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 (there's also a US version, 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 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.