Friday, 23 September 2011

the truth about tortoises and hares

THOSE, like me, of a nerdy disposition may just remember a storm in a teacup earlier this year when the higher education minister David Willetts triggered outrage by suggesting feminism was to blame for helping keep working class men down.
He was arguing that when universities expanded in the 1960s-1980s, the extra places went not to bright kids from poorer backgrounds but mostly to middle class girls: the kind whose brothers might once have gone to college, while they were steered off into nursing or secretarial work. The heavens duly opened, as Willetts was accused of suggesting that bumptious women were trampling poor hard-done-by men beneath their stiletto heels in the race to the top.
At the time, I felt sympathy for Willetts, firstly because he is one of the least chauvinistic male politicians I've met (and boy, I've met a few) and secondly because his facts (if not necessarily the headlines) were broadly correct. There are many reasons poorer boys don't get on in life, mostly nothing to do with women, but one is that middle class kids of both sexes hoover up all the prizes from kindergarten onwards. But there's a fascinating piece of research out today from the thinktank Resolution Foundation* which puts the other side of this story.
It looks at earnings mobility, or how able people are to 'earn' their way up the social ladder - how easy it is, say, to start out on the shop floor and end up as the boss - among two groups: one born in the late 1950s who would now be in their 50s, and the generation born in 1970 who would have just turned 40 now. The good news is that the Seventies kids were more likely to work their way up: the bad news is that men were 40 per cent more likely than women to do so ( the gap was even bigger for the Fifties-born), and those on middling to high salaries to start with were a lot more likely to rise than those starting at the bottom. In other words, you can rise from humble beginnings to the top: but it helps to be both a bloke, and not that humble to start with. So much for the all-conquering rise of wimmin.
It's not completely clear why women couldn't climb as fast as men, but here's a big fat clue: if you switched to part-time work from a full-time job during the last decade, you were 30 per cent more likely to slide back down the ladder. And it's working mothers who are by far the most likely to go part-time. (Although the study didn't find a major link between having children and falling behind, its authors say that's because it began tracking people after they were 30, and many women would by then already have children and so would have already taken the hit).
So we're left with a picture of young women as hares - racing ahead initially, snaffling up the best university places (unsurprisingly, since they do better at Alevel than boys), setting out full of promise - only to be overtaken further down the line by tortoise men, creeping ahead of them during the babymaking years. It's a pattern many women will recognise in their own lives: and while children don't explain everything, they are clearly a big part of the jigsaw which wasn't acknowledged back in spring.
There is one note of cheer for beleaguered hares, however: while women clearly do still pay a heavy price for working part-time, Seventies children who reduced their hours suffered less for it than the Fifties generation, which the report suggests might be due to better quality part time work becoming available. In other words if more parents could hang on to decent well-paid jobs despite doing a three-day week, hares as well as tortoises might yet make it to the finishing line.

*Quick declaration of interest: I have no financial links with Resolution, but I am currently sitting on a policy commission for them, unpaid.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

not staying mum

WHAT feels now like light years ago, when my son was around two months old, I met an old friend for coffee in the little cafe down the road. Baby perched on my knee, I told her airily that having kids wasn't going to change me: it was all a matter of choice, how much you allowed yourself to be sucked into all that mum stuff. The look in her eye, as she politely nodded along with me, suggested she didn't believe a word. Correctly, as it turns out.
But it's only now, emerging from the tunnel, that I can see which of the changes parenthood brought (and which I tried so hard initially to deny) were permanent and which surprisingly temporary. In the thick of it, you are Alice down the rabbithole, Dorothy whisked away in a whirlwind, scrabbling for toeholds in a strange world and unsure if you will ever find your way home. And I was reminded sharply of that feeling this week by the food writer Esther Walker's post on that bewildering feeling of having turned into 'this mum person', some strange alter ego exiled from what used to be your life. Why, for all the billions of tiresome words written about women 'getting your figure back' after having a baby, is so little intelligently said about recovering your identity?
Hell, the body thing is easy by comparison: eat less, run more, and if you haven't got the energy yet, stop worrying and wear maternity clothes for a bit longer. What would be more useful to new mothers than guilt-tripping them back into their old jeans is knowing that there is a point, however unlikely it sounds, at which one's mojo (or the bedraggled remains of it) returns. That your identity is not lost, but still out there somewhere, waiting patiently to be found. And while everyone's road back to sanity is different, these are some things I found useful.
1. Sleep. Hard to imagine amid the broken nights, but it will return one day: and lo, you will marvel at how fast your brain works when you are not mad-eyed and murderous with exhaustion.
2. Work, or its equivalent, even for a couple of hours a week, when you're ready for it. It doesn't actually have to be a job. Just something not baby-related, that you do for and by yourself (and if possible also for people who are grateful for your efforts, instead of spitting them up down the back of your jumper). Reading a newspaper in a cafe would do, frankly.
3. Distance. Small babies are such vast caverns of neediness that you do simply have to sink into it for a while: the boundaries between child and parent have to blur. But when the baby grows up a bit, and stops being quite so needy, and especially when it has kindly grandparents, there is much to be said for a childfree weekend away. You can't see your non-maternal self clearly when with your child.
4. Old friends, especially those without children, who can remember what you were like before you had children. Preferably with photographic evidence.
5. Realising that you're chasing a moving target. The good news is that everyone is getting older, slower, more out of the loop: even those who haven't spent three years changing nappies now can't drink like they used to, and secretly think the music they grew up with is better than whatever they're pretending to like now. You don't have to spring back to being the person you were pre-children, because even if you hadn't had kids, three years on you still wouldn't be that person now. At least as a parent, you've got an excuse.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Lessons in guiltfree living

ALL week long, I've been trying to work out why I didn't cry. After all, the first day of primary school is supposed to bring a tear to the flintiest eye: all those anxious little faces, swamped by brand new uniforms, tightly clutching parents' hands. The end of an era, the beginning of the long slow terrible process of letting go. Waterproof mascara all round.
It's not that I didn't feel some sadness, as he trotted off into the classroom, at that particular chapter of our lives coming to an end. Or even a tiny pang of envy for the mothers still squeezing pushchairs through the school gates, for whom the story isn't over. But still, I walked back across the playground with unmistakably dry eyes.
For what I felt most strikingly was a tiny whoosh of liberation - not from him, but from the weight of guilt you hardly realise is there until it's gone.
This isn't the first time we've spent days apart, since I've worked (first full-time and then part-time) since he was eight months old. But it is the first time the choice - that terrible, double-edged choice - about whether to be home or not has been completely taken away from me. The little nagging voice in my head when I work, the one that used to say you could be with him, instead, has fallen silent: because now I couldn't, even if I wanted to. Even the most zealous champion of full-time motherhood is now suddenly behind me having 30 hours a week to myself (or rather, to work: for me, it's virtually the same thing) where a few months ago I would have been damned for it.
And when I opened my laptop that morning to finish off some edits for my book, it hit me: this is what work would feel like all the time, if you could only be relieved of the guilt, spared the guillotine of public disapproval, real or imagined. (Only that morning the Today programme devoted several minutes to a debate on whether daycare damages small children: God knows how many mothers listened to that one in the car on the way to nursery, a neat little dagger in the heart).
Well, school is the point where for some parents the cloud of self-doubt lifts completely - if you can find work that fits around school hours - and for others it surely lifts a little. The switch flips, the pendulum swings, and the only tiny hitch is wondering how long before that other guilty little voice starts up in one's head: the one that says now they're in school, shouldn't you be working harder than this?