Sunday, November 01, 2009

Having It All

A month ago, the political editor of the Observer Gaby Hinsliff announced she was quitting her job to spend more time with her family in the country. Today is her last day and she has written a lengthy feature titled I HAD IT ALL, BUT DIDN'T HAVE A LIFE. It's well worth a read, particularly by those of us who inflict our busy working lives on our families, sometimes without a second thought. Here's a short extract...

Surrender steals up on the working mother like hypothermia takes a stranded climber: the chill deepens day by day, disorientation sets in, and before you know it you are gone. In the sleepless blur of the last three years, I can barely even remember now how it started.

But perhaps it was back this spring, when I took my son to be measured for new shoes: the woman asked what size he took, and to my embarrassment I couldn't remember. I felt like an imposter. Or perhaps it was the summer morning when our nanny had to peel my howling son off me: he had a fever and wanted his mother, but I had a cabinet minister to interview. I shot out of the door, hot with shame.

Maybe it was back last December, on a trip to Afghanistan, when I saw that the young army officer briefing us had a snapshot of a small boy paper-clipped to his folder. "My son. That's what it's all about for me," he said, briskly.

Four of his colleagues had been killed hours before in a roadside bomb, and I was about to struggle back into my flak jacket and fly to Kabul. I went out into the dusty sunshine, wet-eyed, and called home. "Mummy?" said my 18-month-old son repeatedly, in a puzzled voice, when my husband put him on the line.

Every day became a battle against the clock. I never listened properly to phone conversations with friends, because I was always simultaneously doing something else. I was so on edge I raged at the tiniest delay – tourists blocking tube escalators, a computer slow to spark up in the morning. Running for the train in high heels, I sprained my ankle: the doctor prescribed some exercises, but who had time for that? I wore flat shoes, took painkillers.

My reward was that for two crazed but fantastic years, I did – in that loaded cliche – have it all: terrific job, plus small child. Thanks largely to a brilliant nanny and a hands-on partner, I don't honestly believe either suffered from the other.

But what got lost in the rush was a life, if a life means having time for the people you love, engaging with the world around you, making a home rather than just running a household....

Like many women, I still want to work: I just don't want to work like this. The dilemma is how far parents like me can really expect conventional corporate life to bend around us.

So the first priority is an identity that doesn't start lamely with "Well, I used to be…" I'm giving myself a year to find out whether there really is a better way to work, and will be charting the ups and downs on a blog, I would be lying to pretend I never have doubts. But I have very few regrets, and that means the time is right to let go.

There is a condition known as raptures of the deep, brought on by breathing under pressure, which affects divers who stray too far down. First comes a feeling of euphoria: then the diver gets overconfident, lulled into a false sense of security, and dangerously overestimates how long they have left.

I don't regret a minute of my time in professional deep water, but staying down here too long would be fatal. It's time to start swimming towards the light.

I bet there are thousands of people who will read that article today and question their own priorities and their own life. I have never wanted children (just as well, really) but I have huge admiration for those who lead busy working lives and juggle their careers around bringing up a family. How on earth politicians do it, I don't know.

But even if you don't have kids, it's very easy to find your working life taking over. I worked out that this is the first weekend I have not had to work since May, barring one weekend away in Norfolk. I've just realised I typed "had to work". Of course that's the wrong phrase, because in my case there's always a choice. I could just say 'no'. But now I want to compound it by going into politics, an area where a weekend is never your own.

I was on a radio phone-in the other day with Sean O'Grady, the business editor of The Independent. He seriously suggested that MPs should work 9 to 5 and have weekends off. O'Grady should know better, having worked with MPs for several years. It's not like that, and never will be. And never should be, either. Anyone who wants those kind of regular hours shouldn't go into politics, or the media.

But it doesn't stop me sometimes hankering after a quieter life. I sometimes wistfully imagine giving it all up and becoming a taxi driver. "'Ere, Guv, I had that Gaby Hinsliff in the back of my cab, once," I could boast, as I start a rant about how the country should be run. I often think taxi drivers would make brilliant bloggers!

So I wish Gaby Hinsliff all the luck in the world in her new life in Oxfordshire. And I look forward to reading her new blog, called Used to be Somebody.

And best wishes to Toby Helm who succeeds Gaby as The Observer's political editor. It amuses me to imagine him competing for Sunday exclusives with his partner ... who just happens to be the political editor of the Independent on Sunday, Jane Merrick.


Dick the Prick said...

You just can't switch off - there's always 1 more bloody thing you've gotta do. Best of luck to the lass and I hope she plans her days around lunch; pure decadence!

WV: worshi (awfully close to workshy - bit rude).

True Belle said...

They don't make them the way they used to.

Thankgoodness she isn't a surgeon or flying for an airline- or a proper decision maker in the private sector.

Weepy hormonal types like Gaby will never ever come up to the standard of brilliant hardworking Maggie Thatcher.

The children will grow up so quickly and leave the nest, and Gaby will hormonally sob-- Ohhh no, sniff , yowl , what if?

Pogo said...

It cost me a marriage to learn that working 18-hour days, six or seven days a week, might not be the best option for a "life" - even if the financial rewards were more than reasonable.

So, Ms Hinsliff... Best of luck. :-)

JuliaM said...

"How on earth politicians do it, I don't know."

At our expense, mostly...

True Belle said...

Strategic moves like this with an election looming is what lies beneath this weepy tale! :¬)

Unsworth said...

It's all Me, me, me stuff. "I" appears thirty times.

Why should we be interested in this woman?

Twig said...

Liz Truss take note.

WV: exess

Unsworth said...

And, while we're on the subject of self-centred women, why are we - apparently ( - going to pay Jennifer Dories damn nearly £30k for taking on the admittedly arduous duties of working for her mother, the lovely Nadine? Great first job after Uni, eh?

The troughing goes on. Inside and outside of Westminster.

strapworld said...

Perhaps this is the reason OLD HOLBORN has overlooked in his blog today:-

"Just last week, Tory loon Nadine Dorries was moaning that her daughter wouldn't be able to find a job after leaving Uni.

Solution? Yup. You and I are going to pay Jennifer Dorries £28K a year to work for Nadine Dorries. As her "secretary".
And despite some of the brightest graduates in the country vying for jobs in Parliament, she insisted her children were the best for the job".

You really cannot make it up. They live in a world of their own.

Kath said...

I think she is very brave to do this. True Belle has it wrong about the empty nest syndrome. Too many people complain of loneliness in old age, simply because they dumped their families along the way, or had no time to have them, or made conscious decisions not to have children because they had busy lives.

Our children do grow up all to quickly, and too much of the public have had rubbish services because women decide to go on maternity leave and life is meant to wait until they return. I know of one psychatarist who went off for nine months maternity leave and there was no one to look after her patients while she was gone, simply no one to take her place, and its happening in the NHS too.

Children need a parent, of either gender, not a nanny no matter how good they are. If a child cannot call on its own parent for time, or for a warm place to go, what sort of self esteem issues will it have later in life?

They don't make them the way they used to.

They make them better nowadays, its the extended family structure that has collapsed around working mothers that can make things difficult for women who don't have the funds for a nanny. You are out of touch old girl. Looking back through rose tinted spectacles doesn't give a proper understanding of todays realities.

Lady Finchley said...

I knew the nasty brigade would be in force after this post. Gaby Hinsliff is indeed fortunate to be in a position to freelance - not many of us get that choice. Still, that doesn't make her a wimp. Newsflash, ladies and gents - Cosmopolitan got it wrong - women can't have it all and are now learning as men have always known that something's gotta give. Unfortunately presentee-ism is alive and well. In my office they are all vying to see who will stay the latest - all are young, single guys - and I have been castigated for leaving only a half hour after my contracted working hours. They all eat lunch at their desk but I have always made a point of taking the lunch hour I am entitled to. I feel I am a better worker for it and I refuse to play that game. My child is at university now but I do this for ME. I have no interested in being Nicola Horlick but I am very much interested in a well rounded, balanced life.

And as much as I love and revere Lady T nobody can say that either of her children are a success story.

cheshireboy said...

Why wear high heels if you need to run for a train?

Unsworth said...

@ Lady Finchley

And your definition of 'success' is?

Anonymous said...

Calling her blog 'used to be somebody' with the implication that she is now - like all other stay at home parents - a nobody, is offensive.

She should put her heart and soul into parenting in exactly the same way she has her work and try to be succesful. All the rest is self indulgent tantrum throwing.

Lady Finchley said...

My definition of success, Unsworth, is being a decent human being, doing a job that I enjoy where I can be of service and having a life filled with art, beauty, music and laughter. My choice, I know and clearly not everybody's. I ran a hugely successful business in my time but the older I get the more I want to savour what is really important.

And I can get get everything I need to do and more in an 8 1/2 hour day because I am organised, don't spend my days reading blogs(!) like some of my workmates and take the time to recharge my batteries with a nice lunch and a chat with a friend.

I can't think that Mark Thatcher is exactly a credit to his mother and father and while Carol Thatcher seems like a very nice lady she never seemed really happy. It seems that people, but particularly women suffer most from trying to have it all. Women were sold a pup with that one!

Half The Story said...

on her 100k+ a year job, loads of expenses, and I guess negotiated payoff, she will have been planning this for a while.

not everyone is so lucky.

Oscar India said...

True Belle - both your posts were, variously, knee-jerk, ill-thought through, illiterate, obvious, dim-witted, desperately lacking self awareness and, of course, nasty.
You're also, whilst we're on the subject, terribly inappropriately named.

selmons said...

No one on their death-bed ever said "I wish I had spent more time at the office."

Unsworth said...

@ Lady Finchley

Ah, you seem to have set the bar fairly low for yourself, possibly others, too. Doubtless you'll have met the Thatcher children and know them reasonably well.

"And as much as I love and revere Lady T nobody can say that either of her children are a success story"

and, later

"I can't think that Mark Thatcher is exactly a credit to his mother and father and while Carol Thatcher seems like a very nice lady she never seemed really happy."

Not quite the same positions, are they?

Lady Finchley said...

What about a perfectly clear statement don't you understand? You are just one of those people who like to pick fights and take the oppsoite view of everyone else - probably to make yourself feel important. And I'd deal with those anger issues if I were you.

Unsworth said...

So, Lady Finchley, you speak on behalf of 'everyone else'? And, believe me, I fully understand your statement - but I'm merely highlighting some inconsistencies. Angry?

Daniel said...

The post contains various types of Success Love Stories.....