meanwhile, I'd love to know about your experience of either being, or working for, a female boss.....

Friday, 13 November 2009

Tell me what it's really like

Enough about me, already. I need to know more about you.
I've been asked to write a piece for a women's magazine about worklife balance. Rather than me droning on about myself for hours, I want to speak to as many different women as possible who manage things (or don't manage things, on a bad week) in as many different ways as possible, so that what I say is as honest as it can be about the bigger picture.
So if you feel like you've finally got it right, please come and tell the rest of us how you did it: if you're drowning, please come and explain why, and what needs to change.
So if you wouldn't mind talking to me and having what you say published (either totally anonymously or under your real name, depending on how brave/angry you're feeling) please get in touch at gaby.hinsliff@googlemail.com before next friday.
thanks a lot. normal service will now shortly be resumed!
ps on the subject of what to tell your children about worklife balance, this piece from today's Guardian is interesting.
Is this headteacher being realistic, or too limiting? Should schools be sending messages about this kind of stuff, or is it for parents and others closer to the family?

Thursday, 12 November 2009

the truth about the pay gap

This really ain't sexy, and I am revealing my inner anorak by writing about it. But stick with me while I drone on. I've just read through the annual statistics on pay and earnings, and I was surprised.
Everybody knows about the pay gap that means women earn less than men, and one of the reasons is that four out of ten women work part time, where pay is often lousy. A lot of mothers end up sliding down the ladder into more junior jobs that fit round the family better but don't pay as well as their pre-kids role.
But these figures show the quickest way to a godawful salary is to be a part-time man. The salary league table goes fulltime man, fulltime woman, then part-time woman, then the 11 per cent of men who work part time (median earnings £7.71 an hour before tax against £7.86 for part-time women and £12.97 for a fulltime man). That's comparing hourly rates, so even taking into account the fact that part-timers work a shorter week, they suffer extra just for not being fulltime. Why?
Maybe because men are less likely to downshift after having kids - some fathers still don't think it's socially acceptable to ask - these part time men are largely those who have always been part time. That might mean more of them are lowskilled, or in poor health, and therefore don't get a crack at wellpaid jobs.
But it feels like there's something curious going on. A lot of overstretched working mothers would like to consider both parents dropping down to part time for a bit while the kids are small, sharing the load. Yet if the paycut for doing that is even worse for men than for women, fathers are not going to want to do it.
I don't for one minute think the pay gap between the sexes isn't still a big deal - of course it is. But the gap between part time and full time pay (36.5 per cent less per hour, according to these figures) for BOTH sexes is worth thinking about separately.
The other interesting thing is that this was the year the recession really hit: lots of people got payfreezes or tiny rises. But fulltime women's earnings went up faster than men's (it was the other way round among part timers)
Why? Was it because of changes in the law, or because more women work in the public sector (where the pay gap's shrunk this year) than the private sector (where it's got worse)?
Or was it anything to do with the recession, and anxious women whose partners' jobs were vulnerable taking more on at work? It's too early to tell yet, but I am really curious about where this recession will leave working women.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

what to tell your children

WHEN I decided to be honest about why I was quitting my job, my one big worry was not becoming a gory old head on a pike. I didn't want to scare young women off careers in journalism and/or politics, making them think it was impossible to combine such jobs with families and therefore pointless trying.
One or two of you commenting on this blog and the Twitter feed have now made me worry about that again.
It's similar to the endless hysteria about late motherhood. Warnings from some IVF specialists that women underestimate how difficult it may be to get pregnant in their late 30s were well meant, and reflect their experience of seeing an awful lot of women desperate to conceive.
But the resulting media furore over "career women" delaying motherhood (why always "career women"? do men have nothing to do with it?) risks unnecessarily panicking women into thinking that if they're not pregnant by 30 they are doomed, when for a sizeable proportion it all works out fine.
So to canopenergirl (with your amazing sounding life among the gun-crazed generals - are you a journalist, or a mercenary?) and others , I just want to say: it's always, always worth a try. Better a few years of a fabulously exciting career than a lifetime of boredom, even if the exciting bit has to change after children (and it doesn't always: it didn't stop CNN's Christiane Annanpour, or the war reporter Christina Lamb).
Wing it for a bit and see what happens: if it doesn't work out, you can always do something more manageable, but if you don't try then you'll always wonder. Work culture is still changing, and by the time current graduates hit the childbearing years things could look very different.
But (and this is a point another poster, Louise, made rather well) I do wonder what my generation of women could tell their teenage daughters - and indeed sons - that would make it easier for them to do the work/family thing.
I can't pretend I planned either of these, but with hindsight two things that accidentally helped me were picking a career that's adaptable (writing can be done in a newsroom/at home/fulltime/parttime/ and is useful in a lot of different jobs); and marrying someone who didn't have fixed ideas about what I "should" be doing.
But I now wish I'd blown less money on vodka and cabs in my childless 20s, and put more aside for financially lean years now. (Not sure how I would have convinced my twentysomething self of this, but anyway).
So what do you wish you'd known at 18?

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Food for thought

We had pancakes for breakfast this morning. Ok, it ain't the moon landings, but for us it's faintly miraculous compared to how Saturdays used to be.
The routine while I was working fulltime: roll out of bed early Saturday morning, quality time with child limited to changing nappy, leave house before anyone really awake. Quite often, breakfast, lunch and dinner for me would be at the same desk, forked out of a styrofoam box from the office canteen.
Today I've certainly eaten better than that, but it's not just about the food. At the time I would normally have been commuting, I was balancing my son on the kitchen worktop letting him crack eggs into the pancake batter. (Admittedly, it ended up a bit...crunchy). And whisk until there was flour halfway up the wall.
There was a long, autumnal walk in the sunshine; a log fire; a lot of crumpets. There has been some pottering around the kitchen, some wandering into the garden to see if there are any herbs still alive in November (freakily, there are: global warming, eh?) and there is now an Italian-ish sausage and bean stew in the oven.
And I'm thinking about a beautiful piece in last weekend's Sunday Telegraph mag, by the food writer Diana Henry, about her love of food: she talks about cooking as theatre, food as a conduit to other cultures,as a means of connection and as pure alchemy. (Interestingly, she also says she was a TV producer until she had kids and realised that didn't fit).
I come from a family where good food and the rituals associated with eating together - talking, arguing, laughing, getting drunk - mattered.
When I worked fulltime, cooking supper marked the transition from office to home: here is something terribly soothing about chopping, stirring, spooning. But it was also one more thing to fit in, and sometimes by the time it was finished I was too tired to eat it.
So Henry has reminded me that now I have more time I want to spend more of it on food: cooking for friends, cooking with my son, maybe growing a bit more of our own stuff, and working out how to use cheaper cuts and leftovers.
After all, without a fulltime salary, there can't be expensive takeaways and convenience foods and nice stuff from the deli. But there might actually be time to eat without getting indigestion.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The view from here (is blocked by the ironing pile)

Two days into the first proper week of my new life, and fantasies of wafting about making jam have admittedly yet to come true.
The tally so far:
number of cakes baked: 0
number of rows with Orange call centre over new mobile not working: 1 (but a really long one)
number of times caught news of MPs' expenses/ Lisbon treaty rows and sort of wished I was still in the thick of it: 2.
number of over-mighty individuals held fearlessly to account: 1
nature of searching question to said individual: "Darling, why did you post mummy's credit card down the gap between someone else's floorboards? Why? Why?"

What I'm realising is that if unless you're careful, a portfolio career could end up nearly as frantic as the proper job you've left behind. During the last two days I've done an interview for GMTV about working motherhood (Lorraine Kelly is exactly as nice in real life as she seems on TV) which goes out Thursday morning, a whirl of meetings with people I may possibly end up working for, taken a fair few phone calls from my old office, and I'll be up half the night finishing a freelance commission.
It looks like I may be doing more TV at the weekend, and the promise I made to myself that I wouldn't take any new work on until Christmas has just been broken.
On the other hand, for the first time in years I've had time to take my son to an aquarium in the middle of a weekday, build a train track all over the livingroom carpet, and spend a blissful afternoon with two mothers from my old antenatal group watching our children run round shrieking hysterically while we ate lots of cake. And at least the late night writing will get done in my pyjamas, with a glass of wine, not in an office.
But it's keeping that balance that's going to be crucial. Meanwhile the house looks like a bombsite, I just got the first parking ticket I've had in years, and there are more clothes in the ironing pile than in the wardrobe.
Am telling myself that it is Very Important not to get swallowed up in mundane domestic stuff just because I'm at home. Don't see the traffic warden buying it, though...

Sunday, 1 November 2009

swamped (in a good way)

What a strange, but fabulous day. My phone has more or less collapsed under the weight of texts since the Observer article came out here and am amazed by how much of a chord it's seemed to strike.
Stupidly I never realised there were so many parents secretly harbouring similar plans, and am cheered by how many there also are (especially reading through those comments here) who are so much further down the road to working it out.
Will blog properly tomorrow once I've worked out what the hell is going on....and respond to the various criticisms about middle class whingeing, people who don't have children but want a life beyond work, and what will happen to political reporting if all the women give it up.
But to all who asked why didn't my husband become a stay at home dad: firstly, my job is easier than his to do flexibly/freelance, and secondly, to be honest I don't think he'd have enjoyed it.
But I know several couples now who do work it this way (plus others where both parents go part time) and agree it's definitely an option that shouldn't be forgotten.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

biting my fingernails

Well, there's no going back now. Not only am I about to walk out of the office for the last time, my lovely (former) employer has just given me a generous chunk of newsprint to explain what I'm doing and why.
One thing I promise: this is the first and last time my photo will ever hit the front page of a national newspaper (today's Observer for the curious: the link's not live yet , but it will end up roughly here by tomorrow http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/review).
Now cowering in anticipation of the response.....

Friday, 30 October 2009

on not doing business in the pub

This is my last week of having a Proper Job, and it's been manic to the last. Had a conference call at breakfast time with two other women, scheduled for before my nanny was due in. Solution: bribe small boy to be quiet with raisins, take call, cross fingers.
Thankfully just as we finished up the professional stuff, he set off a deafeningly loud toy fire engine. Both the others promptly confessed they were also at home and desperately keeping children quiet (one of them had silently changed a nappy while on the line and the other admitted she'd cleaned the kitchen worktop: "I was convinced you'd heard the spraying.")
Which made me think: firstly, video conferencing is not a good look for working mothers.
And secondly: women doing deals from the kitchen with small child underfoot will usually try to hide the fact they're not in the office in case people think it's unprofessional.
But doing deals worth millions in a lapdancing club full of half-naked women is accepted practice in the City. Ditto doing business over a two-bottle lunch, or in the pub: so long as you get the right results, absolutely fine. It couldn't possibly be that flexibility is more often applied to a classically blokey environment than to a commonly female one, could it?

Monday, 19 October 2009

On being a social liability

Have just gloomily read for the second time a letter to the weekend Telegraph, from a London lawyer who quit to be a fulltime mother: she complains of being ignored at dinner parties because people assume she will be dull. Agony uncle Graham Norton suggests helpfully that, they might be right: spending time with children "is bound to distance you from people" who are doing adult stuff.
Oh god, is this what's going to happen to me? I do remember the lovely peaceful vegetative state that was maternity leave: bliss, until one NCT coffee morning ended in a discussion of which brand of Jcloths we preferred. I was itching to go back to work after that.
Admittedly we hardly ever get invited to dinner parties any more (too many no-shows because I was working late, or we'd go and either my husband or I would end up pacing the garden, shouting down a mobile and chainsmoking over some work crisis or other). But at least we usually had some high octane gossip to share.
Now I can easily go 24 hours without reading a newspaper or listening to the news. It doesn't help that our TV's bust. I'm out of the loop: my horizons are shrinking in front of me.
The trouble with working the way I did is it distances you from your family. But in closing that gap, it's easy to be distanced from the rest of the world. Hmm.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

On not being pigeonholed

Went to the bank yesterday to sort out a new mortgage (ie, one based on about half our previous income). Explained I was giving up my old job and the woman asked me what I was doing instead. I chuntered on for a bit about, um, part time, er, freelance, er, consulting and after a bit she said kindly: "I'll just put homemaker, shall I?"
Was not aware that word still existed. But apparently I don't fit in any of the bank's other categories. Returned rather disconcerted to home I am now allegedly making.
When I had a fulltime job, our house was superficially tidy but unloved, with rampant disarray and/or squalor behind hastily closed cupboard doors. After a few days of my new homemaker regime, it looks like it has been burgled by rabid hyenas, with added washing-up.
The job description needs work, I feel.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

So this is a note to myself really, to re-read on the days I'm gnawing my own arm off with boredom and can't remember why I did it. Why I packed in a big, exciting, if rather crazed job for a life in the middle of nowhere and a so-called portfolio career (ie, not having a proper job).

These are the first ten reasons I can think of.

1. Because when I got my son measured for new shoes, I couldn't remember what size he wears.

2. Because I was so busy (away on a work trip, negotiating a tricky deal, while moving house) I forgot my husband's birthday.

3. Because when I filled out the form for my listing in Who's Who, I had bugger all to put in the non-work sections. I don't have time for, like, a life.

4. Because I am so tired of always being tired.

5. Because some things on my to-do list have been there since January, and I keep losing stuff, and there are no bloody curtains in the bathroom, and my ankle hurts because I sprained it (running in heels) and never had time for the exercises the GP gives you, and my houseplants always die. Small things. But they matter.

6. Because of the time I worked in a warzone and had to write weepy notes on what to do in the event of my death. I included a list of Christmas presents for various relatives, obviously the burning issue if I got blown up.

7. Because I can't keep telling friends I'll ring back at the weekend when I have time to talk. I never have time then either.

8. Because I worked 18 hour days when I was eight months pregnant, and still had to prove myself all over again when I got back.

9. Because I don't want my son to be an only child, and it's nearly too late.

10. Because I am no fun anymore, and there must be a better way.

So my mission for the next year is this: to get to know my family again, earn some money while not turning my brain to mush, and create an actual home rather than a house (one with, I dunno, photos. In albums). I also need a better description of myself than "well, I used to be...."

I'm typing this in the office at midnight. It's fair to say this is work in progress.